Cholesterol

High cholesterol levels on vegetarian and vegan diets

I strive to be up to date about things other nutritionists are saying, and occasionally I see such statements like: “new studies have shown vegetarians are tending to have the highest cholesterol levels”. I am not sure about English content, but in Russian-language resources, vegetarianism is often equated with veganism somehow, so as a result, many statements become confusing, even if in essence they are true. It makes sense for me, that most vegetarians on earth have high cholesterol levels. And I’ll tell you why.

There are about 1 billion vegetarians on the planet (about 78 million of those are vegans). Most of the vegetarians live in India, where (as you known) using Ghee is very popular in cooking. Ghee has a cholesterol content of about 220-250 mg per 100 g, which is quite a lot. Other vegetarian foods are also high in cholesterol. In chicken eggs 570 mg, in caviar about 300 mg… The product  with the highest levels of cholesterol (egg powder, which is used in mayonnaise – 2050 mg/100g) is also a vegetarian product! There is no cholesterol in any plant-based product at all, since it is synthesized directly in the body of animals and humans.

Why do we need cholesterol?

Cholesterol is essential for the formation of cell membranes and it participates in the production of vitamin D, bile acids and steroid hormones (testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, etc.). If we are speaking about normal metabolism, the human body itself synthesizes the required amount of cholesterol. This process involves the fats we consume, and therefore, even on a vegan diet, you can somehow manage to earn yourself an excess of cholesterol, forcing your body to produce more cholesterol than it needs. The worst option is probably overeating margarine and palm oil. They say 1% increase in saturated fats leads to 2% increase of cholesterol levels. But besides foods high in saturated fat, there are other factors: smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, genetics, and sugars (refined sugars, starches, white flour). The body can convert sugars into triglycerides (fat), hence the connection.

More on LDL and HDL cholesterol Just imagine.

Cholesterol is synthesized in every animal cell, but the major amount is produced by liver. Since it is a waxy, water-insoluble substance, it cannot move independently in a blood flow. The liver packs it into a “transport” built by combination of protein and fats (Lipoproteins). The higher the percentage of fat in this structure, the lower its density. Very low density lipoproteins carry cholesterol through the bloodstream, gradually “unloading” fat (using cholesterol as intended) and becoming denser (low density lipoproteins – LDL). LDL can stick to the walls of blood vessels and lead to blockages.

High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are also produced in the liver and carry cholesterol through the bloodstream. HDL collects “bad” cholesterol sticked to the walls of blood vessels and returns it to the liver, where the lipid-protein “transport” is either loaded with new cholesterol and sent back into the bloodstream, or is broken down and excreted. If you consume a lot of saturated and trans fats, the liver will produce more low-density structures for transporting cholesterol, thereby increasing the percentage of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) in the blood and making it harder for HDL to clear the vessels from sticked cholesterol.

This is what comes to plant-based diet. If you add pure cholesterol (which vegans don’t get dietary) on top of that saturated fats, then you can imagine –  of course, cholesterol levels will be even higher, because 40-60% of dietary cholesterol gets straight into bloodstream. Some people manage to manipulate the fact that some cholesterol-containing foods increase the levels of HDL, which is good. Yeah, they just a bit withholding that the levels of LDL are also growing at the same time significantly.

What are the normal cholesterol levels?

Let’s take my husband’s cholesterol level as an example. He was tested recently.

Cholesterol test

  • Total cholesterol 125 mg / dL (norm <200 mg / dL)
  • HDL (good) 40 mg / dL (normal> 35 mg / dL)
  • LDL (bad) 81 mg / dL (norm <130 mg / dL)

A good ratio of total cholesterol to HDL is considered a value that not exceeding 4. For women, a ratio of 4.4: 1 is considered dangerous, so it is advisable for us to focus on the value of three.

Let’s count using my husband’s example: 125/40 = 3.1. Very good ratio!

