So does a vegan diet help your cholesterol and how does it work?
Elevated cholesterol levels can increase the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions. We often talk about these terms, but lets be real, we are talking serious conditions like angina and heart attacks which range in severity, to of course fatal. However, there are other effects of heart disease. I really do not want to repeat this anymore, but I would stress the importance of this for all of us. Heart disease is not only the biggest killer in the world out there, but it does more than cut your life short, it can also severely diminish the quality of your life, which impacts on the life of your family and loved ones too.
Let’s understand all about cholesterol.
In order for us to understand this, let us look at what cholesterol is and why it is important not to get high cholesterol.
Your body, mostly in the liver, will generally make all of the cholesterol that your body will need. Let’s just think about that for a minute! So if you consume additional cholesterol, your body is out of balance and needs some way to deal with it!
There are others, but we are basically interested in two types of cholesterol which act very differently in your body.
The first is LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol because high levels can lead to plaque buildup predominantly in arteries, but in other blood vessels too. Low levels are necessary, particularly in absorbing vitamin D, which is why the body produces it, in the right amount.
On the other hand HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is known as good cholesterol because it helps remove the plaque buildup from the bloodstream.
Of course as plaque builds up in your bloodstream it means that the heart has to work harder, increasing blood pressure. It also means that your body is working less efficiently. When people visualise this they mostly think of the the longer larger blood vessels, particularly the arteries where the plaque is most obvious.
However, plaque is not discriminating. Not only does it start to block those big arteries but it can also get into the smaller blood vessels throughout the body, from the feet to the head and everywhere in between, so it includes the eyes, ears, the blood vessels that supply the heart muscles and everything else including the brain. Strokes are classed as about fifth in the list of causes of death that I referred to earlier as heart disease as first!
The American heart association estimate that about 95 million people in the USA have more than double the recommended level of bad cholesterol, that equates to a little under a third of the population. In the UK the figures are calculated differently, but it is thought that over 29 million people have high or dangerously high cholesterol, that is approximately 39%.
The main sources of this bad cholesterol is dairy, including milk, cheese and yogurts, meat and eggs. Whilst fatty and processed meat contain higher levels of cholesterol the actual difference between that and lean meat is not that great, neither is white meat OK, it is just a little better than red meat.
And just a quick note on statins here. I have heard some of my friends say, “my cholesterol is OK because I am on statins.” Statins do indeed benefit people with high cholesterol and those otherwise at risk of heart attacks. However, statins work by reducing the amount of cholesterol that the liver puts out. It cannot do anything about the (sometimes huge) amount of unnecessary cholesterol that some people are still consuming, or about that lodged in our blood vessels as plaque. Not that I want to diminish the value of statins, they are quite literally life savers, especially for those with high cholesterol or other at risk people. However, they might need a little help, from our good behaviour.
The benefits of a vegan diet for lowering cholesterol.
A vegan diet consists of solely plant based foods and eliminates all animal products including meat, fish, dairy, eggs, cheese and milk. Several studies have shown that adopting a vegan lifestyle can significantly reduce LDL “bad” cholesterol levels. This is due to the absence of dietary saturated fats found in animal products. This is of course just one reason why veganism is good for you.
Vegan foods that lower LDL levels include, (and I will drop the constant reference to LDL here as it is as a given):
- Fruits: Incorporate a variety of fruits such as apples berries oranges into your daily diet these are rich insoluble fiber which help reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
- Vegetables: Include a wide range of vegetables like leafy greens, broccoli, brussel sprouts and carrots. These are packed with antioxidants and fiber that can help lower cholesterol.
- Whole grains: Choose whole grain options like quinoa, brown rice, oats and whole wheat bread instead of refined grains. Whole wheat grains contain soluble fiber that aids in lowering cholesterol.
- Legumes: Beans, lentils and chickpeas are excellent sources of plant based protein and soluble fiber. Incorporate them into soups, stews, curries or even salads to improve heart health.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts and chai seeds are rich in monounsaturated fats that can help reduce cholesterol when consumed in moderation.
