How Phytosterols Can Help Lower Your Cholesterol

Another Reason to Eat Your Vegetables

As you study different methods for lowering your cholesterol levels, you may come across a suggestion to add phytosterols to your diet. These naturally occurring molecules are found in many plant-based foods. Research is showing that eating foods that contain phytosterols may indeed lower LDL cholesterol.

Summer vegetables in a wooden basket

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What are phytosterols and which foods can you eat to make sure these are in your diet? Let's examine these helpful molecules and see just how effective they may be in getting your heart a little healthier.

What Are Phytosterols?

Phytosterols, also known as plant sterols, are cholesterol-like molecules found in plants such as whole grains, fruits, legumes (e.g., lentils and soybeans), and other vegetables. All plants contain phytosterols but, to date, the exact amount of sterols contained in each plant have not been established.

  • Your body doesn't make its own phytosterols; they're available only from dietary sources.
  • Although more than 40 types of plant sterols have been discovered so far, three are most abundant: beta-sitosterol, campesterol, and stigmasterol.

Phytosterols differ only slightly from animal cholesterol in their structure. However, they are very different from animal cholesterol in terms of the two cholesterol types' ability to induce atherosclerosis — the buildup of fatty plaques within blood vessels that can lead to heart disease.

Animal Cholesterol: Bad, Phytosterols: Good

In persistently high amounts, the cholesterol found in animals can increase blood cholesterol. This can lead to the development of atherosclerosis and heart disease.

Phytosterols, on the other hand, are minimally absorbed from the small intestine, so they do not enter the bloodstream. Additionally, phytosterols stop or slow absorption of dietary cholesterol and cholesterol made by the liver. How phytosterols do this is not fully known.

Foods That Contain Phytosterols

The primary foods containing phytosterols are vegetables, vegetable oils, vegetable fat spreads such as margarine spreads, cereal grains, and breads as well as other cereal products. Phytostanols, a subgroup of phytosterols, are mainly found in cereal grains, particularly rye and wheat.

You can select from many products on grocery shelves that contain phytosterols and phytostanols. In addition to margarine and other spreads, these include salad dressings, candies, and supplements. 

Do Phytosterols Really Lower Cholesterol?

Many studies have examined the cholesterol-lowering abilities of phytosterols.

Several studies have indicated that consuming up to 2 grams of phytosterols per day can lower low-density lipoproteins (LDL or "bad" cholesterol) by up to 10 percent. This amount roughly equals 1 teaspoon of phytosterol extract or one tablespoon of a spread containing phytosterols. It takes only about one to two weeks to see the cholesterol-lowering results.

In addition:

  • In some studies, phytosterols have slightly reduced levels of triglycerides (fats found throughout the body).
  • In contrast, phytosterols do not appear to affect levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL or "good" cholesterol).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has taken notice of these study findings and allowed food products containing phytosterols to be labeled as “heart healthy.” This is clearly stated on the products' packaging.

How Well Do the Supplements Work?

Among all the types of products that contain phytosterols, there is some debate on their effectiveness when taken as a supplement. Some researchers contend that, when purified during the manufacturing process, the phytosterols found in supplements are not biologically active. This would mean that some phytosterol supplements may not lower cholesterol if they aren't properly prepared by the manufacturer.

This is not the case for the phytosterols found in foods, from soybeans to spreads. These ingredients are biologically active and can be effective in lowering cholesterol.

What Else Should You Know?

You already know that eating fruits and vegetables is good for you, and now you know another reason why that is. So far, phytosterols appear to reduce the likelihood of atherosclerosis development in healthy persons. However, you should know that researchers are continuing to investigate the potential for long-term consumption of phytosterols to cause atherosclerosis.

There is one exception to the finding that eating foods containing phytosterols is good for you. This applies to people who have a rare genetic disorder called phytosterolemia, or sitosterolemia. This causes already high levels of phytosterols in the blood and can lead to premature atherosclerosis. 

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