Unlike cholesterol, which our bodies can both synthesize and get from our diet by consuming meat and/or dairy foods, phytosterols cannot be synthesized by our bodies. Our only source of phytosterols comes from our diet by consuming plant-based foods. Vegetable, nut, and olive oils have the highest concentrations of phytosterols. Other good sources of phytosterols include nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes.
Researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Canada noted that the diets consumed by our ancestors were rich in phytosterols and likely provided up to 1,000 milligrams (mg)/day. Compare that to our current consumption that is estimated to be between 150 and 450 mg/day, with the highest consumption of phytosterols generally by vegans.
Phytosterols offer healthful benefits. Several clinical trials found that daily consumption of foods enriched with phytosterols lowers the concentration of serum total and LDL (bad) cholesterol. Long-term use of phytosterol-enriched foods may lower risk of coronary heart disease. While higher consumption of plant-based foods have been associated with decreased cancer risk, at this point it’s not clear if the protective factors come from phytosterols or from other compounds in the plant foods.
Increasing phytosterol consumption decreases cholesterol absorption, which increases cholesterol synthesis and reduces LDL (bad) cholesterol concentration in the serum.