Staying off the statins?

This month our health column explores a plant-based option for keeping cholesterol levels under control

Plant sterols found in oils can lower cholesterol

Statins are a prescription medication used to lower the level of cholesterol in the blood. Cholesterol is critical to the function of every cell within the body; however it can also contribute to the development of blocked arteries, reducing the flow of blood to the tissues.

Researchers at Oxford University recently concluded that all over-50s, including those who are perfectly healthy, should be taking statins to reduce the potential risk of a heart attack. However, statin users can suffer significant side-effects, most commonly muscle pain and weakness.

Prescribing statins on such a large scale would be controversial and if lowering cholesterol is key for preventing heart attacks and strokes, natural alternatives are available.

One such alternative is plant sterols. Plant sterols are structurally similar to cholesterol, which allows them to work by mimicking cholesterol and competing with it for absorption. The result is that less cholesterol is absorbed from the gut into the bloodstream.

Plant sterols are naturally found in foods such as vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, legumes and wholegrains. For most people, though, the use of fortified foods or a food supplement may be required to achieve an optimum intake.

Kate Butler is a nutritionist at Holland & Barrett