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Does a Vegetarian Diet Lower Cholesterol?

refrigerator cartoon with vegetables

Cholesterol is a waxy substance essential for many vital processes in the body, such as building healthy cells. However, high levels of cholesterol in the blood can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. This risk occurs in people with high cholesterol when fatty deposits form in the blood vessels. If these deposits grow, they can block blood flow in the arteries. Sometimes, a part of the cholesterol deposit can break off and form a clot that can cause a heart attack or stroke. 

While high cholesterol can be inherited, it is often the result of an unhealthy lifestyle. Making changes to your diet, along with regular exercise, is one of the easiest ways to prevent and treat high cholesterol. Sometimes, medications may be necessary to bring down your cholesterol numbers.

One of the key factors that increase the risk of high cholesterol levels is a diet that contains too many saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats are found in specific cuts of meat and full-fat dairy products. Desserts and packaged snacks are common sources of trans fats. So, can eating vegetarian or vegan diets lower cholesterol levels?

What are the different types of vegetarian diets

If you don’t fully understand the difference between a vegetarian and vegan diet, you are not alone. The terminology can be confusing. 

  • An omnivorous diet is one where you get nutrition from both plant and animal sources.
  • A vegan diet is one where you don’t eat any animal products. This means you don’t eat meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs, honey, etc.
  • A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is where you eat dairy and eggs but not poultry, meat, or seafood.
  • An ovo vegetarian diet is one where you eat eggs but avoid all other animal products, including dairy.
  • A lacto vegetarian diet is where you eat dairy foods but not eggs, poultry, meat, or seafood.

Is a plant-based diet good for cholesterol levels?

It is possible to significantly reduce your cholesterol levels by changing your diet. The aim should be to exclude foods high in saturated fat, trans fats, and cholesterol. This means avoiding meat, dairy foods, and eggs, which are known to raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease and heart attack. Foods rich in saturated fats are especially dangerous because they trigger increased cholesterol formation in the body.

A plant-based diet is very good for cholesterol levels. This is because plants are low in saturated fats and don’t contain any cholesterol. Also, a plant-based diet is rich in soluble fiber, which helps to lower cholesterol levels. Fiber slows the absorption of cholesterol and reduces the amount of cholesterol made by the liver. Plant-based foods like barley, oatmeal, beans, and some fruits and vegetables are all excellent sources of fiber.

While there are several health benefits to plant-based eating, it is important to work with a health care provider before making dietary changes. One of the challenges of eating a vegetarian or vegan diet is learning new food sources for important nutrients.

Will cutting out meat lower cholesterol?

Saturated fats that raise blood cholesterol are primarily present in animal products. Therefore, cutting out meat from your diet is one way to lower your cholesterol levels. Studies have found that plant-based diets can effectively reduce cholesterol compared to omnivorous diets that include meat, dairy, and eggs. Many studies have shown that even incorporating lean animal proteins such as chicken and fish in the diet can worsen heart disease over time. On the other hand, plant-based eating has been found to lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) by 15-30%. 

Besides reducing cholesterol, a vegetarian diet can also help lower your risk for other chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and certain types of cancer. This is due to the low amounts of saturated and total fat and high amounts of fiber in a vegetarian diet. 

It is important to combine a vegetarian diet with other measures to reduce cholesterol, such as daily exercise, avoiding smoking, and managing stress to prevent and reverse heart disease.

If you plan to cut meats from your diet, it is important to get medical advice and design a vegetarian diet carefully to get all the important nutrients you need.

What are the cholesterol benefits of a vegetarian diet?

A 2015 analysis published in the Journal of American Heart Association looked at whether a strict vegetarian diet could help lower cholesterol levels. The study included people from around the world, ranging in age from 20s to 50s, some of whom had tried medication to treat high cholesterol. 

The most common type of vegetarian diet tried by the participants in the study was a vegan diet that excluded meat, eggs, and dairy products. The second most common diet was a lacto-ovo diet in which the participants avoided meats but ate dairy and eggs. Cholesterol levels were followed in these individuals for more than 6 years and compared to those who ate omnivorous diets.

The researchers found that those on a vegetarian diet significantly reduced total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol). However, there was no significant change in triglyceride levels regardless of diet. The vegetarians also had a reduction in HDL (good cholesterol). Interestingly, the people who ate a vegan or vegetarian diet were more likely to lose weight (with an average weight loss of around 6.5 pounds).

How fast can a vegetarian diet lower cholesterol?

Dietary changes, such as eating a plant-based diet, can have health benefits pretty quickly. Some studies have found that plant-based diets can cause minor reductions in cholesterol in just 4 weeks. Most people, however, should expect to see a noticeable difference in their cholesterol levels after a few months of eating a heart-healthy diet.

How can a vegetarian person eat healthily and limit intake of saturated fat?

It is possible to eat a plant-based vegetarian diet for heart health while still getting all the nutrients you need. Here are some pointers on how to accomplish this.

  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day—they provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Include whole grains in every meal, such as whole-wheat pasta, breakfast cereals with whole grains, quinoa, brown rice, etc. Whole grains provide soluble fiber and are good sources of protein.
  • Eat protein-rich plant foods such as tofu, soy, lentils, peas, beans, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Avoid unhealthy fats in processed foods and baked goods like cakes and biscuits, fried foods, frozen pizza, microwave popcorn, coconut oil, etc. 
  • Choose low-fat dairy instead of full-fat dairy foods.
  • Include unsaturated fats and omega 3 in your diet with olive oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, or soy oil. Other good sources of healthy fats are nuts, seeds, peanuts, and avocados. 
  • If you are watching your weight, cut down on sugary foods containing lots of calories but very little nutrients, such as fizzy drinks and sodas.

What foods can a vegetarian eat to reduce cholesterol?

Studies have shown that eating a nutritious plant-based diet rich in specific cholesterol-lowering foods can lower LDL cholesterol by close to 30% in just one month. Foods that have recognized cholesterol-lowering properties include oats, barley, beans, nuts, almonds, soy protein, wheat bran, wheat germ, and Brussels sprouts. 

If choosing to follow a vegetarian diet, it’s important to ensure that you still maintain a balanced diet, getting enough protein, iron, and B vitamins—especially B12. 


  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/symptoms-causes/syc-20350800
  2. https://www.pcrm.org/news/health-nutrition/plant-based-diets-lower-cholesterol
  3. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/1104262
  4. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/JAHA.115.002408
  5. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fat/art-20045550