Can vegans have high cholesterol? You bet your plant-based butt, they can! While the connection between a plant-based diet and cholesterol generally shows positive outcomes, it's essential to eat the right types of food to maintain healthy dietary cholesterol – just like with any other diet.
When we think of the famous culprits that negatively affect our cholesterol levels, it's all of that saturated fat found in animal-based foods.
So plant-based dieters should be fine, right? Not exactly!
Do plant foods contain cholesterol?
While a plant-based diet tends to maintain lower cholesterol levels than an omnivorous one, there are still plenty of vegan cholesterol sources to watch for, especially if you're someone genetically prone to high cholesterol levels.
Read more about the plant sources of cholesterol below and how to quickly implement a lower cholesterol diet full of healthy and delicious plant-based foods.
What Is Cholesterol, and Why Is It Important?
Cholesterol is a type of fat molecule found in the bloodstream. There are two primary sources of the cholesterol floating through the body – we create most in our livers, and the rest comes from our diet, which is called dietary cholesterol.
Though we usually hear about cholesterol in the context of it being bad for us, cholesterol helps our bodies perform a number of essential functions, like cell division and vitamin and hormone synthesis.
Our livers make enough cholesterol to support our body function, so technically, scientists don't consider it an essential nutrient – we can physically survive and thrive without consuming any cholesterol at all. However, the diet would be pretty restrictive.
Some cholesterol in the blood is entirely normal. Still, when that level raises above the healthy range, it can increase your chances of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and stroke.
The Problem with Too Much Cholesterol
Dietary cholesterol comes primarily from sources of saturated fats, like meat and other animal-based products.
The double-whammy with cholesterol is that by eating a diet high in saturated fat intake, you consume more cholesterol, and these foods make your liver produce more cholesterol, too! This increased production and consumption turns into high cholesterol levels in the body pretty quickly.
The "Good" and the "Bad": HDL vs. LDL Cholesterol
Two different types of lipoproteins transport cholesterol around the body:
- High-density lipoproteins, or HDL, are considered healthy.
- And low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, are the problematic ones that can drop cholesterol right into the bloodstream, which then makes its way to develop plaque on artery walls.
Why is LDL so problematic? The plaque that they form on arteries builds up over time and eventually narrows the pathways, making blood flow more difficult over time. Ultimately, that pressure can make artery walls rupture, leading to blood clots that can block blood flow, partially or entirely.
Blocked arteries are the primary cause of heart attacks and strokes, depending on where the blood blockage exists.
Sometimes, your LDL may be in the normal range and still be problematic for your body. That's because not only do overall levels matter, but so do the balance of the two. If you don't have too much LDL in the body, but your good cholesterol levels are too low, it can cause an unhealthy imbalance.
The best time to start caring for your cholesterol levels is before they become a problem – it's never too early to begin monitoring your cholesterol and keeping your overall intake low.
Do Vegans Get High Cholesterol?
We know that eating saturated fats contributes to the risk of high cholesterol levels. Though a vegan diet is typically considered a low cholesterol diet, some tropical oils like palm, palm kernel, and coconut oil contain saturated fats that contribute to the issue.
Why is my cholesterol high if I'm vegan?
There are loads of pros and cons of being a vegetarian. Manufacturers make veganism more appealing by offering more convenient options, just as you'd find in an omnivorous diet. These days, it's even easier to be both vegan and high cholesterol with the modern food options available.
We've watched cholesterol issues grow as vegan convenience foods become more prevalent on the grocery store shelves. Coconut products are uber-popular right now, and some plant-based butter and cheese mean we may be overeating saturated fat.
We'll often see a vegan with high cholesterol level numbers because high cholesterol usually isn't caused by diet alone. Our age, family background, and genes are all huge contributing factors, too.
You can't control your body's age or your genes, at least not yet. And you certainly can't control your family – believe me, I've tried!
You can, however, combat your body's tendency to create too much cholesterol by eating the right foods.
How Can Foods Help Lower Cholesterol?
One way to help vegans keep their high cholesterol risk in check is by consuming enough vitamin B12. A vegan diet generally tends to be lower in absorbable vitamin B12 than other diets. Those with low B12 levels may also have a high homocysteine level, contributing to heart disease.
Using a diet to lower cholesterol from plants, consuming fruit, veggies, whole grains, peas, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds can help provide dietary fiber and unsaturated fat alternatives.
- Eating more dietary fiber helps to maintain lower cholesterol levels, as the fiber binds to the cholesterol in your digestive tract and takes them out of the body before they enter your blood system.
- Foods high in polyunsaturated fats not only replace saturated fat options but directly lower cholesterol levels.
- Any foods containing sterols and stanols, like margarine, directly block the body from absorbing cholesterol in the first place.
On top of the foods mentioned, these are a few fantastic options to give your cholesterol levels a healthy "boost":
- Oats and barley
- Okra and eggplant
- Grapes, strawberries, and citrus
- Sterol and stanol fortified foods
- Fiber supplements
The Vegan Fat Factor
Minimizing trans and saturated fats in your plant-based diet stops your liver from running into excessive cholesterol overproduction, which can help to regulate your cholesterol.
Avoid eating fried and processed foods where possible, while allowing for some treats in moderation, if you'd like.
Avoid some of these other fat sources and include these others:
- Trans fats. In the debate of healthy vs. unhealthy, there is one universally agreed-upon truth: trans fats are bad for you. Trans fats are also called hydrogenated oils and found in microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, and more. Some countries, including the US and Canada, ban these ingredients from use in store-bought goods.
- Saturated fats. While you can enjoy coconut oil from time to time, choose unsaturated fats more often if cholesterol is a concern. Beware of mock-meat products, like Beyond Meat, which contain a hefty dose of saturated fat.
- Low-fat cooking. You can cut down on your dietary fat intake altogether by including some different cooking techniques into your life – fry with water instead of cooking oil, try an air fryer, and broil, bake, steam, or poach when possible.
Final Note: More Ways to Lower Cholesterol
Will a vegan diet lower cholesterol?
Not necessarily. You can include all of the "right" things and still see your cholesterol raise due to genetic factors. In some cases, you may still end up with no choice but to resort to a cholesterol-lowering medication – check in with your doctor and have them monitor any changes you make closely to see how your body progresses.
If need be, there are plenty of drug options, from statins that lower LDL and slightly raise HDL to cholesterol absorption inhibitors, citrate lyase inhibitors, bile acid sequestrants, fibrates, niacin, and combination pills. There are also prescription omega-3 fatty acids, though many come from non-vegan sources like fish.
We hope you find these simple tools helpful in your mission to keep your vegan cholesterol down!