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12 Reasons Why Your Cholesterol May Be High, Even if You're Vegan

Updated: 6 days ago

vegan quinoa burger

Embracing a plant-based lifestyle opens a wide world of culinary possibilities, from mouthwatering vegan pizzas to indulgent plant-based burgers. With a tasty array of options like vegan brie cheese and mushroom chicken, going vegan has never been easier. Even BBQs and ice cream socials are a breeze with BYOVF (bring your own vegan food). In today's convenience food landscape, fast-food joints cater to vegans too, reflecting a growing trend towards plant-based eating. Yet, despite the heart-healthy reputation of plant-based diets, cholesterol levels can still pose a concern for some vegans. In this article, we'll explore the dynamics of cholesterol in the body, how certain vegan foods might impact cholesterol levels, lifestyle habits that can influence cholesterol, and the significance of whole plant-based foods in maintaining optimal cholesterol levels.

What is cholesterol? 

doctor and patient

Cholesterol is typically associated with negative outcomes, however, it's actually an important compound your body makes on its own. Cholesterol is a fatty, waxy substance made by your liver and serves key functions in the body, including hormone and vitamin D production, as well as cell membrane formation. Despite its essential roles, excessive intake from external sources can disrupt the balance, leading to elevated cholesterol levels and heightened heart disease risk.

Understanding your cholesterol levels empowers you to safeguard your well-being. While there is not an ideal target blood level for LDL, the American Heart Association states that “lower is better.” Studies suggest that optimal total cholesterol levels are less than 200 mg/dL. Lifestyle choices, such as diet and exercise, play pivotal roles in maintaining ideal cholesterol levels. Two primary types of cholesterol impact heart health differently:

LDL (low-density lipoprotein), dubbed the 'bad' cholesterol, carries cholesterol throughout the body via apolipoprotein B, potentially leading to health complications when levels are high. Elevated LDL cholesterol serves as a key indicator of heart disease and stroke risk.

Conversely, HDL (high-density lipoprotein), referred to as the 'good' cholesterol, contains apolipoprotein A and facilitates the removal of cholesterol from tissues and transports it to the liver for disposal. Adequate levels of HDL cholesterol may contribute to heart health preservation.

For healthy individuals, target LDL cholesterol levels fall below 100 mg/dL, while HDL levels aim for above 50 mg/dL in women and above 60 mg/dL in men. For individuals with a history of heart disease, aiming for LDL levels less than 70 mg/dL may be best. Additionally, monitoring triglyceride levels, which should ideally remain below 150 mg/dL, is crucial, as both elevated triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, elevate the risk of heart disease.

12 Reasons Why Your Cholesterol May Be High, Even if You're Vegan

healthy salad

Are you noticing stubbornly high cholesterol levels despite sticking to a predominantly plant-based diet? The culprit might lie in the realm of ultra-processed foods, plant-based alternatives, inadequate whole plant foods, or other lifestyle factors, some of which may surprise you!

Below, you will find 12 reasons why your cholesterol may be high, even if you're vegan and feel like you're doing all the right things.

1. You swapped out traditional meat and dairy for vegan meat and cheese.

Don't get me wrong, I will advocate for plant-based alternatives to traditional meat and dairy all day. Studies show that the dietary fiber found in plant-based meat may actually improve gut health compared to traditional meat. And, there is lots of evidence showing that plant-based foods fare significantly better for the planet since most plants require less resources to grow and contribute significantly less to air and fresh water pollution. However, many plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are made with coconut oil, which is loaded with saturated fat, the main type of fat that is also found in animal products and contributes to high cholesterol.

vegan sandwich
photo credit: Unsplash, roam in color

Plant-Based Meat and Cheese Tip

Swapping out traditional meat and dairy with plant-based meat and dairy may be better for health and is definitely better for the planet. However, limit consumption of these products to a couple of times a week rather than a couple of times a day.

2. You're consuming coconut-based vegan products.

Coconut cream, like coconut oil, is high in saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol levels. I totally get it, coconut is extremely delicious with an irresistible creamy mouthfeel. It's one reason why it's universally used in vegan foods. However, if you find yourself snacking on coconut-based kefir or yogurt several times throughout the day, you may be tipping the saturated fat scale. One cup of coconut-based kefir can have up to 18 grams of saturated fat!

