Many associate cholesterol fats with poor dietary soundness, but there are benefits to this waxy-substance that often go unmentioned.
This article collates information from several resources and studies to help develop your understanding of a plant based diet and cholesterol.
From why we need it, how plant-based and whole-food diets can help us to lower 'bad' LDL cholesterol to the roles of various food sources such as oats and soy.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, whiteish-yellow fatty substance capable of travelling through the bloodstream catalysed by the liver.
It is not inherently malicious.
Your body does need some!
Cholesterol is found in all the cells in the body, comes in different forms and is vital to many bodily functions.
Those following a plant based diet will experience lower intake as plant-based foods contain no cholesterol.
However, we will all still have plenty in our bodies - even if we follow a vegan diet.
Why is Cholesterol Demonised?
Cholesterol has earned a bad reputation due to its association with an increased risk of heart disease through build-up within our arteries.
Anything viscous that travels through the bloodstream could represent a significant issue for our organs if a blockage occurs.
Thus, the risk of too much cholesterol in the blood flow presents a subsequent increased risk of atherosclerosis, stroke, heart attack, and blood pressure related issues, including hypertension.
Capable of coagulating in the blood flow, harmful forms of cholesterol can cause a total vessel blockage.
With the leading cause of death being heart disease and the fifth leading cause being stroke, it is vital to reduce these risks and pay more attention to the purported role of cholesterol.
Reported percentages of preventable hospital visits are concerning.
What is the difference between HDL and LDL cholesterol?
Cholesterol is released into the blood, most commonly by the liver, in the form of a lipoprotein (explained below).
Fats cannot travel alone through the blood as the two liquids would separate like oil in water.
A lipoprotein is a protein-covered particle capable of flowing smoothly through the blood.
The commonly mentioned structures are low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density (HDL).
Often people refer to LDL as the 'bad' cholesterol and HDL (high-density lipoproteins) as the 'good'.
LDL is abundant in meat and dairy, with none consumed on plant based diets.
The purported danger of artery-clogging cholesterol build-up with LDL opposes the association with HDL and an improvement.
What are the Health Benefits of Cholesterol, and Why Do We Need It?
While your doctor's concern is excessive LDL, higher HDL levels may prove beneficial against heart disease.
HDL cholesterol reportedly helps to clear the arteries of LDL.
In other words, the 'good' could help to reduce the 'bad'.
To that end, you could declare that specific cholesterol types are beneficial for artery health.
On top of the potential for improved cardiovascular health, various processes in the body use cholesterol.
Our bodies need cholesterol to produce vitamin D, certain hormones and bile acids.
Without vitamin D our immune system can suffer, in addition to bone and structural strength.
Testosterone and oestrogen - vital for reproductive health - are just two of the hormones produced in the presence of cholesterol.
Finally, producing bile acids needs cholesterol.
Bile acids help the digestive system absorb fats and fat-soluble vitamins in the gut.
Bile acids assisting vitamin uptake evidence an invaluable benefit brought about by cholesterol on which our survival depends.
Can the whole-food plant-based diet reduce LDL cholesterol?
Diet can impact your cholesterol levels.
The body produces what it needs.
Therefore any excess is just that - excess!
While we need LDL and HDL, the saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol levels found in meat, dairy and eggs represent a risk.
On the other hand, whole plant-based foods are much lower in these fats and free from cholesterol.
Additionally, plant-based diets boast higher fibre content when compared with omnivorous food sources.
According to PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine), "soluble fibre slows the absorption of cholesterol and reduces the amount of cholesterol the liver produces."
PCRM also note a review of nearly 50 studies comparing plant-based and omnivorous diets, which found that plant-based diets are best for lowering cholesterol levels.
Those who continued to consume fish and chicken continued to worsen their condition.
The worsening is despite "expert" recommendations for fish and chicken for those with high LDL.
One study - University of Toronto - saw a reduction in LDL of 30% in just one month.
The foods included were whole-food plant-based - soy, oats, nuts, almonds, brussels sprouts, wheat germ and more.
Where Do We Get Cholesterol? Is it Produced in The Body?
Cholesterol is produced in the body by the intestines and the liver.
The liver and intestines produce 80% of the total cholesterol in the body, with only 20% from food sources in omnivores.
Our bodies produce such a quantity that we do not need to consume any extra through our diet.
The movement of cholesterol throughout the body is primarily a communication of lipids between the gut, liver and bloodstream.
Plant-Based Diets are Cholesterol Free.
Plant foods are free from cholesterol and typically rich in soluble fibre content.
Plant-based diets could help reduce the amount of LDL (reportedly harmful) cholesterol.
Lower Cholesterol and Increase 'Beneficial' Cholesterol with a Balanced, Plant-Based Lifestyle
- Exercise for 30-minutes, five times per week, has been associated with reduced LDL and supported HDL.
- Avoid tobacco as smoking can reduce HDL and increase LDL.
- Making dietary improvements such as including whole plant-based foods, reducing saturated fats, sugars, and processed foods can improve cholesterol issues.
- Limit alcohol as much as possible - ideally all together.
Sources & Further Reading
The following articles, resources and studies have either been used for research purposes in the writing of this article or as suggested furthering reading.
1 - Royal Society of Chemistry Journal Article: 'Processing of oat: the impact on oat's cholesterol lowering effect'
2 - National Library of Medicine: 'Cholesterol-lowering effects of oat β-glucan'
3 - Brian Krans as published on Healthline: 'The Benefits of Cholesterol and How to Increase HDL Levels'
4 - LiveKindly: 'How Do Vegans Get Cholesterol?'
5 - Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: 'Lowering Cholesterol With a Plant-Based Diet'
6 - Harvard Medical School: 'How it’s made: Cholesterol production in your body'
7 - The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: 'Cholesterol-lowering effects of dietary fibre: a meta-analysis'
8 - Stephanie Watson as published on Healthline: 'Where Does Cholesterol Come From?'