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Keeping your heart healthy is a big deal.
According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death in Americans, and someone dies from a heart attack every 40 seconds. So it’s no wonder that people are starting to pay more attention to their lifestyle and dietary choices in an effort to keep their hearts going strong.
One of the most important factors contributing to your cardiovascular health is your cholesterol levels, which can be highly affected by the dietary pattern you keep. And as it turns out, one of the best ways to improve your cholesterol levels is by following a vegan diet!
Once an obscure eating pattern, veganism is gaining traction for various reasons, including its beneficial effects on our heart health. Here’s the connection between vegan diets and high cholesterol.
What Is Cholesterol?
To understand how veganism can benefit your heart health, you should first understand what cholesterol is and how it connects to your heart.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that plays a variety of important roles in your body. For example, it’s an essential building block for important hormones like progesterone and estrogen, which manage your reproductive system. In addition, cholesterol helps your body digest fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin A and D.
Unfortunately, too much cholesterol can cause problems. Your liver generally makes all of the cholesterol that your body needs. However, your cholesterol levels can also change depending on the kind of foods you eat and certain lifestyle choices.
Like other nutrients, cholesterol is delivered to cells throughout your body via your bloodstream. However, it can’t travel through your body on its own, so it needs to be “packaged” into different lipoproteins. This means that there are a couple of different kinds of cholesterol, and two of the most important ones to be aware of are LDL and HDL.
- Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, is often considered “bad” cholesterol because it can stick to the sides of your arteries during transit, causing plaque buildup.
- High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is considered “good” cholesterol because it can help carry away any excess cholesterol to your liver to be disposed of, preventing plaque buildup.
If someone has “high cholesterol,” it often means that they have too much LDL and too little HDL. So to improve your cholesterol levels, you want to decrease your LDL levels while increasing your HDL.
Why Is High Cholesterol A Problem?
High cholesterol levels are often a good indicator that you are more at risk for serious cardiovascular conditions because it can cause atherosclerosis or hardening of your arteries.
Healthy blood flow is one of the most crucial functions in our body, and this process is managed by your heart. It delivers essential nutrients like cholesterol and oxygen to various body parts and cells via your arteries. However, when your LDL levels are too high, they can actually stick to the sides of your arteries and cause a buildup of plaque.
Ideally, you would have a high enough level of HDL, or the “good” cholesterol, to carry away that excess cholesterol to your liver where it can be properly disposed of. But when your HDL levels are also too low, this process can’t happen. So plaque continues to build up in your arteries, which can eventually cause atherosclerosis.
Unfortunately, this condition can block arteries and make it much harder for your blood to reach different parts of your body. If left unchecked, it can lead to serious issues like:
- Heart attacks
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
What Causes High Cholesterol?
There are two components involved in high cholesterol: genetics and lifestyle factors.
Some people are more genetically predisposed to having high cholesterol levels, so it’s important to know whether high cholesterol runs in your family. You are also more at risk for developing high cholesterol levels as you age, and men are also more susceptible to it than women.
However, your cholesterol levels can also be heavily influenced by your lifestyle choices.
- Diet - If you eat an unbalanced diet that has a lot of processed foods, and/or follow an eating pattern that means you eat more unhealthy fats, you may be more at risk for high cholesterol than others.
- Exercise - Regular exercise can help increase your “good” HDL levels. On the other hand, you may experience lowered HDL levels if you aren’t moving your body enough.
- Smoking - Not only does smoking increase your LDL levels, but it can also decrease your HDL levels.
Remember, you have different kinds of cholesterol in your body, and the ratio of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol also matters. So cholesterol levels are measured in two different ways:
- Total cholesterol
- Cholesterol ratio
What Diet Increases The Risk Of High Cholesterol?
It was once a long-standing belief that eating foods that had a lot of cholesterol could raise your blood cholesterol. However, it turns out that that’s not quite the case. More recent studies have shown that dietary cholesterol doesn’t have as much of an effect on your cholesterol levels as once thought.
However, other unhealthy dietary patterns certainly can cause cholesterol issues. You may be more at risk for developing high cholesterol if your diet includes too many:
- Saturated fats: Saturated fats are found most often in animal products like meat and dairy. If eaten too frequently, they can raise LDL levels.
- Trans fats: Similarly, trans fats also raise LDL levels. You should be avoiding trans fats as much as possible since they are heavily associated with other serious health conditions besides heart disease, including diabetes and even breast cancer.
- Processed foods: Not only do processed foods (think fried foods, fast food, and commercially packaged “junk food” snacks) tend to have more trans fats, but they also tend to have other unhealthy ingredients like inflammatory simple sugars and flour that could present significant health issues when eaten without moderation.
Foods That Help Lower Cholesterol
So there are plenty of foods that you may want to avoid to prevent high cholesterol levels.
Luckily, there are several foods that you can incorporate into your diet that can lower your cholesterol as well.
Here are some heart-healthy options to add to your diet to lower cholesterol levels:
- Whole grains: Whole grains have a solid reputation as a heart-healthy dietary option because they are full of fiber. Fiber can reduce how your body absorbs cholesterol, which can help reduce LDL levels.
