Cholesterol levels are a risk factor for coronary heart diseases, which are the leading cause of death worldwide. However, there is a lot we can do to protect ourselves, and studies show that cholesterol levels tend to be lower in vegans than in the rest of the population.
“A 10% decrease in total blood cholesterol levels can reduce the incidence of heart disease by as much as 30%.“Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Our bodies make almost all of the cholesterol we need to build the structure of membranes, make hormones, and produce vitamin D. The remainder comes from our food, either directly from cholesterol in animal products or through saturated fat. But the modern western diet contains far too much of these, and that’s where problems begin.
CHOLESTEROL FROM FOOD
Only animal products – meat, dairy, and eggs – contain cholesterol. Most saturated fat also comes from animal products. Butter, meat, cheese, and processed foods like pastries, cakes, and ice creams contain significant amounts.
There is some saturated fat in vegan foods, too, including coconut oil, palm oil, and processed foods, but there is generally much less saturated fat in vegan diets, which is one reason they can be so healthy. We get all that we need, but not too much.
GOOD AND BAD CHOLESTEROL
Cholesterol needs proteins to help it travel through the blood. When it is carried by high-density lipoprotein (HDL), it has come to be known as “good cholesterol.” It’s “good” because it absorbs cholesterol and carries it back to the liver, which then flushes it from the body. High levels of HDL cholesterol can lower our risk of heart disease and stroke.
But there is another type: Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), known as “bad cholesterol.” Most of the body’s cholesterol falls into this category, and high levels of it raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.
So, we need to avoid meat, dairy, cheese, and those other saturated fats and instead load up on the foods that support good cholesterol. These include nuts, seeds, beans and legumes, whole grains, apples, pears, prunes, avocados, and soy products.
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY?
In October 2015, the Journal of the American Heart Association published a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials on the effects of vegetarian diets on cholesterol levels. In the study, the most common diet was vegan. The study concluded that:
“This systematic review and meta‐analysis provides evidence that vegetarian diets effectively lower blood concentrations of total cholesterol, low‐density lipoprotein cholesterol, high‐density lipoprotein cholesterol, and non–high‐density lipoprotein cholesterol. Such diets could be a useful nonpharmaceutical means of managing dyslipidemia, especially hypercholesterolemia.”
Hypercholesterolemia is another word for high cholesterol. So, in other words, vegetarian and vegan diets are an effective way to manage high cholesterol without medication.
Another study, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2014, examined cholesterol levels in 424 meat-eaters, 425 fish-eaters, 423 vegetarians, and 422 vegans. It found that cholesterol levels in vegans were the lowest of the four groups. Although the difference could be explained by the fact that vegans were, on average, the least overweight group, the authors concluded that the biggest difference was due to diet.
Similarly, a meta-analysis that examined 30 observational studies and 19 clinical trials published in 2017 in Nutrition Reviews found that plant-based diets were associated with decreased total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
does a Vegan diet lower cholesterol?
Given that only animal products contain cholesterol and that most saturated fat is also found in animal products, it should come as no surprise that those who don’t eat animal products (vegans!) tend to have lower cholesterol levels.