People who eat vegan diets typically have lower cholesterol levels – but some don’t.
Even though there’s no cholesterol in plants, some vegan foods still affect cholesterol production inside your body.
Additionally, diet is only one factor that affects cholesterol.
I’m going to summarize relevant studies so that you can get a complete understanding of the situation.
Note that this is not medical advice. Any treatment plan you follow to try and improve cholesterol levels should be prescribed by a medical professional.
Finally, before we get started, remember that not all cholesterol is bad, so “total cholesterol” isn’t the best measure to worry about. Instead, look at the LDL cholesterol on your test results, which is the “bad” one (while HDL is the “good” one).
Table of Contents
Vegan Foods Can Still Increase Cholesterol
Cholesterol can come from food (i.e. animal products), but your body can also make it from either saturated fats or trans fats.
Unless you eat a lot of fast foods or use margarine with hydrogenated oil, you don’t need to worry much about trans fats.
The main vegan sources of foods that lead to cholesterol are saturated fats, namely:
- Coconut oil
- Palm oil (which is arguably not vegan)
- Cocoa butter (or derivatives found in chocolate like cacao powder)
For example, studies on coconut oil have shown that it increases both LDL and HDL cholesterol.
Remember that some cholesterol is good (your body needs it), it’s just when it gets too high that it can be an issue.
So having some of those above saturated foods is fine, but it could be an issue if you’re doing a diet like keto where you consume a lot of them.
Dietary saturated fat can lead to cholesterol production in the body. While there aren’t many vegan sources of saturated fat, it’s still possible to consume enough to raise cholesterol levels if you eat a lot of coconut oil, palm oil, or cocoa butter.
Factors Other Than Food Can Raise Cholesterol Levels
If you don’t eat much of those foods above, it’s probably not food causing your high cholesterol levels.
There are many other factors that can affect cholesterol production drastically. To make things worse, most of them increase LDL the most.
Here’s a list of the most common non-food causes of high cholesterol:
- Genetic factors – Inherited conditions like familial hypercholesterolemia can lead to very high LDL levels.
- Obesity – Excess fat can almost double the amount of cholesterol you produce. (Source)
- Diabetes – Strongly associated with high LDL levels. (Source)
- Liver or kidney disease – Certain diseases are intertwined with high cholesterol. Although in many cases the high cholesterol is the one affecting the disease. (Source)
- Polycystic ovary syndrome – People with this syndrome often have low HDL cholesterol. (Source)
- Pregnancy – Many hormone levels change, and that often leads to higher cholesterol production than usual. (Source) – It also often causes pregnancy insomnia.
- Underactive thyroid gland – Another issue linked to increased cholesterol. (Source)
- Drugs – Certain drugs like steroids and progestins can increase LDL and lower HDL.
As you can see there are many factors other than diet that can affect cholesterol levels.
Even on a perfect diet, someone may have high levels of cholesterol for a variety of other reasons. That’s why medical attention is needed to determine potential causes and the best course of action if needed.
Summary: High Cholesterol Levels on a Vegan Diet
Vegans can certainly have high cholesterol levels, but it’s not too common unless they’re doing a diet like keto.
Usually, the cause is something other than diet.
It may be obesity, which is in your control.
Or, it may be genetics, which you have no control over.
Regardless, it’s going to have to be determined by a medical professional, and then it can hopefully be either fixed or managed.