How do vegans get cholesterol? Whether diet or genetics, here’s all you need to know about cholesterol on a plant-based diet.
According to MedlinePlus, an online service launched by the U.S. United States National Library of Medicine, cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance present in all of the body’s cells. It’s needed in order to make steroid hormones, vitamin D, and bile acids, which aid in the digestion of dietary fats and oils. The human body is capable of making all of the cholesterol it needs, but it is also present in animal-based foods, including meat, cheese, and eggs.
What Is Cholesterol?
There are three different types of cholesterol. HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, is known as “good” cholesterol. HDL carries cholesterol throughout your body to your liver, which then “recycles” it in bile form into the digestive tract. About 50 percent of this is absorbed back into the body via the small intestine.
LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, is what’s known as “bad” cholesterol. High levels of LDL has been linked to the buildup of plaque in arteries as well as other health issues.
VLDL, or very low-density lipoprotein, is also considered a “bad” cholesterol, but while LDL carries cholesterol, VLDL carries triglycerides. Triglycerides are the most common type of fat found in the human body. When you eat too many calories for your body, VLDL cholesterol particles carry triglycerides to your tissues, where it is stored in body fat. Your body then releases triglycerides when energy is needed.
Where Does ‘Bad’ Cholesterol Come From?
According to Dr. Michael Greger, founder of NutritionFacts.org, LDL cholesterol is found in trans fats, which is found in processed foods and naturally in meat and dairy. The Mayo Clinic notes that this trans fats are “double trouble” for heart health due to the fact that it raises LDL levels while lowering “good” HDL levels.
Trans fat is added to processed foods through an industrial process where hydrogen is added to vegetable oil, which allows the oil to be solid at room temperature. On ingredients labels, it’s called “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” and it is used to give many packaged foods a longer shelf life. It is also used for deep-frying by some restaurants because partially hydrogenated oil does not need to be changed as often.
Foods that typically contain trans fats include commercial baked goods, snacks like chips and crackers, refrigerated dough such as cinnamon rolls and pizza crusts, fried foods, and margarine. Cheese, butter, and processed meat like bacon, breakfast sausages, ham, and hot dogs are also high in “bad” cholesterol.
What Is the Ideal Cholesterol Ratio?
Measuring your cholesterol levels is considered an effective way of determining your risk of heart disease and stroke. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), all adults over the age of 20 should have their cholesterol checked every four to six years.
When it comes to measuring your cholesterol, there are two things to keeIsp in mind. The first is your total cholesterol level, which is measured by a health professional via a blood test. This number is calculated from your HDL, LDL, and 20 percent of your triglycerides. Typically, you want this number to be below 200.
However, many health professionals stand by measuring your cholesterol ratio. According to the AHA, this is obtained by dividing the HDL cholesterol level into your total cholesterol.“For example, if a person has a total cholesterol of 200 and an HDL cholesterol level of 50, the ratio would be 4:1,” the organization writes.
The ideal level of cholesterol varies from person to person and can also be determined by genetics. The Framingham Heart Study says that a cholesterol ratio of five indicates an average heart attack risk for men and the risk doubles if the ratio reaches 9.6.
Women, meanwhile, are more likely to have higher levels of good cholesterol. A ratio of 4.4 is average heart attack risk for women and it doubles if that number reaches seven.
What Are the Health Risks of High Cholesterol?
High cholesterol comes with a number of health risks. If you have too much in your blood, cholesterol can combine with other substances such as calcium and fat to form plaque, which sticks to the walls of your arteries. This can lead to a condition known as atherosclerosis, a disease marked by the hardening or narrowing of arteries. If left untreated, atherosclerosis can lead to coronary artery disease, carotid artery disease, peripheral artery disease, heart attack, stroke, chronic kidney disease, or premature death.
What Raises the Risk of High Cholesterol?
Beyond diet, there are a number of lifestyle factors that can contribute to high cholesterol levels. Smoking is known to lower good cholesterol levels and also damages your arteries and blood vessels, raisin the risk of plaque buildup. Those who are more sedentary may also have a greater risk of having high cholesterol.
Your risk can also be affected by your family history. Those with a family history of heart disease may need to take extra care in monitoring their cholesterol ratio because arteries harden with plaque buildup, meaning the body needs to work harder to pump blood. Diabetics may also have a greater risk, as their LDL particles tend to stick to arteries. Glucose also attaches to lippoproteins, which remains in the bloodstream longer and may lead to the formation of plaque.
Saturated Fat and Cholesterol
Eating foods that are high in saturated fat can also raise your “bad” cholesterol levels, thus raising your heart attack risk.
The American Heart Association states that foods high in saturated fat include meat like beef, lamb, poultry, and pork. Dairy products include butter, cream, and cheese made from 2 percent or whole milk. Some plant-based foods include saturated fat: coconut, coconut oil and cocoa butter, palm oil, and palm kernel oil.
A recent study published in the Journal of Internal Cardiology revealed that eating less meat and more plant-based foods lowers your risk of heart attack.
“We found that eating relatively little of the longer chained saturated fatty acids and consuming plant-based proteins instead was associated with a lowered risk. Substitution of those saturated fats with other energy sources such as carbohydrates did not affect the risk to develop myocardial infarction,” said study lead investigator, Dr. Ivonne Sluijs of Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
Do Vegans Need to Worry About Cholesterol?
