Keep Your Cholesterol in Check with Foods High in Phytosterols

Phytosterols block cholesterol absorption, lowering blood cholesterol levels

Phytosterols are a group of plant-derived compounds that are structurally similar to cholesterol in the human body. When consumed, they compete with cholesterol absorption in the digestive tract, blocking it and, as a result, lowering blood cholesterol levels. Some studies have found that consuming two grams of phytosterols a day may help you lower your LDL cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol, by 10%.

Most people, however, are not getting anywhere near two grams per day. Present-day dietary intake of phytosterol ranges between 78 and 500 mg per day, even with food manufacturers enriching many common food products with the compound. 

Phytosterol Supplements

While there are supplements that contain phytosterols, the jury is still out on whether they are safe for long-term use. While they tend to be well-tolerated, the limited research available on their effects is conflicting; some studies suggest they lower heart disease risk, while others suggest they raise it. For this reason, many experts recommend getting phytosterols from whole food sources. In fact, the American Heart Association doesn't recommend phytosterol-enriched foods for everyone; only those who have high cholesterol or have had a heart attack. 

Getting Phytosterols From Food

The good news is that you can absolutely boost your intake of naturally occurring phytosterols, and reap their health benefits, by increasing the plant foods in your diet.

Though phytosterols are difficult to quantify in foods because more than 200 of them exist, the most commonly found phytosterols in foods are sitosterol, stigmasterol, anthrasterol and campesterol. While this list isn’t inclusive, it should give you an idea of phytosterol content in healthy, whole foods.

Due to the different methods used, measured phytosterol content may slightly vary from study to study.

The following foods contain the highest amounts of phytosterols:

  • Nuts
  • Whole grain products
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits

Nuts

Nuts contain high amounts of phytosterols, ranging between 95 and 280 mg per 100 g serving of nuts. Studies have shown that a handful of most nuts can have a favorable impact on your lipid profile. The following nuts have the highest phytosterol content:

  • Almonds — 187 mg per 100 g serving
  • Walnuts — 113 mg per 100 g serving
  • Pistachios — 280 mg per 100 g serving
  • Macadamias — 198 mg per 100 g serving
  • Pecans — 150 mg per 100 g serving

Roasting or eating them plain are healthy ways to prepare nuts. Frying or heavily salting nuts could have an adverse effect on your heart health if you consume these types of nuts on a regular basis. 

Whole-Grain Foods

Whole grain foods - including rye, barley, and oatmeal - are high in many types of nutrients. Some whole grain products also contain high amounts of phytosterol. The following grains have the highest phytosterol content:

  • Flaxseed – 210 mg per 100 g serving
  • Wheat germ – 197 mg per one-half cup
  • Rye bread – 33 mg per two slices

You might try using flax seed or wheat germ as salad toppings or add them to your morning smoothie or oatmeal.

And to keep the Rye bread healthy, don't top it with a sugary jam. You might try a nut butter, such as almond. 

Fruits and Vegetables 

Although fruits and vegetables may contain lower amounts of phytosterols compared to nuts and whole grains, they also contain a variety of vitamins, minerals, soluble fiber, and other healthy ingredients that make them cholesterol-friendly. In addition, dressing your salads or vegetables with olive oil boosts the phytosterol content; one tablespoon packs 30mg. The following fruits and vegetables contain the highest amounts of phytosterols:

  • Broccoli – 49.4 mg per 100 g serving
  • Red onion – 19.2 mg per 100 g serving
  • Carrot - 15.3 mg per 100 g serving
  • Corn – 70 mg per 100 g serving
  • Brussels sprouts – 37 mg per 100 g serving
  • Spinach (frozen) – 10.2 mg per 100 g serving
  • Strawberry – 10 mg per 100 g serving
  • Blueberry – 26.4 mg per 100 g serving
  • Banana – 16 mg per 100 g serving
  • Lettuce – 38 mg per 100 g serving

Sources:

Piironen V, Toivo J, Puupponen-Pimia R, et al. Plant sterols in vegetables, fruits and berries. J Sci Food Agric 2003;83:330–337.

Chen CY, Blumberg JB. Phytochemical composition of nuts. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 2008;17 (S1):329-332.

Cleveland Clinic. Phytosterols, Sterols, and Stanols.

Rolfes SR, Whitney E. Understanding Nutrition, 13th ed 2013.

Othman RA, Myrie SB, Jones PJ. Non-cholesterol sterols and cholesterol metabolism in sitosterolemia. Atherosclerosis. 2013;231(2):291-299.

Higdon, Jane, Drake, Victoria, J., Delage, Barbara, Racette, Susan B. The Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center. Phytosterols

Racette, Susan B, Lin, Xiaobo, Lefevre, Michael, Anderson Spearie, Catherine, Most, Marlene M, Ma, Lina, and Ostlund, Jr., Richard E. Am J Clin Nutr. Dose effects of dietary phytosterols on cholesterol metabolism: a controlled feeding study. 2010 Jan; 91(1): 32–38.

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