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Phytosterol Supplements v. Foods: Which Should You Use to Lower Cholesterol?

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Updated October 27, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: Phytosterol Supplements v. Foods: Which Should You Use to Lower Cholesterol?
Answer: Over the past few years, phytosterols have gained popularity has a heart-healthy ingredient. Phytosterols can found in a variety of healthy foods, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts. Studies have shown that, when consumed in amounts greater than two grams a day, phytosterols have the ability to lower your LDL cholesterol levels by roughly 10%.

Sometimes, however, you may not have the time to gather these healthy foods for your cholesterol-lowering diet. In this case, taking supplements may seem to be a good alternative to receive the healthy benefits of phytosterols. While you may be able to obtain the phytosterols you need from supplements, this may put you at a disadvantage compared to someone who obtains their phytosterols through foods.

There have been no studies conducted to date that compare the effectiveness of phytosterols found in foods versus those found in supplements. But by consuming foods high in phytosterols, you are also obtaining other healthy nutrients from these foods, including vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Most phytosterol supplements do not contain these additional, beneficial nutrients.

While phytosterol supplements have been shown to be effective in lowering cholesterol in some studies, there is some debate on their effectiveness. Some researchers contend that, when undergoing the manufacturing process, the phytosterols found in supplements may not be as biologically active, meaning that they may not be as effective in lowering cholesterol if not manufactured properly. More studies would be needed to verify this; this research did not include foods supplemented with phytosterols.

If you’re looking to include phytosterols in your diet to help lower your cholesterol, healthy foods, including nuts, grains, vegetables and fruits may be the way to go to obtain helpful nutrients and phytosterols. Consuming a healthy diet is one of the important things you can do to keep your cholesterol levels in check, and these foods are an important part of any healthy diet. Many food manufacturers are also supplementing spreads, dressings, and snacks with phytosterols, so this could be an alternative option for obtaining phytosterols in your diet.

Sources:

Clifton P. Lowering cholesterol – a review on the role of plant sterols. Aust Fam Physician 2009;38:218-221.

Ostund RE. Phytosterols, cholesterol absorption and healthy diets. Lipids 2007;42:41-45.

Rolfes SR, Whitney E. Understanding Nutrition, 3rd ed 2005.

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