Although many people switch to a vegan diet for ethical or environmental reasons, some do so to improve their health.
In fact, vegan diets are associated with a long list of health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer (
However, many people are not sure if a vegan diet can affect their cholesterol levels, a waxy substance similar to fat that can accumulate in your arteries and contribute to heart disease (
This article evaluates the evidence to determine whether a vegan diet promotes high or low cholesterol levels.
Vegan diets are a type of eating pattern that eliminates all animal products, including meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, milk, and honey.
Instead, vegan diets typically encourage plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Numerous studies show that vegan diets are associated with lower cholesterol levels.
In fact, according to a review of 49 studies, vegan and vegetarian diets were associated with lower levels of total cholesterol and LDL (bad), compared to ubiquitous diets (
Another review of 40 studies observed similar findings, reporting that vegans typically have a lower body mass index (BMI) and lower cholesterol LDL, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure levels than omnivores (
Some research also suggests that plant-based eating patterns may be helpful in reducing risk factors for heart disease, such as arteriosclerosis, which is characterized by the accumulation of excess cholesterol and fatty plaque in the arteries (
Many studies show that vegan diets are linked to lower cholesterol levels and reduced risk factors for heart disease.
Many animal products eliminated in a vegan diet, such as meat, milk, yogurt, cheese and butter, are high in saturated fat (
Although studies show that saturated fat itself is not associated with a higher risk of heart disease, it may be associated with increased LDL (bad) cholesterol levels (
Healthy vegan diets also focus on high-fiber foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, which can help lower cholesterol levels (
Therefore, following a well-planned vegan diet can help lower cholesterol levels.
That said, many vegan-friendly foods are highly processed and may contain excessive amounts of added sugar, sodium, trans fats and artificial ingredients.
Studies show that increased consumption of processed foods may be associated with higher levels of total cholesterol and LDL (bad), as well as a higher risk of conditions such as high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome (
Healthy vegan diets eliminate many foods that can raise cholesterol by encouraging fiber-rich foods. However, many vegan friendly foods are highly processed, which may be associated with increased cholesterol levels.
The best way to lower cholesterol levels in a vegan diet is to limit your consumption of processed foods like suitable foods, chips, biscuits, crackers and processed meat substitutes.
Instead, choose whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
These foods are not only rich in a range of important vitamins and minerals, but also rich in dietary fiber, which can support healthy cholesterol levels (
Adding more heart-healthy unsaturated fatty acids to your diet may also be helpful, as research suggests that unsaturated fats may help lower cholesterol levels and protect against heart disease (
Ingredients like olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados are some examples of nutritious foods that are high in unsaturated fatty acids.
Enjoying a variety of complete nutritious foods and eating more unsaturated fatty acids can help lower cholesterol levels in a vegan diet.
While vegan diets can be nutritious, not all vegan-friendly foods are created equal.
Foods to eat
Ideally, a well-balanced vegan diet should include mostly whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains.
Here are some examples of foods to eat to lower cholesterol in a vegan diet:
- Fruits: apples, oranges, berries, kiwi, melon, pears, peaches
- Vegetables: spinach, beets, cauliflower, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, avocados
- Whole grains: oats, barley, buckwheat, brown rice, whole wheat
- Nuts: almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans, macadamia nuts
- Seeds: pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds
- Legumes: chickpeas, lentils, black beans, pinto beans, beans
- Plant-based proteins: tofu, tempeh, nutritional yeast
- Healthy fats: olive oil, avocado oil, linseed oil
- Spices: black pepper, turmeric, cumin, red pepper, basil, rosemary
- Drinks: water, tea, coffee, almond milk, flavored water
Foods to avoid
Processed vegan foods are often high in added sugar, sodium and artificial ingredients and can boost your cholesterol levels.
Here are some foods you should limit to lower cholesterol levels in a vegan diet:
- Salty snacks: chips, crackers, pretzels, microwave popcorn
- Sweets: baked goods, cakes, biscuits, cakes, candy
- Processed meat substitutes: Delicious vegan meat, sausage, soy burgers
- Convenience items: fast food, frozen foods, protein bars
- Drinks: sweet tea, soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, fruit juice
A healthy vegan diet should include nutritious whole foods and limit most processed ingredients.
In addition to modifying your diet, you can take a few other steps to lower your cholesterol.
Here are some simple strategies you can try:
- Exercise. Some studies suggest that regular physical activity may help support healthy cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease (
12, 13, 14)
- Stop smoking. According to some old studies, smoking can negatively affect total cholesterol and HDL (good) (
- Limit alcohol consumption. Some research suggests that heavy drinking may be associated with elevated triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels (
- Consider using an omega-3 supplement. Many vegan omega-3 supplements are available, and taking them can help lower your triglyceride levels, increase your HDL (good) cholesterol, and improve vascular function (
Exercising, taking an omega-3 supplement, quitting smoking and limiting alcohol consumption are some strategies that can help lower cholesterol levels in a vegan diet.
Vegan diets are generally associated with lower cholesterol levels, along with several other health benefits.
However, not all vegan-friendly foods are considered healthy, and some processed vegan foods may contribute to increased cholesterol levels.
Choosing nutritious whole foods, eating more heart-healthy fats, and limiting the consumption of processed foods can help lower cholesterol levels and maximize the potential benefits of a vegan diet.