- Olive oil: Unlike saturated fats and trans fats, polyunsaturated fats are considered “healthy” fats that can help lower your cholesterol. Many of these healthy fats are plant-based, including olive oil.
- Coconut oil: Coconut oil is saturated fat, so its role as a heart-friendly dietary fat is more debated. However, some studies have shown that coconut oil can reduce LDL and increase HDL - so just be sure to use moderation.
- Chia seeds: Chia seeds are another rich source of dietary fiber. In addition, chia seeds are a good source of ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid that is associated with better heart health.
- Fruits and vegetables: No surprises here - eating a diet that emphasizes fresh, whole fruits and veggies are generally linked to better heart health! These plant-based staples contain a wide variety of beneficial nutrients, including fiber to reduce cholesterol.
- Nuts: Nuts are another staple for healthy diets because they’re packed with beneficial nutrients. In the case of high cholesterol, nuts like walnuts are great sources for the omega-3 fatty acid ALA.
- Red wine: Good news for vino lovers: in moderation, red wine has powerful antioxidants that may help reduce LDL and increase HDL.
You might notice a trend here: all of the best foods that lower cholesterol are plant-based!
As it turns out, there’s ample evidence to show that eating more plant-based foods is simply better for your health for various reasons. But how does a vegan diet lower cholesterol?
Can A Vegan Diet Help Manage High Cholesterol?
More and more research is proving that eating a plant-based vegan diet is one of the best things that you can do for your health. This is especially true when it comes to heart health and cholesterol levels:
- One meta-analysis of 8,385 different studies concluded that people who followed plant-based diets showed lower total cholesterol, LDL, and HDL levels than people who also regularly consumed animal products.
- Another comprehensive study found that a vegan diet goes even further in protecting your heart health. Not only did people who ate vegan diets have better cholesterol levels, but they also tended to be a healthier weight, had better blood sugar, and showed lower blood pressures!
So there’s no shortage of evidence that plant-based diets are superior for anyone who wants to protect their heart health. But why is this?
By definition, a vegan diet eliminates all animal products from your diet. Your liver should produce all the cholesterol that your body needs, but the foods you eat can also increase your cholesterol levels. There’s no cholesterol from plants, but there is cholesterol in animal products.
But even more important is the differences in fat consumption in a plant-based diet versus an omnivorous diet. Remember, excessive saturated fats are considered one of the main culprits behind raising your “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. Saturated fats are most commonly found in animal-based food products like red meats and dairy products. So by nature, people who follow vegan diets consume much less saturated fat than people who eat animal products, which is often reflected in better cholesterol levels.
And on the flip side, someone who eats a vegan diet will tend to eat more of those cardioprotective plant-based foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and plant oils.
So not only does a vegan diet improve your heart health by lowering your overall cholesterol intake, but it can also prevent the accumulation of LDL and promote an increase in HDL!
How To Lower Cholesterol On A Vegan Diet
So whether you’re genetically predisposed to high cholesterol levels or want to make a heart-healthy lifestyle change, you can benefit from switching to a vegan diet.
However, there are extra considerations to keep in mind if you’re looking to lower your cholesterol levels:
- You’ll want to stick to fresh, whole foods whenever possible. That means filling up on fresh fruits, vegetables, and other whole ingredients that haven’t been heavily processed so you can reap all the nutritious benefits.
- You’ll also want to make sure you’re getting an adequate amount of fiber. Many plant-based items will naturally have a good amount of fiber, but you should also vary your diet to get both soluble and insoluble fiber from a variety of sources.
In short, if you’re eating a variety of fresh plant-based foods rather than meat products, you’ll be doing your part to reduce your cholesterol levels! You can also supplement your intake of certain nutrients with vegan-friendly supplement options like vegetarian krill oil alternatives.
More Tips To Lower Cholesterol Levels
- Avoid heavily processed foods. While a plant-based diet is naturally going to have way less saturated fats because of the absence of animal products, it may still contain trans fats. These types of fats are often present in processed foods, which plant-based eaters may sometimes consume more of. You’ll want to stick with whole ingredients and minimal processing whenever possible for the best effects on your cholesterol.
- Take a vegan omega-3 supplement. While beneficial for a variety of reasons, a vegan diet is sometimes more likely to be missing essential nutrients. For example, many people get their omega-3 intake from cod live oils, fish oils, or krill oils, which are not suitable for a plant-based diet. Algae oil supplements are the only vegan omega-3 supplements that contain EPA and DHA, the two omega-3 fatty acids that may actively fight inflammation and improve triglyceride levels*. Be sure to consult with your doctor before starting any supplements.
- Exercise frequently. In addition to improving your diet, you should also take a look at your activity levels. Frequent exercise can help lower your blood pressure and increase your HDL levels, not to mention its positive effects on your body composition and weight which can also help. The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes of exercise per week for the best results.
- Check your cholesterol levels frequently. High cholesterol levels and high blood pressure often don’t have any noticeable signs. So it’s important to monitor both frequently, especially if they run in your family.
Going vegan may seem overwhelming at first, but its heart-healthy benefits are definitely worth it. With zero cholesterol from plants and far fewer saturated fats, eating vegan is kinder for your entire body.