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Plant-Based Diets and Your Cholesterol

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on June 15, 2021

A plant-based diet could benefit your heart in a big way. It might help bring your cholesterol numbers down, along with your chances of getting heart disease someday.

“What’s really cool is that the more plant-based you go, and the more you’re able to embrace vegetarian-style eating, you’re going to get those positive impacts a little bit sooner,” says Libby Mills, a registered dietitian and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

A plant-based diet can mean you mainly fill up on foods that come from plants but still eat a few foods that come from animals. You don’t have to fully go vegetarian (cutting out all meat, fish, and poultry) or vegan (avoiding anything that comes from animals, including eggs and dairy). But you can do so if you want; just be careful to get all the nutrients you need.

The key is to eat a variety of heart-friendly, plant-based foods like:

Plant-Based Health Perks

“What we know is that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol both contribute to raising cholesterol levels in the blood,” says Penny M. Kris-Etherton, PhD, RDN, the Evan Pugh University Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State and a fellow of the American Heart Association. That’s why cutting back on things like fatty meats can help lower your cholesterol.

Eating more fiber-rich foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes can also lower your numbers, she says.

“We should be getting like 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day,” Mills adds. “A quarter of that should come from the soluble fibers," which include foods like apples, blueberries, beans, nuts, and seeds. Getting about 5 to 10 grams of soluble fiber a day can help lower your LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, by 5 to 11 points, sometimes more, Mills says.

Plant-based foods like whole grains or fruits and veggies also have healthy substances called sterols. “Eating 2 grams of sterols each day can help lower your LDL cholesterol by 5% to 10%,” she says.

Is One Diet Better for Cholesterol?

You might wonder if a certain diet could give you a cholesterol-lowering edge. For instance, is it best to become a traditional vegetarian? Or would a vegan diet be better for your heart?

It may depend on you and your health. Kris-Etherton says some people could see benefits from a vegetarian or vegan diet. But many people can improve their health with a diet that includes nutritious animal-based foods.

“I’m a strong advocate of seafood,” Kris-Etherton says. “It has all sorts of health benefits. And so, eating a lot of plant-based foods and seafood can be really very healthy.”

Low- or nonfat dairy products can also be part of a nutritious eating plan, she says.

Plant-Based Pitfalls

Just because a certain food fits into a plant-based diet doesn’t mean it’s healthy for you.

Kris-Etherton recommends cutting back on:

  • Ultra-processed foods, which often come in a bag or a box
  • Tropical oils, like coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils
  • Sugary foods, including honey

When you buy packaged foods, check the label. Your favorite plant-based ice cream, for example, might have a lot of coconut oil, coconut fat, and sugar, Kris-Etherton says.

Mills says that eating or drinking too many refined carbs, like sodas and other sugary drinks, could raise levels of blood fats called triglycerides -- and that would raise your overall cholesterol.

Also avoid foods that include trans fats, which raise “bad” cholesterol while lowering HDL, or “good” cholesterol, she says. You can find trans fats in items like:

  • Stick margarine
  • Shortening
  • Processed sweets
  • Baked goods
  • Foods made with hydrogenated oils

Talk to an Expert

If you decide to start a plant-based eating plan, do your research to make sure you’re getting a complete, balanced diet. You also might want to talk to a registered dietitian.

“A dietitian will be able to make sure that you’re getting the right amount of calories,” Mills says. “But maybe more importantly, as you begin swapping food choices out, the dietitian will help make sure that you’re meeting your nutrient needs. This would cover protein as well as nutrients that, the more plant-based you go, you could be at greater risk of getting not quite enough of: B-12, iron, zinc, [or] omega-3 fatty acids.”

If you have a health condition, talk with your doctor before you give your eating habits a major overhaul and go fully vegan. They can make sure that it’s safe.

“Anybody who has a medical condition really should first ask their doctor about following a total plant-based diet and see what the doctor says,” Kris-Etherton recommends.

“Kidney patients have to be careful because they have to watch their potassium in their diet, and fruits and vegetables are loaded with potassium. Also, people who are taking Coumadin, which is a blood thinner, have to be really careful about eating foods that are high in vitamin K -- and all these leafy greens are just loaded with vitamin K,” she says.

WebMD Feature

Sources

SOURCES:

Penny M. Kris-Etherton, PhD, RDN, LDN, Evan Pugh University Professor of Nutritional Sciences, Penn State; fellow, American Heart Association.

Libby Mills, RD, LDN, FAND, national spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

EatRight.org: “Vegetarianism: The Basic Facts.”

American Heart Association: “Prevention and Treatment of High Cholesterol (Hyperlipidemia),” “Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults.”

MD Anderson Cancer Center: “5 benefits of a plant-based diet.”

Piedmont Health Care: “The difference between a vegan and a plant-based diet.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Going Vegan 101.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “What is a plant-based diet and why should you try it?”

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