Plant Product May Improve Cholesterol

Increasingly popular as a dietary option to lower cholesterol, plant extracts known as phytosterols may lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by as much as 9%, according to a new study. Whether these extracts can help reduce the risk of heart disease or heart attacks has yet to be determined.

Standard protocol for the millions of people with high LDL cholesterol includes both lifestyle behavior changes and medications, though additional options are always welcome as healthy habits can be difficult to form and medications may cause side effects or not work at all.

Phytosterols, which decrease the intestinal absorption of cholesterol and decrease total and LDL cholesterol levels in the bloodstream, may be one dietary option for lowering cholesterol. Phytosterols occur naturally in vegetable oils, nuts, whole grains, and legumes but are also added to many food products such as margarine spreads and dairy products. But how much of these products a person should eat and which have the strongest cholesterol-lowering effects has been unclear.

Phytosterols lower “bad” cholesterol

A meta-analysis looking at the effect of phytosterols on LDL cholesterol, which included 84 studies and 6,805 participants, found that people who ate an average of 2 grams of phytosterols per day lowered their LDL cholesterol by an average of 8.8% after 8 to 12 weeks. The results were similar whether the phytosterols were in fatty or nonfat foods or whether they were in dairy or nondairy products.

While phytosterols may lower cholesterol, it is not known whether the plant extracts can help reduce the incidence of heart disease and heart attacks. “Although no direct evidence is available yet for the ability of phytosterols to lower coronary heart disease incidence, the well-documented cholesterol-lowering effect of phytosterols is the basis for recommendations to include phytosterols into strategies to lower LDL cholesterol concentrations,” said Isabelle Demonty and her colleagues from the Division of Human Nutrition at Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

Tips for heart-healthy cholesterol

• See a doctor. Get your cholesterol checked and discuss your risks for high cholesterol and heart disease with your doctor. Always check with your doctor before beginning any new dietary or exercise program.

• Choose foods wisely. For most people, diet is the most important factor when it comes to lowering cholesterol. Avoid foods with high saturated fat and cholesterol content and choose an abundance of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Increasing foods that contain soluble fiber in your diet such as oatmeal may also help lower cholesterol.

• Lose excess weight. Weight loss contributes significantly to cholesterol lowering and reduces your risk for heart disease and many other chronic diseases. If you are overweight see a doctor for help on how to lose and maintain weight loss.

• Exercise regularly. Regular exercise can help reduce LDL cholesterol and raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Work out 30 to 60 minutes every day to optimize cholesterol and reduce your heart disease risk.

(J Nutr 2009;139: 271–84)

Jane Hart, MD

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