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Lowering Cholesterol with a Plant-Based Diet

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a wax-like substance produced by the liver that aids in building cell membranes and producing hormones. Our bodies produce plenty of cholesterol to meet our needs, so we don’t need to consume extra cholesterol through our diets. 

What is the ideal cholesterol level?

The ideal blood cholesterol level is below 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), based on the results of the Framingham Heart Study and other research. At that level, heart disease is very unlikely. Unfortunately, nearly 107 million Americans have cholesterol levels that are greater than 200 mg/dL, which is dangerously close to 225 mg/dL—the average cholesterol level of coronary artery disease victims.

How can foods help lower cholesterol?

People can reduce their cholesterol levels dramatically by changing the foods they eat. Diets high in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol—found in meat, dairy products, and eggs—raise cholesterol levels, which increases heart attack risk. Foods high in saturated fat are especially dangerous because they can trigger the body to produce extra cholesterol.

Plants do the opposite. They are very low in saturated fat and free of cholesterol. Plants are also rich in soluble fiber, which helps lower cholesterol. Soluble fiber slows the absorption of cholesterol and reduces the amount of cholesterol the liver produces. Oatmeal, barley, beans, and some fruits and vegetables are all good sources of soluble fiber.

What is the difference between HDL and LDL cholesterol?

Cholesterol doesn’t dissolve in blood. To be transported in the bloodstream, cholesterol is packed into two types of carriers: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) or high-density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL cholesterol, which is sometimes known as “bad cholesterol,” is necessary in limited quantities (LDL delivers cholesterol to various parts of the body), but high LDL cholesterol levels can dramatically increase your risk of a heart attack. That’s because LDL particles can contribute to atherosclerosis—or clogged arteries. HDL cholesterol—sometimes called “good cholesterol”—helps clear LDL cholesterol from the arteries. 

When doctors measure cholesterol levels, they first look at total cholesterol as a quick way to assess a person’s risk. For a more exact guide, they divide the total level by the HDL level. Heart attack risk is minimized by having a lower total cholesterol and a higher proportion of HDL cholesterol. The ratio of total cholesterol to HDL should be less than 4 to 1.

Unfortunately, the average American man has a ratio of 5 to 1. Vegetarians, on the other hand, average about 3 to 1. Smoking and obesity lower HDL; vigorous exercise and foods rich in vitamin C may increase it.

What diet is best for lowering cholesterol?

Studies have found that plant-based diets lower cholesterol levels more effectively than other diets. In 2017, researchers reviewed 49 studies that compared plant-based diets with omnivorous diets to test their effects on cholesterol. Plant-based diets lowered total cholesterol, LDL, and HDL levels when compared to omnivorous diets. Low-fat, plant-based regimens typically reduce LDL levels by about 15 to 30 percent. 

Some recommendations for lowering cholesterol still include consuming chicken and fish. However, a number of studies have shown that heart disease patients who continue to eat these foods still tend to get worse over time. Those who adopt a low-fat, plant-based diet, get daily exercise, avoid tobacco, and manage stress have the best chance of reversing heart disease.

Do certain foods have special cholesterol-lowering effects?

One University of Toronto study found that people eating a plant-based diet rich in special cholesterol-lowering foods lowered their LDL cholesterol by nearly 30 percent in just four weeks. 

These foods include:

  • Oats, beans, barley, and other foods high in soluble fiber
  • Soy protein
  • Nuts
  • Wheat germ, wheat bran, almonds, Brussels sprouts, and other foods containing substances called phytosterols

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