You’ve been following a strict vegan diet for years now, so you figure your cholesterol levels must be pristine, right? Think again. Even vegans can have high cholesterol. How is that possible, you ask? Turns out there are a few hidden causes of high cholesterol on vegan diet can effect your health. Before you go blaming genetics, check out some of the sneaky lifestyle and dietary habits that could be spiking your cholesterol, even on an otherwise healthy vegan diet. The good news is, once you pinpoint the culprits, you can make simple changes to get your cholesterol back on track and reap all the health benefits a vegan diet has to offer.
Understanding High Cholesterol on a Vegan Diet
Many vegans are surprised to find their cholesterol levels rising despite avoiding all animal products. Here are some possible reasons why:
Hidden cholesterol sources
Some foods actually contain small amounts of cholesterol despite being plant-based. Coconut milk, cocoa, and palm kernel oil all contain saturated fat that can raise cholesterol. While the amounts are tiny, consuming these foods regularly and in large portions may have an effect over time.
Trans fats are unsaturated fats that have been hydrogenated, causing them to become solid at room temperature. Found in many processed and fried foods like donuts, cookies, chips and frozen dinners, trans fats are known to increase LDL or “bad” cholesterol and lower HDL or “good” cholesterol. Check nutrition labels and avoid anything with “partially hydrogenated oil”.
Lack of cholesterol-lowering foods
Including foods that actively lower cholesterol is just as important as avoiding those that raise it. Oats, beans, nuts and seeds are excellent sources of soluble fiber, plant sterols and stanols that help flush cholesterol from the body. Leafy greens, broccoli and tomatoes provide antioxidants that protect arteries. Avocados, olive oil and flax seeds have heart-healthy fats that can help balance cholesterol levels. Make sure to eat several servings of these foods each day.
Some people are simply born with higher cholesterol levels due to family history and genetics. If high cholesterol runs in your family, you may need to be extra vigilant with diet and exercise. In some cases, medication may also be necessary to get cholesterol into a healthy range, even with the best lifestyle habits. Talk to your doctor about the options.
By understanding the possible causes of high cholesterol on a vegan diet and making adjustments, you can get your levels under control and maintain a healthy heart. Keep eating your veggies, cut out harmful fats, add cholesterol-fighting foods and don’t hesitate to ask your doctor for guidance. Your heart will thank you!
Hidden Causes of High Cholesterol for Vegans
As a vegan, you’re doing great things for your health and the planet. But did you know your diet could still be causing high cholesterol? It’s true. Here are a few hidden causes of high cholesterol for vegans:
Too much saturated fat
Just because it’s plant-based doesn’t mean it’s low in saturated fat. Coconut oil, palm oil, and cocoa butter are vegan but high in saturated fat which raises cholesterol. Limit these and choose vegetable oils, nuts, and avocados as better fat sources.
Not enough fiber
Fiber helps lower cholesterol, so if you’re not getting enough from beans, oats, vegetables and fruits, your levels can creep up. Most vegans need at least 25-30 grams of fiber per day. Add more high-fiber foods at each meal.
Being overweight also contributes to high cholesterol. If you’re carrying extra pounds, losing weight can help bring your cholesterol into a healthy range. Focus on eating more whole plant foods, watching portion sizes and staying active.
Some people are born with a tendency for high cholesterol due to family history. If heart disease runs in your family, you may need to be extra vigilant about diet and lifestyle, and in some cases, medication. Talk to your doctor about the best approach based on your personal risk factors.
The good news is, for most vegans high cholesterol is preventable by following a balanced nutritious diet, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting certain fats, and staying active. By understanding and addressing these hidden causes, you’ll be well on your way to optimal cholesterol levels and heart health.
Eating Too Many Processed Foods
One of the biggest culprits contributing to high cholesterol on a vegan diet is eating too many processed foods. While a vegan diet centered around whole foods like fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes can be very healthy, relying too heavily on packaged vegan products may sabotage your efforts.
Many meat and dairy alternatives are highly processed and contain coconut or palm oil, which are high in saturated fat—the type of fat that raises your cholesterol the most. Things like vegan cheese, butter, creamer and ice cream should only be occasional treats. Opt for nut-based milks, spreads and yogurts instead, and use oils with better fatty acid profiles like olive oil for cooking and baking.