Whilst the vegan diet is definitely much more healthy than one that includes animals and animal products, not all vegan food is good for you. For example processed white bread is vegan but as with many processed foods, have little benefit as the fiber is extracted. In a similar way, fruit juices are largely sugar when you remove the pulp and fibre from the juice. However, there are some things even on the vegan diet that we should avoid or moderate particularly when trying to lower our LDL cholesterol levels. These are generally the heavily processed items which are particularly important to those with high cholesterol who want to see a rapid reduction in those levels.
Foods to avoid or limit for controlling cholesterol, even on a vegan diet:
- Saturated fats: Eliminate or minimize the consumption of saturated fats found in coconut oil, palm oil and certain processed vegan foods as they can raise LDL cholesterol levels.
- Trans fats: not only increase LDL but also decrease HDL (good) cholesterol levels. These are fats that start off as liquids but are turned into solid forms. Many of these have been banned in the US but they can still be found in fried foods, margarine and shortening.
- Sodium: excessive sodium intake contribute to high blood pressure which is linked to increased risk of heart disease. Limit your intake by avoiding processed foods with high sodium content, and adding to cooking or on the plate. I don’t think this one will come to any of us as a surprise.
Lifestyle changes to lower cholesterol.
In addition to adopting a vegan diet, incorporating regular exercise into your routine can help improve heart health and lower cholesterol levels. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity on most days of the week. However, if you are already physically active and are able to increase this level of activity this will benefit you even more. This exercise actually increases the level of good cholesterol.
Maintaining a healthy weight is also crucial in managing cholesterol levels. Losing excess weight if necessary through a combination of balanced eating and physical activity can have a positive impact on your cholesterol profile. It is important to stress here that whilst the exercise will burn off a few calories, the activity for the heart and muscles are probably more important. It is also important to reduce or eliminate alcohol when trying to lose weight. Smoking impacts very severely on people in the high risk groups, and though not so much, everyone else who is not at that point, (yet?)
This weight loss is, generally speaking, fairly easy for those that have been on a general diet including meat, fish and dairy but have now switched to a vegan diet. Let me say that I am not saying the switch from a meat diet to a vegan one will be easy. For further tips on changing to a vegan diet for beginners please see some of my other articles. However, by cutting out the enormous amount of fats and unnecessary calories in a “traditional” meat based diet new vegans often lose weight as a consequence.
Though just a word of caution here, many vegans have to either plan their meals very well, or take supplements, particularly B12 for a healthy brain and nervous system. Indeed many of us simply take a multivitamin every day. However, not all vitamins are created equal and some do include animal products, so please read the label. And finally on this point, if your cholesterol is at such a level that you are under a doctor for it, you are well advised to discuss the change of diet with your doctor or a dietician.
As with all diets, vegan or otherwise it is important to stay well hydrated. Far too many people neglect this aspect. Personally, I like to keep a large beaker of chilled water with me at all times. I have recently discovered these large insulated cooler beakers that can keep your water chilled all day and night or your coffee hot for a long time. Personally I like the 40oz one but there are smaller sizes available. If you want to check out my favourite Meoky 40 oz mug I should say there are much cheaper versions around, indeed on this same website, but in my experience this is the best one to keep things either hot or cold for longer. The purchase from the above link will be fast. However, if you are prepared to wait you can order a very similar item from meoky, here but please remember it will be slow through the post.
Lowering cholesterol on a vegan diet is not only achievable but also comes with numerous other health benefits. By choosing plant based foods which soluble fiber and avoiding saturated fats you can effectively reduce LDL cholesterol levels and promote heart health. Combine these dietary choices with regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight for optimal results. Embracing a vegan lifestyle is not only beneficial for your own well being but also contributes to the treatment and welfare of animals and to the wellbeing of the planet.