Let’s talk about cholesterol and vegan diets

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Our Dietitian Heather gives you the lowdown on vegan diets and cholesterol for National Cholesterol Month. 

Fruit and veg in heart shape

This year, the theme of HEART UK’s National Cholesterol Month is “Let’s Talk About Cholesterol”. This got me thinking about how vegans might be affected by issues relating to cholesterol and heart health. It’s also a great opportunity to introduce some new resources geared towards people with high cholesterol. 

Why is cholesterol important? 

Your liver makes cholesterol, a fatty substance which is found in the membranes of every cell in your body. It is used to make vitamin D, hormones and bile, which helps you to digest fats.  

It’s normal to have cholesterol in your blood but a high level increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes. According to HEART UK, half of UK adults have raised cholesterol. Lifestyle changes can help people to lower and maintain their cholesterol levels. 

Are vegans affected by cholesterol issues? 

The short answer is yes! Some people think that vegans don’t need to worry about their cholesterol levels because they don’t consume dietary cholesterol, which is found in animal products. In reality, there are many dietary and non-dietary factors that affect our risk of high cholesterol, including some that we can’t influence like our age, family background and genes.  

It’s becoming increasingly easy for vegans to consume diets high in saturated fat, which can lead to high cholesterol. This is partly due to the popularity of coconut products and heavy use of saturated fats like coconut, palm and shea oils in the manufacturer of some vegan alternatives, such as plant-based butter and cheese and some convenience foods. Eating these products regularly can have a significant effect on the overall quality of our diets because they tend to add saturated fat, sugar and salt and push out healthier choices.  

Regarding the wider aspects of heart health, vitamin B12 is a nutrient to consider. This is because low B12 status can result in a high homocysteine level, which has been linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. Make sure that your vegan diet follows our guidelines about B12-fortified foods or supplementation. 

Can vegan diets help to protect heart health? 

Guidelines about heart-healthy eating tend to encourage the consumption of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, beans, peas, lentils and nuts. People are also encouraged to replace saturated fats with plant-derived unsaturated fats, such as peanuts, nuts, seeds, avocado and small amounts of vegetable (rapeseed) and olive oils and vegetable spreads. Vegan diets make the most room for these plant foods and research suggests that this way of eating can help people to consume more beneficial fibre and limit saturated fat, as well as eating plenty of fruit and vegetables. 

The authors of the EPIC-Oxford study found that vegans had lower cholesterol levels compared with people eating omnivorous diets. They concluded that the vegans may have been benefiting from differences in both diet and body mass index, which is a measure of how your weight compares to the healthy range for your height. 

The Ultimate Cholesterol Lowering Plan© 

Well-planned vegan diets have many heart-friendly qualities and fit well with the guidelines of the Ultimate Cholesterol Lowering Plan© (UCLP©) offered by HEART UK. We have collaborated with their nutrition experts to create a vegan version of the UCLP© aimed at people with high cholesterol. The checklist and fact sheet have been made available at heartuk.org.uk/uclp to help get people talking about vegan diets and cholesterol during National Cholesterol Month and beyond. 

For general information about making the most of your vegan diet, check out our nutrition zone

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