Coconut-Based Yogurt and Kefir Tip

Opt for plant-based yogurt made with soy, almonds, or cashews instead of coconut. Or, if you really really love your coconut kefir or yogurt, work the saturated fat into your total saturated fat for the day, keeping your overall intake less than 22 grams (if you’re generally healthy) or 13 grams (if you’re preventing or reversing heart disease). (P.S. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that my personal favorite yogurt is Cocojune, a coconut-based yogurt that is super rich and creamy. It's just worked into my day, along with whole plant-based foods. )

healthy fruit and yogurt

3. Your Cabinets are Stocked with Vegan Snack Foods.

Snacking on highly refined plant-based snacks, such as cookies, chips, ice cream bars, and other ultra-processed snack foods, can contribute to high cholesterol with their high saturated fat and refined sugar content. These items may also contain palm oil, another plant oil that is inexpensive, versatile, and — you guessed it — high in saturated fat. Palm oil also has health implications for the planet. Read about that here.

Vegan Snacking Tip

The occasional Oreo cookie or So Delicious Ice Cream Bar may not send your cholesterol soaring, but regular consumption could be disruptive to cholesterol levels. Limit these treats to occasionally and find other satisfying snacks to replace them on the regular, like Chocolate Chip Chickpea Cookie Dough, Super Seedy Granola, or a Tahini Espresso Milkshake.

granola bars

4. French Fries are Your Favorite Vegan Food.

After all, French fries are delicious and they're sometimes the only option for a vegan when eating out. That occasional fry, once a month, when eating out, may not do much harm when it's once a month. But several times a week can wreak havoc on those cholesterol levels. By the way, potatoes are not the only ones to blame. Fried foods, in general, like fried mushroom calamari and vegan fried chicken sandwiches can also increase cholesterol through their high saturated fat and trans fatty acids from the oil and high temperatures used to fry them.

French Fry Tip

Limit vegan fried food consumption when eating out and try making your own crispy vegan food at home through baking or air frying (if you're lucky enough to own an Air Fryer!).

potato wedges

5. You're Not Eating Enough Fruits and Veggies.

Don't feel bad if you fit into this category, you're not the only one. The CDC reports that only one in ten Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables daily. But, you know what's awesome? It's cool to be different! Step outside the norm and eat your fruits and veggies! With their abundant fiber and phytonutrients, they're incredibly effective at lowering cholesterol, as well as fueling gut, brain, skin, and digestive health.

How to Eat More Fruits and Veggies Tip

There's an entire article dedicated to this since it's so important. When you're finished here, make sure to visit, 15 Ways to Eat More Fruits and Veggies, to get all kinds of helpful tips to up your fruit and veggie game.

green apples

6. You Could Use More Soluble Fiber.

You may be eating all plant-based or vegan, but are you getting enough of the foods that actually wipe cholesterol out of your body?  Less than five percent of Americans get the recommended amount of fiber each day, which is 25 grams a day for women and 38 grams a day for men (these are minimums!). Fiber can only be found in plant-based foods. Soluble fiber is one type of fiber that can lower cholesterol by binding to cholesterol and excreting it through digestion (💩). It's found in apples, beans, pears, oats, and chia seeds, just to name a few.

How to Increase Soluble Fiber Tip

There's also an article dedicated to consuming foods that naturally relocate excess cholesterol from your body to the toilet. Visit the article, Top 10 Plant-Based Foods to Lower Cholesterol, once you're finished here!

oatmeal with almonds and blueberries

7. You're Avoiding Soy Products.

Soy is one of the most polarizing nutrition topics. While one article may claim that soy is good for you, another will claim that it's bad for you. To get the real science-based scoop, visit 5 Healthy Reasons to Consume Soy. Consuming 25 grams of soy protein a day (10 ounces of tofu or 2 1/2 cups of soy milk) has been shown to lower LDL by five to six percent.

Soy Food Tip

There are many compounds in soy that may be beneficial, including soy protein, phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins and minerals. To get the most benefit from soy, choose minimally processed soy products, like organic tofu, tempeh, soy milk, miso, edamame, and soybeans.

tofu skewers

8. You're not consuming enough sterols and stanols.

Stan who?

Plant stanols and sterols are also known as phytosterols. They're cholesterol-like compounds that are found naturally in a variety of plant-based foods, like whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Along with a healthy eating pattern, eating foods that provide about 2 grams of plant stanols and sterols daily has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels.

Sterol and Stanol Tip

Since finding that these natural phytosterols may be beneficial, food companies naturally started to add them to their products. However, there are no long-term studies on these manufactured sterols and stanols. The best way to consume these compounds is to eat more whole plant-based foods that naturally contain them, like nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Here is a short list of stanols and sterols in foods for your reference.

healthy buddha bowl

9. You're Not Getting Enough Omega 3 Fatty Acids.

When going vegan, fish, a big contributor to omega 3 fatty acid intake, is omitted. It doesn't mean you need to start eating fish again. In fact, eating fish may not even be as healthy as people think and it's definitely not good for the planet (or the fish!). Read more about that here. You can get loads of omega 3 fatty acids from plant foods like walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseed meal, and hemp seeds. However, the type of omega 3 in plant foods, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is one of several types your body needs. It can convert to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), but only in tiny amounts and it varies with each individual.

