fbpx

Vegan Diet and Cholesterol: Learn the Possible Benefits and Risks

Vegan-Cholesterol

Vegan Diet and Cholesterol: Benefits and Risks

There’s strong scientific evidence that many chronic diseases (type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and more) can be prevented and controlled with a healthy vegan diet. 

Often, people also have more energy, reduced inflammation, and they feel better overall after removing animal products from their diet.

However, I seem to get a lot of questions regarding cholesterol, such as:

  • Does a vegan diet lower cholesterol?
  • Does vegan food have cholesterol?
  • What even is cholesterol?

As a plant-based Registered Dietitian, I am here to address all your questions regarding veganism and cholesterol

Cholesterol-Vegan

So, what is cholesterol?

Part of cell membranes, cholesterol is present in every body cell! 

Because the human body produces 800-1000mg of cholesterol per day, there really is no need for added dietary cholesterol. Our bodies can do this job on their own. 

Now, does cholesterol come from plants? Although trace amounts are found in some plants, the vast majority of dietary cholesterol (almost all) comes from animal products. 

Eggs and organ meats are the most concentrated sources of cholesterol. 

High intakes of cholesterol may increase risks for chronic disease, especially diseases of the heart and blood vessels. It’s estimated that for every 1% decrease in blood cholesterol, there’s a 2-4% decrease in heart disease risk.

Does a vegan diet lower cholesterol?

Animal products, such as meat, milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter, are high in saturated fat. Saturated fat can in turn increase cholesterol levels in the body. 

Healthy vegan diets focus on nutritious, high-fiber foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, and are also lower in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol than traditional diets. 

Vegan and vegetarian diets have been shown to improve specific cardiovascular disease (CVD) markers, including cholesterol levels in many massive studies.

For example, in 2014, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn released a study wherein 198 patients with CVD were followed. Of these patients, 177 followed a low-fat vegan diet and the other 21 followed different dietary patterns. Of the low-fat vegan diet patients, only 1 had a cardiac event. Of the other 21 patients, thirteen had cardiac events!

In the 1990’s Dr. Dean Ornish also found that patients who were randomized to a lifestyle intervention group experienced 2.5 times fewer cardiac events than control patients. 

These are significant findings.  

Can you have high cholesterol despite following a vegan diet?

A well-planned vegan diet offers amazing protection against CVD and can lower cholesterol levels. However, the degree of protection and how fast a vegan diet can lower cholesterol can vary considerably depending on the overall quality of the diet. 

A poorly planned vegan diet may not provide any additional benefits for CVD risk over an omnivore diet.

To provide maximum protection against high vegan cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease, a vegan diet should be centered around unprocessed, whole plant foods. Reliable sources of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids should accompany. 

 

Tips for veganism and cholesterol

 

As mentioned above, the dietary factors that are linked to elevated blood cholesterol are saturated fat, trans-fats, and dietary cholesterol. Vegans consume no cholesterol and have some of the lowest trans-fat and saturated fat intakes. 

The most effective cholesterol-lowering foods are those that include soluble fibre, plant proteins, plant sterols, polyunsaturated fats, and phytochemicals. These are all found in plant foods. 

When cholesterol gets oxidized in the body, it has negative effects on the arteries, increasing the risk for atherosclerosis (clogging of the arteries). The chances of cholesterol becoming oxidized can be reduced by eating foods rich in antioxidants, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, flavonoids, and polyphenols. 

What is a plant sterol (or, phytosterol)?

Think of phytosterols as being cholesterol’s good vegan twin. 

Plant sterols are an essential part of plant cell membranes, just as cholesterol is an essential part of animal cell membranes. And, since phytosterols are structurally similar to cholesterol, they compete for absorption in our bodies.

By doing so, plant sterols can actually prevent cholesterol absorption, thereby lowering blood cholesterol levels. 

The best sources of vegan sterols are seeds, nuts, legumes, wheat germ, avocados, sprouts, and vegetable oil. 

What is omega-3?

Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid. It’s an essential component of all our cells. In addition to supporting low cholesterol levels, omega 3 fatty acids also help lower our risk of heart disease, dementia, and arthritis. 

 

The best vegan sources of omega 3 are hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and flax seeds.

 

Make sure that your daily diet includes these or take a 250-500mg daily supplement. Vegan omega 3 supplements are made from microalgae instead of fish oil. 

As usual, speak with your doctor and dietitian to discuss if an omega 3 supplement is right for you

Other tips to lower cholesterol and follow a vegan diet

You might be asking, “why is my cholesterol high if I’m vegan?”

 

In addition to modifying your diet, you can take several other steps to lower your vegan cholesterol levels.

 

Here are some strategies you can try:

 

  • Exercise. Regular physical activity can support healthy cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease 
  • Stop smoking. Smoking cigarettes can negatively affect cholesterol levels and promote inflammation, worsening atherosclerosis. 
  • Limit alcohol consumption. Some research shows that heavy drinking may be associated with increased triglyceride and cholesterol levels.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight. Being overweight can cause an increase in cholesterol levels. 

 

Overall, veganism and cholesterol are closely linked, but changes in lifestyle patterns must also be considered. 

The vegan diet and cholesterol

I hope this veganism and cholesterol article will help you in your journey. 

If you have additional questions check out my other articles and consider meeting with a registered dietitian who can guide you and can help you adopt a well-planned, balanced nutrient-dense vegan diet to lower cholesterol.