Being Vegan With High Cholesterol

How to Maximize the Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

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A vegan diet is a plant-based diet that is typically low in cholesterol. For people who are prone to high cholesterol levels, it may be a lifestyle modification to consider. A vegan diet has increasingly gained in popularity for its perceived health benefits.

On a vegan diet, you enjoy a wide variety of vegetables, including fermented plant foods, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, soy and plant-based dairy alternatives, nut butters, and plant-based oils such as olive and grapeseed.

However, not all processed plant-food products may be healthy for people prone to high cholesterol. There are several vegan processed foods like faux meats and vegan cheeses that are high in saturated fat from coconut or palm oil that can raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or bad cholesterol levels.

This article will discuss the benefits of a vegan diet for people with high cholesterol and how it works,

Vegan preparing fruit and vegetables

Brothers91 / E+ / Getty Images

Benefits

If you follow a vegan diet that’s low in processed foods and high in fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts, and plant-based oils, you’ll experience a myriad of health benefits such as better gut health, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels because of high fiber consumption. Other health benefits include:

  • Lose excess weight and maintain a healthy weight
  • May help in controlling blood sugar and prevent type 2 diabetes
  • Reduce LDL cholesterol
  • Prevent heart disease
  • May lower cancer risk
  • May lessen risk of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Help lower arthritis symptoms

Cholesterol Benefits for Vegans

Cholesterol consists of fat (lipid) molecules attached to a protein, which move through the blood.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol contains a higher proportion of protein and consists of substances that don’t lead to plaque buildup in your arteries. High-density cholesterol carries excess cholesterol away from the arteries back to the liver for reprocessing. 

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol has a composition that is higher in cholesterol and lower in protein. When there’s an excess of it because of a diet high in calories and rich in saturated fat, excess LDL cholesterol seeps through artery walls and oxidizes.

When oxidation occurs, macrophages (a type of white blood cell) consume the oxidized LDL in the artery wall and die, leading to inflammation in the artery walls. The body is triggered to block the increasing macrophages by creating tissue in the artery walls called plaque, the first sign of atherosclerosis.

In most cases, plant-based diets (vegetarian and/or vegan) are lower in saturated fatty acids than omnivorous diets (in which both meat and plants are eaten).

In a meta-analysis, researchers reviewed 39 studies that included either controlled trials or observational studies examining the effects of a four-week plant-based diet on plasma lipids. Plant-based diets were linked to lower total cholesterol levels but with no differences in triglyceride concentrations (a common type of fat in the blood).  

Research also shows a link to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality for a vegan diet compared to diets with red meat, which are associated with an increase in cardiovascular mortality.

One meta-study examined the total results of seven studies with 124,705 participants. Researchers discovered that plant-based eaters had 29% lower ischemic heart disease mortality than meat and dairy eaters.  

Other studies show that plant-based eating may be helpful in the treatment and management of high blood pressure, diverticular disease, and eye cataracts.

How It Works

When following a vegan diet, you will eliminate animal-based products from your diet. You will focus on plant-based foods. For people prone to high cholesterol, it is best to avoid highly processed foods that include saturated fats, even if they are entirely plant-based.

What to Eat

Before you determine what you’ll be able to eat as a vegan, consider what you can’t eat under this diet plan. The chart below lists vegan compliant and non-compliant foods

Compliant Foods
  • Plant-based proteins

  • Vegetables

  • Fruit

  • Vegetable-based oils

  • Herbs and spices

Non-Compliant Foods
  • Meat, including red meat, poultry, game, fish, and seafood

  • Dairy or eggs

  • Honey

  • Lard, fish oil, and other animal-based fats and oils

  • Certain condiments that have animal byproduct ingredients



When in doubt about a condiment, pre-made soups, or any other food item, read the ingredient list to see if any animal byproduct is listed.

If you’re concerned you won’t get enough nutrients in your diet, be reassured that you can meet your daily protein, calcium, iron requirements from the following plant-based dairy products:

  • Nut milks (almond, cashew, coconut)
  • Rice milk
  • Hemp milk
  • Flax milk
  • Oat milk 
  • Soy milk

Vegan alternatives for omega-3s include chia seeds, ground flaxseeds, hemp seeds, seaweed, soybeans, and walnuts.

Iron sources include dark leafy greens, but also:

  • Beans
  • Blackstrap molasses
  • Dried fruits like prunes
  • Lentils
  • Peas 
  • Whole grains and iron-fortified cereals

Vegan sources for vitamin B, a necessary nutrient that helps make red blood cells, prevent anemia, and protect nerve cells, include iron-fortified cereals and soy foods, nutritional yeast, and multivitamins.

There are alternative vegan foods that are heavily processed, like vegan deli meats, vegan beef, pork, and chicken, as well as desserts. These foods may contain high amounts of sodium, sugar, and saturated fat that may increase the risk of raising your LDL cholesterol levels.