Processed vegan foods are also usually loaded with refined carbohydrates, like white flour and sugar. These “empty calorie” carbs spike blood sugar, promote inflammation and may elevate triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood that contributes to high cholesterol. Choose whole grains, starchy veggies, and legumes as your main sources of carbohydrates. Limit sweets, even if they’re vegan.
Lack of Fiber
Fiber binds to cholesterol in your gut and helps remove it from your body before it can enter your bloodstream. Most vegans easily get enough fiber, but if you’re relying on faux meats and cheeses, your fiber intake may be lacking. Aim for at least 25-30 grams of fiber per day from foods like beans, broccoli, oats, nuts and seeds. Consider a fiber supplement if needed.
Hidden Animal Products
Some processed vegan foods contain ingredients like whey, casein, egg whites or honey—which are animal-derived. Carefully check ingredients lists and avoid anything with “milk solids,” “hydrolyzed protein” or “natural flavors.” Only choose products clearly labeled as 100% plant-based or vegan.
By focusing on whole plant foods and limiting packaged products, you can lower your cholesterol on a vegan diet. Be vigilant about reading nutrition labels and ingredients, choose healthy fats and high-fiber options, and your vegan diet can still be good for your heart.
Not Enough Fiber in Your Diet
A vegan diet can be healthy, but it may lack certain nutrients like fiber that are essential for digestive and heart health. Fiber helps promote regularity, lowers cholesterol, and helps you feel full. If your vegan diet is low in high-fiber foods, it could be raising your cholesterol levels.
Not Enough Fiber-Rich Foods
Are you eating enough fiber-rich plant foods like beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, spinach, avocados, and nut butters? These foods are packed with soluble fiber that helps lower LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Soluble fiber binds to cholesterol in your gut and helps excrete it from the body before it can enter the bloodstream.
Aim for 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day from a variety of these foods. Some easy ways to boost your fiber include:
- Adding 1/2 cup of beans to your salad
- Snacking on a handful of nuts or nut butter
- Choosing high-fiber whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa and brown rice over refined grains
- Adding an extra vegetable to each meal
If you’re coming up short, consider taking a vegan fiber supplement like psyllium husk or wheat bran to help make up the difference.
Too Many Refined Grains and Oils
Are refined grains and high omega-6 oils like canola, soybean or corn oil making up a large part of your vegan diet? These foods are low in fiber and may promote inflammation in the body. Inflammation is linked to high cholesterol and other heart disease risks.
Limit refined grains like white rice and white flour products. Choose whole grains, nuts, and seeds instead. Use olive oil or avocado oil for cooking and dressings. They have a better balance of omega-3 fatty acids and healthy monounsaturated fats.
Making some simple swaps to boost fiber and limit inflammation-promoting foods can help lower your cholesterol and keep your heart healthy on a vegan diet. Eating more beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, spinach, avocados, nut butters, and high-fiber whole grains, while limiting refined grains and unhealthy oils, may be all you need to get your cholesterol back on track.
Too Much Sugar and Refined Carbs
One of the biggest culprits contributing to high cholesterol on a vegan diet is too much sugar and refined carbohydrate intake. Those seemingly “healthy” smoothies, juices, and vegan treats often contain a ton of added sugar, syrups, and refined flours which can negatively impact your cholesterol levels.
Limit Added Sugars
The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 6 teaspoons (100 calories or 25 grams) per day for most women, and 9 teaspoons (150 calories or 38 grams) per day for most men. Many vegan products like non-dairy milks, nut butters, protein bars, and sweetened beverages contain a surprising amount of added sugar. Read nutrition labels carefully and choose unsweetened or low-sugar options whenever possible.
Choose Whole Grains Over Refined
Refined grains like white flour and white rice have had most of their fiber and other nutrients stripped away, leaving mostly empty calories. These high-glycemic foods can cause spikes and crashes in blood sugar, increase inflammation in the body, and raise cholesterol levels. Opt for minimally processed whole grains such as oats, brown rice, quinoa, and millet instead.
Limit Starchy Vegetables
While starchy veggies like potatoes, corn, and peas absolutely have a place in a balanced vegan diet, consuming too many can negatively impact cholesterol and blood sugar. Aim for no more than 1-2 servings of starchy vegetables per day, and balance them out with non-starchy veggies, legumes, and plant-based proteins.
