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What you eat goes a long way to reducing your cholesterol levels. As part of your healthy diet you may want to include foods fortified with plant stanols and sterols, which actively help to reduce blood cholesterol levels.

They aren’t a magic cure alone. You still have to change or adapt your diet as a whole. High blood cholesterol levels increase your risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.

The right diet choices

"It might seem logical for us to lower the amount of cholesterol we consume (from foods like eggs, prawns and liver) to lower our cholesterol levels," says Victoria Taylor, senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation. "But it’s actually the types of fats we consume that have a bigger impact." That’s because we package dietary fat into cholesterol-coated fat balls called ‘lipoproteins’ that carry dietary fat safely around our bloodstream. Without this special coating, fat in our bloodstream would form oil-slicks, damaging body organs and our health.

"A cholesterol lowering diet is one where saturated fats from meat and dairy are replaced with healthy unsaturated fats from nuts, seeds, oily fish, cooking oils and spreads made from sunflower and olive oil," says Linda Main dietetic adviser to HEART UK - the cholesterol charity. "[A cholesterol lowering diet] is also rich in other vegetable proteins such as soya foods, quorn, beans and peas. Fruit and vegetables are also important as well as low fat dairy foods and modest portions of lean meat."

Plant stanols and sterols

So what are plant stanols and sterols and how do they work? They are substances that are naturally found in small amounts in plants - in fruit and vegetables, pulses, grains, nuts and seeds. The British Dietetic Association says that most diets provide a small amount of plant stanols and sterols (around 300mg a day) and vegetarian diets about twice that amount. They are known to have cholesterol-lowering properties and food manufacturers can add purified versions to a range of different food stuffs.

You can buy spreads, cheese, cereals, granola bars, orange juice, wholemeal bread and yoghurt-style drinks which have been fortified with plant sterols and stanols.

How do they work?

Our liver uses cholesterol to make bile salts, important emulsifiers released from the gallbladder into our intestines to help us digest fat. Further down the digestive system, bile salts are usually reabsorbed back into our bloodstream, where they return to the liver again for recycling. Stanol and sterol esters have a structure similar to cholesterol, and they block the usual re-absorption of bile salts, which are then lost in our poo. Failure of bile salts to return means the liver must make more, to replace those lost and in so doing uses up cholesterol in the process. This has the effect of reducing both total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in the blood.

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