For those looking to reduce cholesterol levels, consuming plant sterols and stanols may be an alternative to medication. Simply defined, plant sterols and stanols are the fat contents of plants that act as the foundation for cell walls, vitamins and hormones. When combined, plant sterols and stanols are physically similar to cholesterol in their waxy and soft quality, yet these nutrients actually reduce cholesterol levels by replacing it in the bloodstream. Today, thanks to scientific advances, plant sterols and stanols are found in fortified foods and supplements.
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A variety of foods naturally contain plant sterols and stanols, including fruits and vegetables, seeds, legumes, nuts, cereals and vegetable oils. Higher concentrations are found in nuts, especially peanuts and nut byproducts. Soybeans and wheat germ also have plant sterols and stanols, and corn oil contains the highest levels of the nutrients. Despite the great number of foods that provide plant sterols and stanols, the amount of these nutrients found naturally is insufficient to significantly alter cholesterol levels. Corn oil, for example, contains only .13 grams of sterol and scientists recommend two grams a day for measurable results.
Because they are found only in small amounts naturally, for years, plant sterols and stanols were thought to be an unattainable nutrient source. This changed in the 1980s, when scientists found a way to extract plant sterols and stanols from plants and add them to food so that the cholesterol fighting properties of these nutrients could finally be put to use. Today, foods fortified with plant sterols and stanols include orange juice, breads, cheese, milk, and butter products. Consuming two grams of plant sterols a day can help reduce cholesterol by around 10 per cent and could lead to a 20 per cent lower chance of heart disease. Because these foods are not low in calories, those interested in increasing their plant sterol and stanol consumption must be mindful when eating fortified foods to guard against weight gain.
For those who do not want to make diet changes, supplements offer an alternative means of plant sterol and stanol consumption. For best absorption, do not consume the entire daily recommended serving of plant sterols and stanols in one sitting, but rather in smaller amounts throughout the day. The effects of products containing plant sterols and stanols on pregnant women and children are still unknown, so supplements are to be avoided by these groups. Additionally, those with extremely elevated cholesterol levels may not benefit from sterol and stanol supplements and may need medication instead.