If you’re craving a faux meat burger, consider eating a veggie patty that isn’t loaded with fat. You’ll find a small amount of fat (around 4.4 grams) in a single veggie patty. Look for products made with heart-healthy oils like olive or canola.

If you have diabetes, read the ingredient lists to find out how much added sugar is in the dessert or processed meal.

Heart Healthy Vegan Meal Plan

If you’re considering following a heart-healthy vegan eating plan and need direction in what to prepare for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, below are some meal ideas: 

Breakfast

  • Banana oatmeal cookies (made with banana, oatmeal, cinnamon, and peanut butter)
  • Chia pudding (ingredients include chia seeds, any nut milk, rice or oat milk, fruit, maple syrup)
  • Black beans and avocado on honey-free whole-grain toast

Lunch

  • Arugula salad with red beans and balsamic dressing
  • Kale and quinoa lunch bowl (ingredients include chickpeas, bell peppers, carrots, and tangy dressing)
  • Chickpea flour crepe with vegetable and mushroom filling

Dinner

  • Soba noodles with sugar snap peas, carrots and other vegetables
  • Potato and onion stuffed peppers
  • Tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, herb pasta salad with a lemon vinaigrette

Cooking Tips

While eliminating animal-based protein from your diet will dramatically reduce your saturated fat intake and help with reducing your LDL cholesterol, keep in mind that excess oil and fat from nuts can sneak into your recipes. Below are some tips on how to reduce cooking or baking with oil:

  • Instead of frying, grill, bake, or steam.
  • Miss the crunch of fried foods? Consider the many air fryer options that are available.
  • Stir-fry with vegetable broth or water.
  • Use high-quality non-stick pans.
  • Nut butters are a good alternative to vegan butters high in trans fat but keep measurements to one-half an ounce. Also, consider fruit purees as a binding agent when you bake.
  • Consider using spray vegetable oils for salads, sauteing, and even baking. There are several organic options available at your local grocery store or health food store.
  • Nuts are packed with good fats and excellent for snacking and including in recipes, but use sparingly because of their high calories.

Supplements for Vegans

A vegan diet is rich in many nutrients except for vitamin B12. To contain B12, a vegan product must be fortified with it, such as fortified cereals and fortified soy milk. Nutritional yeast is also an excellent source of vitamin B12 and can be used as a cheese substitute in recipes.

If you’re 50 or older, take a B12 supplement because your body may not efficiently absorb dietary sources of vitamin B12.

Before you purchase a bottle of vitamin B12 from your local pharmacy or health food store, consult with your healthcare professional or nutritionist regarding daily dosage. Also, with any type of supplement, read the ingredient to ensure that it’s a 100% vegan product.

Considerations

If you are considering transitioning to a vegan diet for health reasons, there are several factors to investigate. Nutritionally, a vegan diet provides all the nutrients needed for health except for vitamin B12. Several vegan foods like the nut and soy milks are fortified, as well as bread and cereals.

To learn more about nutrients needed in all life cycles, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025" offers a healthy vegetarian dietary pattern (for vegans, omit eggs and dairy).

As more and more people decide to eliminate meat from their diet, community and support are growing. Many restaurants now offer many vegan options on their menus, and meal subscription services have vegan options.

But how sustainable is keeping to a vegan diet? Some people find it challenging to give up eggs and certain foods that contain animal byproducts. Others find that it isn't as inexpensive as touted, especially if you purchase organic products.

To keep costs down, you can purchase canned or frozen fruit and vegetables in bulk that are not organic and are still nutrient-rich. However, for vegan purists who would rather eat raw food or use fresh produce, the constant restocking of fruits and vegetables can get expensive.

A Word From Verywell

Veganism allows for a balanced and nutrient-rich diet, but if you often eat faux meats and other processed products that include high amounts of saturated fats, your risk of high cholesterol increases. To learn more about veganism, nutrition, and other plant-based diets, visit these sites:

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which foods raise cholesterol in a vegan diet?

    A vegan diet is a plant-based diet that is typically low in cholesterol. However, several vegan processed foods like faux meats and vegan cheeses are high in saturated fat from coconut or palm oil and sodium that can raise cholesterol levels. Additionally, some individuals may be prone to high cholesterol levels because of their family history.

  • What vegan foods should you avoid in the grocery store?

    Avoid vegan foods that are processed and have high amounts of sodium and saturated fats like faux meats, cheese, frozen vegan meals that come with heavy sauces, and some canned vegetables and vegetable broths that are very high in sodium.

  • What’s a healthy cholesterol level for a vegan?

    A healthy total cholesterol level for any individual age 20 and over, whether they’re vegan or not, should be 125 to 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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