Cardiovascular diseases are a risk for anyone with certain blood pressure levels and obesity, but what about for those who follow a vegan lifestyle? Numerous studies have shed some light on Lacto-ovo vegetarians, and nonvegetarians, but not a lot of information has been given about vegans historically.
With many people switching to a vegan lifestyle for health reasons, including a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and heart diseases, it begs the question – why do vegans have high triglycerides?
The truth is that not all vegans have high triglycerides, but we’re going to take a look at the reason why a vegan diet may increase cholesterol levels.
What are triglycerides?
Triglycerides are essentially a form of blood fat. They are a key source of energy and important for good health, within the right levels. Too much of it in your blood can be a sign of other conditions that increase the risk of diseases and stroke. These include obesity and high blood pressure.
The EPIC-Oxford study
One of the most recent studies on cholesterol levels in vegans is from the Epic-Oxford study. This compared vegetarians and meat-eaters and that vegans had lower cholesterol levels because their BMI (body mass index) was lower, and their high fiber intake and because they had reduced saturated fats.
So, not all vegans have high triglycerides.
Vegans and lower cholesterol
By eliminating all animal products, vegans enjoy plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, legumes, and seeds.
Various studies show that this diet has links to lower cholesterol, including one that showed vegan and vegetarian diets are more likely to have lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels compared to meat-eaters.
It is believed that a lower BMI contributes to this, and other studies have backed this up, finding that vegans tend to have lower triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure than meat-eaters.
Any healthy diet that focuses on nutrition and high levels of fiber from whole grains, fruits, etc is thought to be able to help decrease cholesterol, so this is not unique to veganism alone.
However, a well-planned vegan diet will help, as long as highly processed foods are avoided.
Studies show that high levels of processed foods are linked to higher LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), as well as higher blood pressure.
Since many vegan alternatives are processed, it is important to limit these in any healthy diet.
Do vegans have cholesterol issues?
In short, yes. Even though vegans do not have to worry about the cholesterol found in animal products, other sources can increase cholesterol labels. Some are dietary and others are non-dietary.
These can include what we eat, but also age, genes, lifestyle, and family background.
Vegans have more access to foods high in saturated fat, increasing triglyceride levels. These include coconut and palm oils that are found in vegan alternatives, especially convenience foods and faux cheese. These foods add salt, and sugar levels despite claiming to be healthier.
When looking into heart health, there is also the matter of vitamin B12. This nutrient is important because low levels can result in high homocysteine labels. This has links to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Because vitamin B12 is a common deficiency in the vegan diet, it is important to supplement it and consume foods fortified with B12 to make up for the deficit. The daily recommended dosage is around 2.4 mcg. However, this is the recommended absorbed amount, so higher levels may be required.
But why do some vegans have high triglycerides?
Although the vegan diet is usually low in cholesterol, some processed vegan foods are high in saturated fat from coconut oil and palm oil. Not only that, but high levels of sodium in these types of foods can increase cholesterol levels.
These foods include vegan cheeses, vegan butter, and faux meat substitutes. Other reasons include genes, age, and lifestyle.
This is why it is important to balance a healthy, nutritious diet with regular exercise.
How to lower high cholesterol and triglycerides in a vegan diet
The best and easiest way to reduce cholesterol levels as a vegan is to limit the number of processed foods you consume. These include meat substitutes, vegan cheese, convenience meals, and chips to name a few.
Go for whole foods that offer plenty of nutrition such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds that are typical of a plant-based diet.
Three foods contain a variety of vitamins and minerals important for good health, as well as dietary fiber which can maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
Unsaturated fatty acids such as olive oil, nuts, and avocados are also beneficial and can help protect against heart disease.
Tips for reducing cholesterol levels in a vegan diet
- Exercise regularly. This can help to reduce the risk of heart disease and support healthy cholesterol levels for any lifestyle.
- Limit Alcohol consumption – heavy drinking has been associated with increased triglycerides and is one of the first things to reduce as part of any healthy diet.
- Stop smoking – among other negative outcomes, smoking is linked to reducing HDL cholesterol (the good kind)
- Take an omega-3 supplement – There are vegan options available and they help to reduce triglyceride levels and increase HDL cholesterol.
Vegan foods to avoid
We’ve mentioned processed foods, but anything high in sugar, artificial ingredients, and sodium can be detrimental to cholesterol levels.
Here are some of the vegan-friendly foods to limit when looking to reduce cholesterol levels.
- Salty snacks – From chips to microwaves popcorn, and anything covered in salt
- Sweet goods – from cakes to chocolate, to cookies. Treat these treats for what they are – treats!
- Meat substitutes – many of these are highly processed including soy burgers, deli meats, and vegan sausages.
- Beverages – drinks high in sugar such as soda, sports drinks, sweet tea
Plant-based diets are typically linked to lower cholesterol levels, but not all vegan-friendly produce is healthy. Some, particularly processed foods, can contribute to increased triglycerides and cholesterol levels.
Opt for nutrient-filled whole foods, limit the consumption of processed foods and alcohol to reduce cholesterol levels. Exercise regularly, and if you have any concerns about your cholesterol levels, consult your doctor.
These are all useful tips for enjoying the best that a vegan diet has to offer.