There’s actually not any cholesterol in any plant.
Does that mean that vegans have no cholesterol?
Of course not, all people need some, you just don’t too much. Instead of getting cholesterol from foods, vegans make all their own from certain fats in our diets.
I’ll go over which foods vegans indirectly get cholesterol from in just a second.
First, a quick refresher on cholesterol. There are 2 main types of cholesterol:
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – This is the “bad” cholesterol that can build up in artery walls and lead to heart issues down the line.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL) – This is the “good” cholesterol that retrieves any excess cholesterol in your arteries and takes it to your live.
Which Vegan Foods Affect Cholesterol Levels?
There’s a whole bunch of lifestyle factors that affect cholesterol levels (e.g. obesity, diabetes, exercise level, etc.).
But in terms of food, there are only 3 main factors:
- Dietary cholesterol (i.e. cholesterol in foods) – Since there is none in plants, this is not a concern for vegans.
- Saturated fat – Note that there are different types of saturated fat (based on the length of carbon chains), and each affects cholesterol differently.
- Trans fat – These are the only fat that are bad all the time. Ideally, you want zero trans fats in your diet.
As vegans, we’re only interested in the second 2 sources of cholesterol precursors.
Vegan Foods With Saturated Fats
Omnivores get most of their saturated fats from animal products, which is probably not a good thing.
For vegans, there are only a few main sources of saturated fats:
- Coconut oil
- Palm oil (which is arguably not vegan)
- Cocoa butter
So should you avoid foods with those in them?
No, in fact the opposite!
Research has shown that these types of saturated fats are actually good for you:
We found that eating relatively little of the longer chained saturated fatty acids and consuming plant-based proteins instead was associated with a lowered risk (of myocardial infarction).
Studies on coconut oil show that while it does increase LDL, it also increases HDL cholesterol.
Vegan Foods With Trans Fats
While saturated fats are fairly complex, it’s pretty clear that trans fats are bad.
They come hydrogenated oils, which used to be very common in margarines. Some still have them today, but most margarines (and vegan butters) don’t.
For the most part, just be on the lookout for “hydrogenated oil” on the ingredients list of a product. It still might say “0 trans fats,” but that’s just because they rounded down on the nutritional facts (sneaky, but legal).
The other source of trans fats is cooking oil. If oil is used for frying for a long period of time (we’re talking hours), trans fats will start to form. Still not as much as in margarine, but significant amounts.
The following types of foods most commonly have trans fats in them:
- Baked goods – Cakes, pies, cookies, biscuits
- Flavored Microwave popcorn
- Cream-filled candies
- Deep-fried foods (particularly at fast food restaurants)
- Frozen pizza (note that Daiya pizza contains 0 trans fats)
Most vegan diets won’t contain much in the way of trans fats, but you should be aware of foods that have them.
Vegan Foods That Improve LDL (“Bad”) Cholesterol Levels
Pretty much every major vegan food group has been linked to improving cholesterol levels in one way or another.
Here are just a few of the most prominent ones:
- Soy has been heavily studied and is known to reduce LDL cholesterol. (Source)
- Tree nut intake is linked to lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and lowering other “bad” things like triglycerides. (Source)
- Numerous studies have shown that oat products improve “serum cholesterol and other markers of cardiovascular disease.” (Source)
In summary of everything we’ve learned: There’s no vegan food with cholesterol in it. Vegans make all their cholesterol internally from saturated and trans fats (ideally just saturated ones).
Additionally, vegans in general have excellent cholesterol levels (both LDL and HDL), which is one of the strongest arguments that a vegan diet is potentially healthier than a typical omnivorous one.