About The Buzz: Vegetarian Diets Positively Influence Cholesterol Levels?
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
New research shows a positive association between long-term vegetarian diets and lower total cholesterol levels.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Hyperlipidemia, commonly referred to as high cholesterol, is a term that refers to several disorders that can occur when there is too much fat, or lipid, in the blood. Your body naturally produces cholesterol, but cholesterol also comes from the food you eat.2 Foods such as egg yolks, pastries, red meat, ice cream and cheese all contain cholesterol, fat, saturated fat and trans fats that can raise your blood cholesterol level.2
Hyperlipidemia is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.2 When too much lipid is present, it forms a plaque-like substance that builds up in the arteries and causes them to become narrow, making it difficult for blood to pass through.2 This condition, known as atherosclerosis, may lead to high blood pressure. If the plaque breaks off, it can cause a blockage of the vessels and arteries that supply blood to the brain and heart, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.4
Modifiable risk factors, or factors you can change to alter your risk of developing hyperlipidemia, include your diet, how frequently you are physically active and how much you weigh.1 These modifiable risk factors can influence your total cholesterol level. This level is determined by the sum of three levels:3
- LDL cholesterol: this “bad” cholesterol builds up in the arteries
- HDL cholesterol: the “good” cholesterol that lowers the risk for heart disease
- Triglycerides: another type of fat in the blood
Diet can impact cholesterol levels. Research has demonstrated that vegetarian diets, defined as diets that exclude meat, are associated with lower blood lipid (or “plasma lipid”) levels. Vegetarian diets emphasize the consumption of low-fat, fiber-rich foods like fruit, vegetables, grains and beans.1 Until recently, the long-term affects of vegetarian diets on plasma lipid levels had not been studied.
WHAT THE RESEARCH SHOWS
A recent article published in Nutrition Reviews earlier this year, summarized all research findings to determine the impact of a long-term vegetarian diet on total cholesterol levels. In total, 44 studies that included more than 11,600 participants were part of this analysis. The study demonstrated that consuming a vegetarian diet could help lower total cholesterol levels, and that vegetarians had lower total cholesterol levels than those who consume an omnivorous diet. A healthy total cholesterol levels is one that is below 200 mg/dL. In this study, total cholesterol level was -29 mg/dL lower in vegetarians vs. non-vegetarians (-29 mg/dL for observational studies and -12.5 mg/dL in clinical trials).
Vegetarian diets are often lower in saturated fats and cholesterol, which can lead to measurable differences in total cholesterol levels between vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Additionally, vegetarians had a healthier body composition, which also likely affects blood lipid levels.1
Statins, a type of medication typically prescribed to lower cholesterol, typically reduces LDL cholesterol by -70 mg/dL—a considerable decrease. This study found that on average, a vegetarian diet alone lowers LDL cholesterol –between 12 mg/dL and 23 mg/dL. Because medications and diet can work together to reduce cholesterol, both dietary and pharmacological interventions can be beneficial. In some instances, a physician, registered dietitian and patient may also work together to lower cholesterol through diet alone.
To maintain healthy cholesterol levels, consider the following:
- Cholesterol Monitoring: Physicians recommend that adults have their cholesterol levels checked every 4-6 years. Schedule routine visits to your primary care physician to have your cholesterol checked. It’s important to be aware any changes to your cholesterol level so you can make the necessary lifestyle and dietary changes to get things back on track before running the risk of developing a more serious condition.
- Diet: Consuming a vegetarian diet is not appealing to everyone, and the good news is, you don’t have to be a vegetarian to have healthy cholesterol levels. However, everyone can benefit from adding more fruit and vegetables to their plates. Instead of focusing on servings per day, simply focusing on adding color to your meals and filling half your plate with fruits and veggies during every meal and snack. Also, remember to mix it up a little with all forms of produce – fresh, frozen, canned, dried and 100% juice – it all counts!
- Physical Activity: Aim for moderate to vigorous physical activity for 30 minutes per day, most days of the week, to maintain a healthy lifestyle and healthy weight. Individuals looking to increase physical fitness or lose weight will need to be active for at least 60 minutes per day. For more information, check out our Healthy Weight Management section.
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