Those who follow a plant-based diet are known to have lower cholesterol levels compared to those who consume animal products. According to Livestrong, for a food item to contain dietary cholesterol, it must come from an animal-based source. Cholesterol is still important to certain bodily functions, but your body is typically able to produce everything it needs.
If you are looking to lower your cholesterol, consult with your doctor about introducing more plant-based meals into your diet.
Which Foods Lower Bad Cholesterol?
If you have high cholesterol, there are a number of plant-based foods that can help lower your levels, according to Harvard Health.
1. Oats, Barley, and Other Whole Grains
Oats, or whole grain, oat-based cereal like One Degree Organics Sprouted Oat O’s or Cascadian Farms Purely O’s, which is made from oats and barley, can help get your cholesterol levels where they’re supposed to be. Try having steelcut or overnight oatmeal for breakfast or use rolled oats to make vegan pancakes and healthy baked treats like plant-based muffins or oatmeal breakfast cookies.
2. Beans and Legumes
Beans of all kinds are rich in soluble fiber, meaning they take the body longer to digest and help you feel fuller, longer. Harvard Health recommends eating a wide variety of beans, including chickpeas, lentils, black-eyed peas, navy beans, and kidney beans. Try whipping up a delicious chickpea curry for your weeknight meal, or make a vegan lentil loaf.
Soybean and soy-derived foods like tofu, tempeh, and Silk Organic Soymilk are also effective in lowering cholesterol.
Eating two ounces of nuts daily, including walnuts, almonds, peanuts, and other varieties can lower your LDL cholesterol by as much as 5 percent. They’re also packed with other heart-healthy nutrients. You can eat nuts whole, or try a nut-based milk like walnut milk, peanut milk, or good old-fashioned almond milk.
4. Vegetables and Vegetable Oil
Healthline recommends incorporating soluble fiber-rich vegetables like eggplant, okra, carrots, and potatoes into your diet to help lower cholesterol. This also includes dark, leafy greens such as kale, spinach, and collard greens.
According to Harvard Health, swapping dairy butter for liquid vegetable oils such as canola, sunflower, and safflower can help lower LDL.
Pectin-rich fruit such as apples, grapes, citrus fruit, and strawberries can help lower LDL. Avocados are a rich source of monounsaturated fats and fiber, both of which two help your body lower “bad” LDL and raise “good” HDL cholesterol (5).
6. Dark Chocolate
It might sound too good to be true, but studies have shown that dark chocolate can help lower bad cholesterol, too. In one study involving adults who drank a cocoa beverage twice daily for a month, participants experienced lower LDL levels and increased HDL. When choosing dark chocolate, look for a fair trade brand that contains at least 75-85 percent cocoa.
How to Get Good Cholesterol on a Plant-Based Diet
Many of the foods that lower LDL will promote the production of HDL cholesterol. This includes avocado, soy-based foods, vegetable oil, whole grains, fruit, beans, and legumes. Healthline advises incorporating a few other foods into your diet in order to raise HDL levels.
1. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts such as almonds, pistachios, peanuts, and Brazil nuts contain a substance called plant sterols, which block the absorption of LDL cholesterol and promote HDL. Seeds like chia and flax are both rich sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids – but nutritionists recommend grinding both in order to make all of the nutrients bioavailable.
2. Use Extra-Virgin Olive Oil and Coconut Oil
Swap other oils for extra-virgin olive oil and coconut oil to promote HDL cholesterol levels. Studies have attributed the presence of antioxidants known as polyphenols in olive oil to healthy cholesterol. Meanwhile, evidence shows that coconut oil tends to raise HDL levels more than other types of fat. Use these instead of dairy butter or other oils in cooking or baking.
3. Purple Fruits and Veggies
Opt for antioxidant-rich purple produce like eggplant, purple corn, red cabbage, blueberries, blackberries and black raspberries. They’re rich in an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which has been shown to increase good cholesterol.
4. Red Wine
Like dark chocolate, it might sound too good to be true, but drinking a moderate amount of red wine daily (that’s one glass for women and two for men) has been shown to improve good cholesterol levels. Be sure to check your red wine on a site like Barnivore to ensure that it’s free from any hidden animal ingredients.
5. Exercise Regularly and Stop Smoking
If you’re a smoker, studies have shown that smoking can inhibit the production of HDL cholesterol. In one study of more than 1,500 people, those who quit smoking experienced twice the increase in HDL as those who resumed smoking within the year.
Being physically active is another way to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, particularly for strength training, aerobics, and high-intensity exercise such as HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and HICT (high-intensity circuit training). However, even low-intensity exercise has been shown to increase HDL’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capabilities.
6. Plan Your Meals
One of the best ways to ensure that you’re avoiding certain foods while making sure to get enough of the heart-healthy foods you need is to plan your meals. Planning your meals has been shown to have a multitude of benefits from losing weight, helping you stick to a healthier diet, saving money, and reducing food waste. Not only can you ensure that you”re eating what you should, meal planning can also keep you from caving in and buying things you’re trying to avoid, like last-minute fast-food dinners.
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