The New Low-Cholesterol Diet: Plant Sterols and Stanols

What are sterols and stanols, and does anyone like to eat them?

By R. Morgan Griffin
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Cynthia Haines, MD

Almost everyone has eaten cholesterol-lowering foods like walnuts, salmon, and oatmeal. But what's a plant sterol or stanol? And do you really want to eat it?

Most experts say yes. "Eating sterol and stanol-containing foods is an easy way to lower your LDL cholesterol, which helps reduce the risk of heart disease," says Ruth Frechman, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA.)

Plant sterols and stanols are substances that occur naturally in small amounts in many grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Since they have powerful cholesterol-lowering properties, manufacturers have started adding them to foods. You can now get stanols or sterols in margarine spreads, orange juice, cereals, and even granola bars.

How Do Plant Sterols and Stanols Help?

On a molecular level, sterols and stanols look a lot like cholesterol. So when they travel through your digestive tract, they get in the way. They can prevent real cholesterol from being absorbed into your bloodstream. Instead of clogging up your arteries, the cholesterol just goes out with the waste.

What's the Evidence?

"Plant stanol esters help block the absorption of cholesterol," Frechman tells WebMD. "Research shows that three servings a day can reduce cholesterol by 20 points."