Watch Out for Vegan Junk Food
Just because a product is vegan doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Vegan cookies, chips, frozen dinners, and fast food options are often highly processed and full of refined carbs, sugar, and unhealthy fats that can raise cholesterol. These “vegan junk foods” should only be occasional treats, not dietary staples. Focus on whole, minimally processed plant foods for the bulk of your vegan diet.
By limiting added sugar, choosing whole grains, watching starchy veggies and avoiding vegan junk food, you can help lower your cholesterol and improve your heart health, even on a vegan diet. Making balanced and nutritious choices is key.
Lack of Exercise and Physical Activity
A vegan diet can be healthy, but if you’re not careful, it may lack certain nutrients that can contribute to high cholesterol. One of the biggest culprits is a lack of exercise and physical activity.
When you don’t get enough exercise, your body can convert excess calories into cholesterol and triglycerides, raising your levels. As a vegan, you may need to make an extra effort to get exercise since plant-based diets tend to be less energy-dense. Aim for at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week. This could include:
- Walking, jogging, running
- Yoga or Tai Chi
- Strength or interval training
- Swimming or biking
- Team sports
Any activity that gets your heart pumping and works your muscles can help lower cholesterol. Exercise also helps you maintain a healthy weight, which is key for cholesterol control and heart health.
Staying active and reducing sedentary behaviors like sitting, lying down, and watching screens is so important. If you have a desk job, take regular walking breaks. Trade some TV time for an evening stroll. Look for opportunities each day to just move more. These small changes can have a big impact on your cholesterol and triglyceride levels over time.
Beyond exercise, a few other tips can help ensure your vegan diet promotes healthy cholesterol:
•Eat more high-fiber, cholesterol-lowering foods like beans, oats, and avocados. Aim for 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day.
•Choose healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, and seeds instead of tropical oils and fried foods. Limit high-fat vegan meats and cheeses.
•Lose excess weight which can directly raise cholesterol levels. Even losing 5 to 10 pounds can make a difference.
•Ask your doctor about plant sterols and stanols or other supplements if diet and lifestyle changes are not enough.
•Get blood work done regularly to monitor your cholesterol and make sure your vegan diet plan is working. Adjust as needed under the guidance of your doctor.
With the right balance of nutritious plant-based foods, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle, you can achieve normal cholesterol levels and maintain heart health on a vegan diet. But a lack of physical activity may undermine your efforts, so get moving and make it a priority in your routine.
Genetic Predisposition to High Cholesterol
Genetics can play a significant role in high cholesterol, even for those following a vegan diet. If high cholesterol runs in your family, you may be genetically predisposed to having higher cholesterol levels. Some factors that can contribute include:
This is an inherited condition that makes it difficult for your body to remove low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol from your blood. If you have close family members with high cholesterol or heart disease at an early age, you could be at higher risk. See your doctor about genetic testing and treatment options, which may include statin medications to help lower your LDL levels.
Apolipoprotein E (ApoE) Genotype
Your ApoE genotype is a strong genetic determinant of your cholesterol levels. The ApoE4 variant is associated with higher LDL and lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol. If you carry the ApoE4 allele, focus on lifestyle changes like diet and exercise to help overcome its effects. Limiting saturated fat and cholesterol intake can be particularly beneficial for those with ApoE4.
PCSK9 Gene Variants
Rare variants in the PCSK9 gene can lead to very high LDL cholesterol levels. New medications called PCSK9 inhibitors can help lower LDL in those with these specific genetic mutations. Talk to your doctor about genetic testing to determine if you carry a PCSK9 variant and whether these innovative treatments may be right for you.
While you can’t change your genetics, you can take action to reduce your risk. Maintaining a healthy vegan diet low in saturated fat, exercising regularly, losing excess weight, limiting alcohol, and not smoking can all help lower your cholesterol and support your heart health, even with a genetic predisposition. Be sure to get your cholesterol checked regularly and talk to your doctor about other treatment options if lifestyle changes are not enough. Your genetics are not your destiny—you have the power to significantly impact your cholesterol levels and lifelong wellness.
