PLANT STEROLS 101

by Kaitlin Ellis


Plant Sterols and the Cholesterol Link


Plant sterols are closely linked to cholesterol. To understand the importance of plant sterols, we need to understand cholesterol.


Cholesterol is a fatty substance that circulates in the blood. Cholesterol is made by the body and can also be obtained via the diet. Lipoproteins carry cholesterol around the body. There are high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). HDL cholesterol is known as ‘good’ cholesterol because it helps to stop cholesterol from clogging up your arteries. While LDL cholesterol is known as bad cholesterol because it has the opposite effect by building up in your arteries. A build-up of cholesterol makes your blood vessels harden and narrow and increases blood pressure. This increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.


Around 1 in 3 Australians have high cholesterol. So, what can we do to assist in the reduction of high cholesterol and prevent deaths associated with high cholesterol? This is where plant sterols come in.


What Are Plant Sterols?


Plant sterols are chemically similar to cholesterol. Because of this, plant sterols actively block the absorption of cholesterol in the digestive system, which is then expelled in your poo. (See picture below if you’re more of a visual learner) This can result in a reduction of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol).


Plant sterols are found naturally in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and grains. Most Australians consume around 150-360 mg per day. Studies have shown that a daily intake of 2-3g of plant sterols can reduce blood cholesterol levels by up to 10% in 2-3 weeks. Eating more than this amount won’t further decrease your blood cholesterol levels. A 10% reduction of blood cholesterol decreases the likelihood of a heart health event by up to 20%.


So how do you go from eating around 150-360mg to 2-3g per day?

Plant sterol enriched foods!


What Foods are Enriched with Plant Sterols?


In Australia, margarine, low-fat milk, low-fat yoghurt and breakfast cereals are the only food products with approval to be fortified with plant sterols.


To reach the recommended daily target of 2-3g of plant sterols, you’ll need to have about 3 standard serves of a fortified product.


The following quantities of fortified products are considered one serve of plant sterols:

Fortified Milk = 250ml

Fortified Yoghurt = 200g

Fortified Margarine = 10g (2 tsp)

Fortified Weetbix = 1 biscuit


Who Should Have Plant Sterols?


People at risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly those with high LDL cholesterol and those with a family history of high cholesterol or diabetes. If you don’t fall in to one of these categories, there is little benefit in consuming plant sterols.


Are Plant Sterols A Cure For High Cholesterol?


Definitely not!

If you’re already taking cholesterol-lowering medication (statins) – you should continue taking them. Statins and plant sterols can be used together but you should consult with your local doctor and a dietitian prior to introducing them to your diet. Statins and plant sterols in isolation are also not a cure for high cholesterol. In order to reduce your overall risk of heart disease, it’s important that you:

  • Eat a balanced diet that includes foods from the five food groups and is low in saturated fat

  • Stop smoking if you currently smoke

  • Exercise

  • Limit alcohol intake



For more information on all things heart health, cholesterol and plant sterols – Visit the Heart Foundation website: https://www.heartfoundation.org.au or get in touch with our Dietitian, Kaitlin Ellis.


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