Foods to regulate cholesterol levels

In order to get rid of wasted substances (hormones, cholesterol, toxins – anything) our body needs fibre and water. Generally, we have only three ways for cleansing – through urine, faeces and sweat. So it makes sense that sport, water and soluble fibre can lower the level of LDL in the blood. Legumes, oats, some vegetables, spices, nuts – all these products are rich in fibres.

Nuts and seeds inhibit the production of LDL, while stimulating the production of HDL. Chia seeds and flaxseeds are good sources of fat, but they need to be ground or there will be no benefit. Purple fruits and vegetables are rich in anthocyanin (an antioxidant), which is involved in the production of HDL. Extra virgin coconut and olive oils might be also beneficial to some extent.

Don’t smoke if you want to have good cholesterol levels. There was research that has shown that smoking blocks the production of HDL (“good” cholesterol). 1,500 people quit smoking and their good cholesterol levels rose. And of course – movement is essential. Sports also regulate cholesterol production and balance hormones.

Should I worry about fats?

If you have any concerns about cholesterol, I advise you to go get tested to understand the actual situation. It is the fact that we do not need a lot of fat for healthy functioning of our liver, this is why very rarely we talk about pathologies associated with a lack of cholesterol. One tablespoon of flax seeds contains the daily requirement of Omega 3, two tablespoons of walnuts replenish the requirements for Omega 6. In addition, almost every plant contains a bit of fats.

From my experience I can say, that it is very easy to meet your daily fat requirements on the plant-based diet.  even without consuming refined oils. And in general, I now find more and more evidence that the less fat there will be in the body, the less inflammation will be registered, your immunity will be stronger and resources will be used more efficiently.  So it’s not about a pretty body shape at all – we are all beautiful, regardless of our shapes and forms! The main thing is to feel good, active and fulfilled.

Conclusion

Plant-based nutrition has tremendous potential. However, when you go vegan, your diet does not automatically become healthy. This is where such loopholes for arguing against veganism come from. However, you must admit – you cannot compare the health of a young with the health of an old. Just as you cannot compare the health of a person who does sports and strives to have balanced nutrition (non-vegan) with a vegan who does not care that much about his/her own health, but more about the destiny of animals on the planet. This kind of activism may mean that he/she may not devote time to sports and cooking at home! Everyone has his own purpose, and the word “vegan” is not a synonym to “healthy”. And generally vegans don’t have to be healthy – nobody has to! It’s a choice.

Another thing is that a vegan can actually be healthier than anyone else if he/she balances his/her diet.

After another webinar with a Russian nutritionist (a very experienced, educated, beautiful woman), I realized that the main problem now is the lack of knowledge about veganism. People just don’t know that a vegan diet CAN be balanced, so they don’t even look behind the scenes to figure it out. We were talking about the same things: the same functions of the liver, the role of fats, proteins and carbohydrates, the role of glucose, insulin, and so-so on. But instant reaction is always categorical: “It will be difficult for you, since vegan diet cannot be balanced.” Yes, this is not a well-trodden path, but it leads to the right place! If only people could be a bit more open-minded … than who knows… nutritionists around the world would stop being afraid to talk about vegan diet and would give their clients a full-fledged CHOICE.

Useful links:

YouTube Video: Dr. Barnard: Cutting Through the Cholesterol Confusion

Article: Physicians Committee: Lowering Cholesterol With a Plant-Based Diet

Article: Livekindly: How Do Vegans Get Cholesterol?

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Anastassiya Vizzini

I am Anastassiya - Vegan Nutritionist, author and administrator of the Vizzini Journal. I have been vegan since 2017 and I feel the urge to contribute into development of this movement. It is my sincere belief that maintaining vegan lifestyle is something truly self-loving. And I think that self-love is the strongest tool you can use to change the world around you for the better.

2 thoughts to “High cholesterol levels on vegetarian and vegan diets”

  1. “And generally vegans don’t have to be healthy – nobody has to! It’s a choice.“ loved it so much! Nastya, thank you so much for this article, I finally have clarity in my head about HDL and LDL!

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