Several Vegetarians Are Experiencing High Cholesterol. Here's Why

Written by Claire Hannum

March 14, 2023

Several Vegetarians Are Experiencing High Cholesterol. Here's Why

A surprising number of vegetarians and vegans have high cholesterol—and many are shocked when they find out. After all, plant-based diets are usually thought of as healthy.

In reality, around 94 million Americans ages 20 and older have cholesterol levels that are considered high or borderline high—so maybe it’s inevitable that some of them are vegetarians and vegans (1).

But why do those cholesterol numbers keep silently creeping up—among vegetarians in particular? The most common reason is a sneaky one. Luckily, there’s an easy way to solve it. Read on to find out…

What Do Vegetarians Eat?

But first, let’s address what vegetarians and vegans eat…

Vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, or fish. Vegans don’t eat those products either, but they also take things a step further by avoiding all ingredients that come from animals. Vegans don’t eat eggs, dairy, honey, or any other animal products.

These are the standard definitions for each eating practice, but keep in mind that individuals may customize their plant-based diet to work for their own needs. For instance, some vegetarians choose to still eat fish. There’s simply no one-size-fits-all approach to this lifestyle.

With a diet so heavily focused on plants, fruit, and other fresh products, most people assume that the vegetarian/vegan lifestyle is ultra-healthy. So you’re probably wondering, “how can I have high cholesterol if I’m a vegan?”

It’s true that a plant-based diet is healthy for some people (234). But others hit several health hurdles along the way. For many people, life without dairy, eggs, or animal proteins usually requires substitute products—or prompts substitute snacking. And these substitutes can sneak in unhealthy ingredients without you noticing.

Why Is My Cholesterol High If I’m a Vegetarian?

Every case is different, and you should talk to your doctor if you’re worried about your cholesterol levels. But for vegetarians or vegans with high cholesterol, the cause is often two common culprits…

1. Substitute Food Products

Dairy-free milk, imitation meat, margarine, vegan baking mixes, and other alternative products are great for filling the gaps in your diet—but many of them contain dangerous ingredients.

Many dairy-free products are loaded with unhealthy seed oils like sunflower oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, and grape oil. These oils come with a wide range of health risks and are likely to cause inflammation (5). That inflammation may end up raising your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and could lower your HDL (“good”) cholesterol (67).

You can run into the same problem with imitation meats. They may taste good, but many soy-based meats are loaded with soybean oil, canola oil, or other vegetable oils. Which means that they can have the same effects as the dangerous oils mentioned above.

2. Highly Processed Packaged Foods

The snack aisle is tempting to everyone, whether you eat meat or not. When you eat a plant-based diet, you might become so used to checking ingredient labels for animal products that you forget to check for other unhealthy ingredients.

Many cookies, chips, condiments, and dressings have no animal products, but several do contain vegetable oil, refined sugar, and other telltale signs that they’re highly processed (ie if it has more than five ingredients).

Because of this, studies show that highly processed foods are linked to lower levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol and many other adverse health effects (8910).

The Fix: Check Ingredient Labels

There’s a simple way to cut down on these hidden cholesterol boosters: double and triple-check your ingredient labels. In addition to checking for animal products, scan ingredient listings for phrases that indicate the product contains vegetable oils or is highly processed.

Ingredients on the label to be wary of include the following:

  • Partially hydrogenated oils
  • Hydrogenated vegetable oils
  • Hydrogenated oils
  • Trans fats
  • Corn oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Cottonseed oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Canola oil
  • Rapeseed oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Rice bran oil

This list may sound like a lot to memorize, but before you know it, you’ll recognize these ingredients in a flash.

How to Keep Your Diet Healthy as a Vegetarian

Focus on eating vegetables, fruit, nuts, and whole foods (11). By doing so, you’ll load up on important nutrients AND dietary fiber—which is associated with healthier cholesterol levels (12). If your go-to groceries are high in unhealthy vegetable oils, swap for healthier substitutes like olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil.

The Bottom Line

High cholesterol can sneak up on some vegetarians and vegans, but for many, the fix is simple: check your ingredient labels! If your favorite meat and dairy alternatives are high in vegetable oils, soy, or highly processed ingredients, make the switch to healthier options. In addition to watching your ingredients, keep your cholesterol healthy by getting regular exercise, reducing your alcohol consumption, and not smoking (131415).

And if you’re a vegan or vegetarian who chooses to still eat fish, you may want to try an omega-3 supplement like krill oil, as omega-3s have been linked to increased HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, lower triglycerides, and better blood vessel function (16).

Claire Hannum
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Claire Hannum

As a writer, editor, and wellness seeker, Claire has written for Self, Health, Prevention, CNN, Mic, Livestrong, and Greatist, just to name a few. When she's not writing, she specializes in traveling, getting lost in health-related research rabbit holes, and finding new ways to spoil her cat.

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    Medical Disclaimer

    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

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