Undiagnosed Conditions Like Hypothyroidism
Undiagnosed hypothyroidism could be one hidden cause of high cholesterol for vegans. The thyroid gland regulates your metabolism, and if it’s underactive (hypothyroidism), your metabolism slows down. This can cause weight gain and high cholesterol.
Many people with hypothyroidism don’t know they have it. Some symptoms to watch out for include:
- Fatigue and low energy. If you feel constantly drained and tired for no reason, it could be a sign your thyroid isn’t functioning properly.
- Weight gain. Gaining weight even though you haven’t changed your diet or exercise habits can be a symptom of hypothyroidism.
- Depression or mood changes. An underactive thyroid gland can contribute to feelings of sadness, anxiety, irritability or mood swings.
- Sensitivity to cold. Feeling cold all the time or having cold hands and feet could indicate hypothyroidism.
- Constipation. Hypothyroidism can slow digestion and make you prone to constipation or less frequent bowel movements.
If any of these symptoms sound familiar, talk to your doctor. A simple blood test can determine if you have hypothyroidism. Treatment is usually as straightforward as taking a thyroid hormone replacement medication called levothyroxine (Levothroid, Synthroid).
For those already diagnosed with hypothyroidism, make sure you take your medication as prescribed and get regular blood tests to monitor your hormone levels. Uncontrolled hypothyroidism, even when diagnosed, can still contribute to high cholesterol and other health issues.
Other possible undiagnosed conditions that may lead to high cholesterol in vegans include diabetes, liver or kidney disease. The only way to rule these out is through comprehensive testing with your physician. If all other causes have been eliminated, a vegan diet high in saturated fat, trans fats or excess sugar and refined carbs could potentially contribute to elevated cholesterol over time. But first, get checked out by your doctor to determine if an underlying condition may be at play.
High Cholesterol on Vegan Diet FAQs
If you’re following a vegan diet but still have high cholesterol, you may be wondering how this could be. Here are some possible explanations and solutions to try.
Hidden Animal Products
Are you sure you’ve cut out all animal products from your diet? Some less obvious sources of cholesterol include:
- Dairy milk powder or whey protein in protein powders, granola bars, and other packaged foods.
- Egg whites or egg replacer in baked goods. Some brands do contain egg products.
- Fish oil supplements or omega-3 fatty acid supplements derived from fish sources.
- Natural flavors, coloring, or beeswax used in supplements, cosmetics or processed foods. Check with the manufacturer to confirm sources.
Double check ingredient labels and consider contacting companies to inquire about any questionable ingredients. Making your own foods from whole plant-based ingredients is the best way to avoid hidden cholesterol.
Coconut Milk and Oil
While plant-based, coconut milk and coconut oil are high in saturated fat which can raise cholesterol levels, especially LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Limit coconut milk to no more than 1/2 cup per day and coconut oil to no more than 2 tablespoons. Use in moderation.
Weight and Exercise
Being overweight or obese, even on a vegan diet, puts extra strain on your body and heart. Losing excess pounds can help lower your cholesterol. Get at least 30 minutes of exercise like walking, biking or yoga on most days. Exercise reduces stress and helps you achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
Some people are born with a higher tendency for high cholesterol due to family history and genetics. If high cholesterol runs in your family, you may need to be extra vigilant with diet and lifestyle changes. In some cases, medication may also be recommended by your doctor to get cholesterol to a healthy range.
By reviewing the ingredients in your food, using coconut products sparingly, maintaining a healthy weight and staying active, you may be able to lower your cholesterol and improve your heart health, even on a vegan diet. But for some, cholesterol-lowering medication may still be needed in addition to lifestyle changes, especially if there is a strong genetic component. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about your cholesterol levels or heart health.
So there you have it, some of the sneaky reasons your cholesterol may be high even on a vegan diet. Don’t get discouraged if your numbers haven’t improved yet or have even increased since going plant-based. Stick with it – a vegan diet is still one of the best things you can do for your heart and health. Double check that you’re avoiding those hidden sources of cholesterol and saturated fat. Increase your intake of fiber, antioxidants and plant sterols. Stay active and manage your stress. Get enough rest and prioritize self-care. Your heart will thank you, and over time you’ll start to see those numbers come down as your body adapts to this healthy new way of eating. Keep up the good work! You’ve got this.