The plant power that can help you fight bad cholesterol

If you are watching your cholesterol levels, it’s worth knowing about plant sterols. So how do they work, and how do you get them?

Plant sterols, also known as phytosterols, are a group of fat-like substances that occur naturally in plants and can help stop the body absorbing bad cholesterol into the blood.

They are found mainly in vegetable oils, in small amounts in foods such as nuts, legumes, grains, cereals, and leaves.

Some foods may be enriched with plant sterols, such as margarine, yogurt and milk.

A little about cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance in your blood needed to produce hormones, Vitamin D, and to help digest food.

There are two main types of cholesterol – low-density lipoprotein or LDL, which is the “bad” cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein or HDL, the “good” cholesterol.

LDL makes up most cholesterol, and when the levels in your blood stream are too high, it can stick to the walls of arteries and cause a fatty build-up called plaque.

Too much plaque leads to blockages that prevent blood from flowing properly to the heart.

This condition is known as atherosclerosis.

If a clot forms and blocks a narrow artery, a heart attack or stroke can occur.

How plant sterols can help fight ‘bad’ cholesterol

A 2014 study suggests consuming the recommended intake of plant sterols (2-3g per day) in conjunction with a healthy, balanced diet, can be effective at lowering cholesterol by up to 12 per cent.

Dietitian Rebecca Gawthorne says plant sterols have a similar chemical structure to cholesterol, and because of this, they actually compete for absorption in our small intestine.

“When we eat foods containing plant sterols, the plant sterols actually stop the cholesterol from being absorbed,” Rebecca says.

“The lower your blood cholesterol level the lower your risk of heart disease.”

plant sterols

Ways to boost plant sterols in your diet

Simple changes can get more plant sterols into your diet, which will in turn help manage cholesterol levels.

Eating a balanced diet with lots of plant foods is important, says Sydney GP Dr Sam Hay.

Look for foods high in soluble fibre such as oats, beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, fruit and vegetables.

Rebecca recommends starting the day with a plant sterol-enriched, bran-based cereal.

She says one 50g bowl of bran cereal contains enough plant sterols to get the recommended daily intake to help reduce cholesterol.

Other ways to keep cholesterol in check

Limit foods high in saturated fats

Dr Hay says avoiding or limiting takeaway foods high in saturated fats, such as deep fried food, hamburgers and pizzas is also crucial to keeping cholesterol levels low.

“Baked goods such as cakes and biscuits also contain high levels of saturated and trans fats which can raise cholesterol levels,” he says.

“Choosing lean meats and low fat dairy can also reduce the amount of saturated fats you eat.”

Exercise regularly

Exercising regularly is one of the most effective lifestyle changes that can be made to help bring cholesterol levels down, according to Dr Hay.

“Moderate physical activity such as walking, jogging, cycling, or light weight training for 20 to 30 minutes daily can improve overall cholesterol levels,” he says. 

Written by Sally Heppleston.