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Cholesterol in a vegan diet - good or bad?

There is so many questions about cholestrol - is it always bad, or actually needed by our bodies? How to distinguish good from bad cholesterol, and is a vegan diet by definition free from the bad one, or do we need to look critically on what we eat? Time to look at the problem and examine some myths.

Saying that cholesterol is always bad is definitely not true. Cholesterol is an essential fat in our bodies, which takes part in building cell membranes and supports hormone production. We need cholesterol to produce vitamin D. Our bodies can get cholesterol from food we eat, but they also naturally produce cholesterol in the liver. 

There are two ways in which cholesterol is transported around our bodies - as  a low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or as a high-density lipoprotein (HDL). The way they impact our bodies is very different. LDL is often called “bad cholesterol”, because it increases the risk of clogged arteries and a heart attack. HDL on the other hand is inversely correlated with coronary artery disease, because it removes extra cholesterol from arteries and sends it back to the liver which breaks it down and disposes it as a waste product. When we monitor cholesterol in our diet, two parameters are important. Apart from the overall cholesterol level, even more important is the proportion between LDL and HDL. The minimal proportion of the total cholesterol to HDL should be at least 3.5/1. This means that not only lowering LDL, but also actually increasing HDL can have positive health effects. So let’s look at the sources of both of them. Bad cholesterol is present in many animal-based products such as cheese, butter, processed meat, ham etc. Plant-based food does not typically contain cholesterol. Consequently, people on a vegan diet often have lower levels in both types of cholesterol than omnivores. But food is only one of the factors determining our cholesterol level, along with non-diet factors such as age, lifestyle and genes. 

Furthermore, levels of cholesterol in our blood depends not as much on consumed cholesterol, as on saturated fats in diet. Here we need to introduce another duo. Similarly to LDL and HDL, fat also can be “bad” or “good” of blood cholesterol level. Saturated fats are the bad guys, as they increase bad cholesterol levels, LDL, in our blood. So to lower cholesterol level in blood we need to reduce saturated fats. Here we need to start paying attention, because saturated fats are present not only in animal products, but also in some vegan food. The Vegan Society says that vegans should watch saturated fats rich food such as coconut, palm and shea oils, cocoa butter etc. And here is bad news - some vegan products such as vegan cheese, vegan cakes etc contain high amount of saturated fats. Unfortunately we cannot treat all vegan food as guilt free. 

Another type of fats requiring special caution are trans-fats, which raise bad cholesterol level in blood. Naturally they may occur in some animal products, but their main source that vegans need to worry about is hydrogenated vegetable oil created in a process allowing to turn oil solid in room temperature. Hydrogenated oil is used in deep fried food (like fries), as well packaged food, commercial baked food (cakes, muffins, cookies), crisps, refrigerated dough (cinnamon rolls and pizza) and margarine. As you can see, this list includes a lot of our favourite comfort food and the fact that they are vegan do not necessarily make them healthy.

The good news is that there is plenty of healthy vegan food that helps to reduce LDL and increase HDL in our blood, such as:

  • almonds and various types of nuts (also nut milk)
  • flax and chia seeds
  • soy and its products like soy milk and tofu
  • vegetable oil
  • avocados
  • beans and lentils
  • whole grains and oats
  • fiber rich plants like eggplant, okra, carrots, potatoes, Brussel sprouts and leafy greens like spinach
  • fiber rich fruit like prunes, apples and pears
  • pectin rich fruit like grapes, citrus fruit and strawberries
  • purple fruit, including red wine

How you prepare your food can also make a difference. Flax seeds for example should be ground, as as whole seeds cannot be properly digested. Drinking fruit juices will not give the same positive effects as eating whole fruit, because they lose most of the fiber, known for its cholesterol lowering properties (NHS recommends at least 30g fibre per day). And remember about trans-fats and saturated fats - swap roasting or frying to grilling, boiling and steaming. It actually tastes better too!

Finally, looking outside of the kitchen, lowering blood cholesterol level can also be enhanced by regular exercising, quitting smoking and loosing weight. As high cholesterol level may partly be due to gens, people with history of artery disease in family should pay particular attention to their diet and lifestyle.

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