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Lower Your LDL Cholesterol with Plant Sterols

Note from Cheryl: This is a guest post about Plant Sterols written by Christine Amin, a dietetic student at Unity Health Toronto, with support from her supervisor, Andrea Glenn, MSc, RD, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow. I also reviewed and edited it.

I welcome students, other healthcare professionals, and people living with heart disease to guest post. If you’d like to submit something, click here to find out how.


Guest Post By: Christine Amin

The average Canadian diet provides 150-400 milligrams (mg) of plant sterols per day. That’s a small amount compared to what research studies tell us to take to lower LDL, or bad cholesterol. Plant sterols may be new to you, so let’s look at what they are.

What are plant sterols?

Plant sterols, also known as phytosterols, and plant stanols are substances naturally found in a range of plant foods like vegetables, fruits, wheat germ, whole grain products such as bread and cereals, legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils. We’ll refer to them all as “plant sterols” here.

How do they help lower cholesterol?

Plant sterols actually have a similar chemical structure to cholesterol and therefore work by decreasing the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines. This decrease in absorption increases the liver’s uptake of LDL cholesterol which in turn, reduces the blood LDL cholesterol levels.

How much plant sterol do I need to lower my cholesterol?

According to Health Canada, consuming 2 grams of plant sterols daily can help lower LDL cholesterol. Research indicates that about 2 grams of plant sterols per day may lower LDL cholesterol by 8.8% to 10%. Plant sterols are also one component of the Portfolio Diet and 2 grams per day were given in the Portfolio Diet studies

What are some ways to include plant sterols into the diet?

Typical diets usually only provide a limited intake of 150-400 mg of plant sterols per day. Vegetarians get about 700 mg of plant sterols a day. Both are far less than the amount shown to lower LDL cholesterol in research studies (2 grams). 

As a result, plant sterols have been added to certain foods such as juices (look for Heart Wise), margarine, and yogurt. These foods are called plant sterol-enriched foods. Other than Heart Wise orange juice, these foods are not widely available in Canada.

Even though plant sterols are naturally present in plant foods, you would have to eat large amounts to achieve 2 grams. For example, it would take four kilograms of fruit. Not very practical!

For this reason, fortified foods and supplements are your best option. 

At the same time, a high intake of foods high in plant sterols like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and healthy oils is still recommended to lower your risk of heart disease. These foods have other health benefits too, as discussed in So you want to eat your way to lower cholesterol?

Check food labels and ingredient lists to see if foods have added plant sterols. You may see other names of plant sterols on food labels such as “plant stanol” or “phytosterol”. 

How can I include plant sterol supplements in my day-to-day?

Given that the only plant sterol fortified food available in Canada requires you to drink two cups a day of orange juice, which is not ideal for heart health, you may want to consider supplements.

The plant sterol dose per soft gel or capsule varies based on the brand, so it is important to read the label carefully to determine how many capsules will provide you with close to 2 grams per day. Depending on the brand and dosage of plant sterol supplement, you may need to take 2-5 capsules a day to get the recommended 2 grams.

If you’re taking the supplement in capsule or softgel form, it should be taken with your meals. 

If you’re taking the supplement in powdered form, it should be added to the food before it is served. The powdered form can easily be added to meals after cooking as it is flavourless. Plant sterol powder supplements can also be sprinkled on top of your favourite meals. 

It is important to keep in mind not to cook or heat plant sterol supplements and to just add them to meals after they are cooked. 

There is no best way to consume plant sterols, whether it is supplementation through the capsule, soft gel, powder form, or fortified foods that fit within the recommended guidelines. They’re all effective. Pick your preference based on taste, price, and accessibility. 

Where can I buy plant sterol supplements or fortified foods?

Fortified foods and plant sterol supplements can be found in grocery stores, health food stores, online, or at some pharmacies. 

Examples of plant sterol supplements available in Canada in capsule or softgel form include: 

(Suggested amount indicates how much would give you 2 grams of plant sterol.)

Alternatively, New Roots Herbal makes a plant sterol supplement in powder form if you prefer that (take 2 x 1/2 tsp).

Note that some products, such as Life Brand Plant Sterols with CoQ10 and Omega-3 and Now Foods BetaSitosterol with Fish Oil have additional ingredients that you may not want or need.

For help in selecting the right product for you, ask the pharmacist or your doctor or dietitian.

(Note from Cheryl: We have no affiliation with any of these companies. I added links to the various products just to help you get up to speed faster.) 

Are plant sterol supplements and fortified foods safe?

According to Health Canada, it is safe for adults to consume up to 3 grams of plant sterols daily and children to consume up to 1 gram a day. However, they’re not recommended for children, or breast-feeding or pregnant women.

Research indicates that it is safe to take plant sterol-enriched foods with cholesterol medications such as statins. 

It is always important to consult with your doctor or dietitian if you are taking or considering any supplements. 

Note from Cheryl: Have you tried using plant sterols to lower your cholesterol? Share with us in our free private Facebook group


References

Food Directorate Health Products and Food Branch HC. (2012). Government of Canada. Canada.ca. Summary of Health Canada’s assessment of a health claim about plant sterols in food and blood cholesterol lowering. Retrieved December 16, 2021, from   https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/understanding-food-labels/health-claims-what-they-mean.html.

Gylling H, Plat J, Turley S, et al. Plant sterols and plant stanols in the management of dyslipidaemia and prevention of cardiovascular disease. Atherosclerosis. 2014;232(2):346-360.

Katan, Grundy, S. M, Jones P, Law M, Miettinen, T, & Paoletti, R. 2003. Efficacy and Safety of Plant Stanols and Sterols in the Management of Blood Cholesterol Levels. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 78(8), 965–978. https://doi.org/10.4065/78.8.965

Ryan E, Galvin K, O’Connor TP, Maguire AR, O’Brien NM. Phytosterol, squalene, tocopherol content and fatty acid profile of selected seeds, grains, and legumes. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2007;62(3):85-91.

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