Lowering Cholesterol with Whole-Food Diets
June 28, 2021 by Samuel Anthony
Cholesterol is likely something you have come to associate with poor dietary health, 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 what cholesterol is, why we need it, how plant-based and whole-food diets can help us to lower 'bad' LDL cholesterol and the roles of various food sources such as oats and soy.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, whiteish-yellow fatty substance that is capable of travelling through the bloodstream thanks to the liver.
It is not inherently bad - and 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.
Why is cholesterol seen as 'bad'?
Cholesterol has earned a bad reputation due to its association with an increased risk of heart disease through build-up within our arteries.
As with anything that travels through the bloodstream, if a blockage occurs this can be a major, often fatal, issue for our bodies organs. 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 blockage.
With the leading cause of death being heart disease, and the fifth leading cause being stroke, it is clearly important to reduce these risks and pay more attention to the role of cholesterol.
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). This is due to the fact that fats cannot travel alone through the blood as they would separate much like oil in water.
A lipoprotein is a protein-covered particle capable of flowing more easily through the blood.
The most commonly discussed, and relevant in this case, are LDL (low-density lipoproteins) and HDL (high-density lipoproteins).
Often people refer to LDL (low-density lipoproteins) as the 'bad' cholesterol and HDL (high-density lipoproteins) as the 'good'.
This is because while LDL has been associated with the artery-clogging cholesterol build-up, HDL has been associated with an improvement.
What are the health benefits of cholesterol and why do we need it?
While your doctor may be concerned over raised LDL cholesterol due to its increase to your heart attack risk, higher levels of HDL may prove beneficial against heart disease.
HDL cholesterol helps to clear the arteries of LDL. In other words, the 'good' can help to reduce the 'bad'.
To that end, you can say that certain cholesterol is actually beneficial for artery health.
On top of the potential for improved cardiovascular health, cholesterol is used for various processes in the body.
Our bodies need cholesterol to produce vitamin D, certain hormones and bile acids.
Without vitamin D our immune system can suffer, as well as certain structural components of the body including bone strength.
Testosterone and oestrogen - vital for reproductive health - are just two of the hormones produced in the presence of cholesterol.
Finally, bile acids need cholesterol in order to be produced. These are used by the digestive system in assisting with the absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins in the gut. This evidences yet another invaluable benefit brought about by cholesterol which our survival greatly depends on.
Can the whole-food plant-based diet reduce LDL cholesterol?
Diet can greatly impact your cholesterol levels.
As we know, the body produces what it needs, therefore any excess is just that - excess!
While it is true that we do need some of both LDL and HDL, the saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol found in meat, dairy and eggs have been associated with raising internal total cholesterol into dangerous zones.
On the other hand, whole plant-based foods are typically much lower in these fats and are free from cholesterol - all while boasting much 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 despite this being included in some of the recommendations 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.
Of those following an omnivorous diet, 80% of the total cholesterol in the body is produced by the liver and intestines with only 20% coming from food sources.
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 higher in soluble fibre content. This means they can help to reduce the amount of LDL (bad) cholesterol.
How to lower 'bad' cholesterol and boost 'good' cholesterol with a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
- Exercise for 30 minutes, five times a week has been associated with reduced LDL and supported HDL.
- Avoid tobacco as smoking can reduce HDL (the 'good' guy) and thus increase LDL.
- Make dietary improvements such as including more whole plant-based foods, reducing saturated fats, sugars and processed foods can improve cholesterol issues.
- Limit alcohol as much as possible - ideally altogether.
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?'
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