Although many people transition to a vegan diet for ethical or environmental reasons, some do so to improve their health.
In fact, vegan diets are associated with a long list of health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer (
However, many people are unsure whether a vegan diet can affect their levels of cholesterol, a waxy, fat-like substance that can build up in your arteries and contribute to heart disease (
This article evaluates the evidence to determine whether a vegan diet promotes high or low cholesterol levels.
Vegan diets are a type of eating pattern that eliminates all animal products, including meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy, and honey.
Instead, vegan diets typically encourage plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Multiple studies show that vegan diets are linked to lower cholesterol levels.
In fact, according to one review of 49 studies, vegan and vegetarian diets were associated with lower levels of total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, compared with omnivorous diets (
Another review of 40 studies observed similar findings, reporting that vegans typically have a lower body mass index (BMI) and lower LDL cholesterol, triglyceride, blood sugar, and blood pressure levels than omnivores (
Some research also suggests that plant-based eating patterns may be beneficial for reducing risk factors of heart disease, such as atherosclerosis, which is characterized by the buildup of excess cholesterol and fatty plaque in the arteries (
Many studies show that vegan diets are linked to lower cholesterol levels and reduced risk factors for heart disease.
Although studies show that saturated fat on its own is not linked to a higher risk of heart disease, it may be linked to increased LDL (bad) cholesterol levels (
Therefore, following a well-planned vegan diet could help lower cholesterol levels.
That said, many vegan-friendly foods are highly processed and may contain excessive amounts of added sugar, sodium, trans fats, and artificial ingredients.
Studies show that increased consumption of processed foods may be linked to higher total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, as well as a higher risk of conditions like high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome (
Healthy vegan diets eliminate many foods that may increase cholesterol while encouraging nutritious, fiber-rich foods. Yet, many vegan-friendly foods are highly processed, which could be linked to increased cholesterol levels.
The best way to lower your cholesterol levels on a vegan diet is to limit your consumption of processed foods like convenience meals, chips, cookies, crackers, and processed meat substitutes.
Instead, opt for nutritious whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
These foods are not only rich in a variety of important vitamins and minerals but also high in dietary fiber, which can support healthy cholesterol levels (
Adding more heart-healthy unsaturated fatty acids to your diet may also be beneficial, as research suggests that unsaturated fats could help lower cholesterol levels and protect against heart disease (
Ingredients like olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados are a few examples of nutritious foods that are high in unsaturated fatty acids.
Enjoying various nutritious whole foods and eating more unsaturated fatty acids could help reduce cholesterol levels on a vegan diet.
While vegan diets can be nutritious, not all vegan-friendly foods are created equal.
Foods to eat
Ideally, a well-balanced vegan diet should comprise mostly whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains.
Here are some examples of foods to eat to lower your cholesterol levels on a vegan diet:
- Fruits: apples, oranges, berries, kiwi, melons, pears, peaches
- Vegetables: spinach, beets, cauliflower, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, avocados
- Whole grains: oats, barley, buckwheat, brown rice, whole wheat
- Nuts: almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans, macadamia nuts
- Seeds: pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds
- Legumes: chickpeas, lentils, black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans
- Plant-based proteins: tofu, tempeh, nutritional yeast
- Healthy fats: olive oil, avocado oil, flaxseed oil
- Seasonings: black pepper, turmeric, cumin, cayenne pepper, basil, rosemary
- Beverages: water, tea, coffee, almond milk, flavored water
Foods to avoid
Highly processed vegan foods are often high in added sugar, sodium, and artificial ingredients and may increase your cholesterol levels.
Here are some foods you should limit to reduce your cholesterol levels on a vegan diet:
- Salty snacks: chips, crackers, pretzels, microwave popcorn
- Sweets: baked goods, cakes, cookies, cupcakes, candies
- Processed meat substitutes: vegan deli meats, sausage, soy burgers
- Convenience items: fast food, frozen meals, protein bars
- Beverages: sweet tea, soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, fruit juice
A healthy vegan diet should comprise nutrient-dense whole foods and limit most processed ingredients.
In addition to modifying your diet, you can take several other steps to lower your cholesterol levels.
Here are some simple strategies you can try:
- Exercise. Several studies suggest that regular physical activity could help support healthy cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease (
12, 13, 14).
- Stop smoking. According to some older studies, smoking cigarettes could negatively affect total and HDL (good) cholesterol (
- Limit alcohol consumption. Some research shows that heavy drinking may be associated with increased triglyceride and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels (
- Consider using an omega-3 supplement. Plenty of vegan omega-3 supplements are available, and taking them may help reduce your triglyceride levels, increase your HDL (good) cholesterol, and improve blood vessel function (
Exercising, taking an omega-3 supplement, quitting smoking, and limiting your alcohol consumption are a few strategies that can help reduce your cholesterol levels on a vegan diet.
Vegan diets are generally associated with lower cholesterol levels, along with several other health benefits.
However, not all vegan-friendly foods are considered healthy, and some processed vegan foods may contribute to increased cholesterol levels.
Choosing nutrient-dense whole foods, eating more heart-healthy fats, and limiting your consumption of processed foods can help decrease your cholesterol levels and maximize the potential benefits of a vegan diet.