How to Get Enough Omega 3's on a Vegan Diet Tip

Consume 1–2 tablespoons daily of the omega 3-rich plant-based foods, like walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, or flaxseed meal. The ALA is anti-inflammatory, plus those foods are packed with even more nutrition, like fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. If you're vegan or exclusively plant-based, also consider taking an algae-based omega 3 supplement to get EPA and DHA. My personal favorite is Sapling.

chia pudding with blueberries

10. You're Not Sleeping Well (or You're Sleeping Too Much!)

Research suggests there may be a nuanced relationship between sleep duration and lipid levels. Both insufficient and excessive sleep may adversely affect cholesterol profiles, with women being particularly sensitive to sleep extremes. Inadequate sleep, defined as less than five hours per night, correlates with elevated triglycerides and decreased HDL levels in women, while oversleeping, exceeding eight hours, yields similar outcomes according to this research in Sleep. Additionally, insufficient sleep, especially less than six hours, may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, with snoring potentially exacerbating the effects on HDL cholesterol. What's more, poor sleep is associated with poor eating habits and increased stress (leading us to our next point ...).

Sleeping Tip

With recommendations like, get just enough sleep, but not too much, what's one to do? Research shows that most adults require 7–9 hours of sleep a night for optimal health outcomes. Visit the article, Do You Want a Healthy Body and Happy Mind? Good Sleep Can Help With That, to get the ultimate breakdown on sleep.


11. Stress Has Become a Normal Part of Your Routine.

Stress can contribute to increased risk of heart disease through several mechanisms, like increasing inflammation, raising blood pressure, and disrupting sleep. But, did you know that stress may also increase cholesterol levels? High levels of cortisol from chronic or long-term stress may lead to high LDL cholesterol. One study involving over 90,000 people found that those who self-reported being more stressed at work had an increased chance of being diagnosed with high cholesterol. Researchers believe that high levels of cortisol from long-term stress may be the mechanism behind how stress can increase cholesterol. What's more, stress can lead to disrupted sleep, which can lead to lack of activity and poor dietary choices.

Stress Reduction Tip

I have one word for you: Breathe. We all do it easily and effortlessly. In fact, it's so effortless, we may not even notice (or appreciate it — try this, "Yay! I'm breathing!"). Anytime you feel stressed, try this One-Minute Breathing Technique.

meditation class

12. You're Not Getting Enough Exercise.  

Regular movement, like walking, running, biking, and any other exercise that boosts your heart rate has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol. It's recommended to get at least 30 minutes of exercise five times a week or vigorous aerobic activity for 20 minutes three times a week. Make sure to discuss exercise with your healthcare provider if you have health conditions that may limit your exercise.

Exercise Tips

Find something you enjoy doing! Discovering exercise you love will ensure that it becomes a daily habit. Try walking during your lunch hour, biking with a friend, or joining a pickle ball group.

walking in the woods

Fill Your Plate Up With Whole Plant-Based Foods

Plant-based foods are naturally low in saturated fat and packed with fiber and phytonutrients. Numerous studies show that whole plant-based foods can reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and overall inflammation. In some cases, plant-based diets have even been shown to reverse heart disease. Researchers believe the power in plants lies in the many compounds naturally found in them. While plant-based meat and dairy alternatives may be enjoyed in moderation, eating a wide variety of whole plant-based foods, including whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, can provide your body with cholesterol-lowering, disease-fighting, and inflammation-beating nutrients and compounds to help you live a long and vibrant life.

plant based salad bowl
photo credit: Unsplash, Anna Pelzer

Written in collaboration with Georgia State dietetic intern, Simran James.

Hello! I'm Simran James, a Graduate Nutrition Student at Georgia State University. I'm deeply passionate about cooking and have a particular interest in creating plant-based recipes. My career goal is to work as a dietitian in research and development with a major food company that shares my enthusiasm for innovative recipes. In my free time, I love being near or on the water, whether it's kayaking or just enjoying the view.

3 comentários

5 days ago

Wonderful article and very informative. Thank you so much for the research.


Dean White
Dean White
14 de mai.

Phenomenal article! Thank you!

Respondendo a

Thank you for taking the time to read the article, Dean! I'm so glad it resonated with you! :-)

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