Can a plant-based diet improve your cholesterol?

What you eat each day may have an effect on your cholesterol levels.

If your cholesterol level is high, changing your diet may help control your numbers without medication — or may help your cholesterol-lowering medications work better. One dietary change you might consider to lower cholesterol is a vegetarian (vegan) diet. Plant-based diets are usually lower in saturated fat and higher in fiber than diets that contain a lot of animal products, both of which can help improve cholesterol levels.

But before you jump upside down to a vegan diet, remember that just because food comes from a plant rather than an animal doesn’t make it healthy. Soda, potato chips, and many snack foods may be vegan, but they’re not good for you, and likely won’t improve your cholesterol.

What plant foods should I watch out for?

Here are some plant foods that seem healthy, but may not be good for you:

    • Meatless burgers: Veggie burgers can be a healthy and delicious alternative to meat, but some brands are highly processed and full of additives and sodium. They may also have more fat and calories than a regular burger. Read labels carefully.
    • Frozen vegetarian meals: Check the first ingredient in your meatless entree before taking a bite. Beans, legumes, quinoa, and hemp are healthy sources of plant-based protein and should top the list. If there is more than 500 mg of sodium per serving or a lot of ingredients you can’t pronounce, you may want to find something healthy to eat.
    • Vegetarian desserts: Just because the candy doesn’t contain butter or eggs, it doesn’t make it good for you. Plant-based products may instead contain starches, gum, and pectin. They may also contain more sugar, fat, and calories than non-vegetarian sweets.
    • vegetable chips: We want to think vegetable chips are healthier than potato chips, but any food that’s fried in oil and loaded with salt isn’t healthy. If you can’t resist potato chips, look for cabbage chips, beets, or very lightly seasoned carrots, or better yet, make your own.

What plant foods are part of a healthy diet?

The benefits of a plant-based diet based on whole foods is that it usually contains less saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, which helps keep cholesterol levels low. It also contains a lot of fiber that also helps in regulating cholesterol levels. However, it is important to make sure that you are still getting the important nutrients that you normally get from meat, such as protein, iron and vitamin B12. Here are some essential foods to make part of your daily meal plan:

    • Beans, legumes, peas, and whole food sources of soybeans, such as tofu, tempeh, and edamame, are rich sources of protein, along with some whole grains, seeds, and nuts.
    • Dried beans, spinach, and dried fruits help increase iron levels.
    • Nutritional yeast, as well as soy milk and cereals fortified with vitamin B12, provide much-needed vitamin B12.

You don’t need to take an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to deciding whether or not to follow a vegan diet. Even if you eat meat occasionally, or only eat some types of animal foods, such as fish or eggs, you will reap the benefits from adding more plant foods to your diet. That is, as long as you choose whole plant foods and not overly processed foods which may not be healthy at all.