Why Cholesterol Levels May Be High on a Vegetarian Diet

If your diet is full of saturated fat and processed food, you may end up with high cholesterol.
Image Credit: Aleksandr Zubkov/Moment/GettyImages

Vegetarian diets aren't always filled with fruits and vegetables. Though it doesn't include meat, a vegetarian diet could still contain plenty of foods that are processed and high in saturated fat. So, if that's what you're eating, you could be a vegetarian with high cholesterol.


About Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance made in your liver and found in many of the foods you eat. Its purpose is to build healthy cells, but cholesterol statistics show high levels can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke, according to the Mayo Clinic. Too much cholesterol in the bloodstream can create a buildup of deposits in your arteries that block the flow of blood.


Video of the Day

There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL cholesterol is often referred to as "bad" cholesterol because too much of it causes those sticky deposits to build up in your blood vessels. HDL cholesterol is known as "good" cholesterol. High HDL levels are important because HDL carries excess cholesterol back to your liver to be removed, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Fat and Cholesterol

Eating fat has gotten a bad reputation over the years, and certain types should be eaten in moderation. Saturated fats can drive up cholesterol levels, especially the "bad" LDL cholesterol, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Foods high in saturated fat include:


  • Red meat
  • Whole-milk dairy products
  • Cheese
  • Coconut oil
  • Many commercially prepared baked goods

Most nutrition experts recommend limiting your saturated fat intake to 10 percent of daily calories, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

"Vegetarian foods high in saturated fats include full-fat dairy products, coconut products, tropical oils, fried foods and certain mock meat products," says Anja Grommons, RDN, a Kalamazoo, Michigan-based dietitian and founder of Vegcentric Dietitian. "Try replacing high saturated fat foods with foods rich in unsaturated fat. Think: avocado, vegetable oils, nuts and seeds."


These unsaturated fats include polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. They've been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol and contribute essential vitamin E to the diet, according to the American Heart Association.

For a study published in the ‌British Journal of Nutrition‌ in October 2016, 115 adults were assigned to follow either an experimental diet or a control diet. The experimental eating plan substituted some commercially available food items with ones higher in omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. After 8 weeks, the experimental diet lowered LDL cholesterol by 11 percent more than the control diet.



Focus on Fiber

Fiber is another vegetarian-friendly nutrient that has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, fiber-rich food includes:

  • Whole grains
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Nuts
  • Beans


Children and adults should get 25 to 35 grams of fiber every day, but people typically fall short: Most Americans only get about 15 grams of fiber a day.

A March 2017 meta-analysis in the ‌American Journal of Clinical Nutrition‌ reviewed 12 studies on soluble fiber and its effect on LDL cholesterol levels. Its key finding: Consuming at least 3 grams of soluble fiber a day resulted in a 10 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol levels.


If you think you're not getting enough dietary fiber, gradually increase the amount you get over time. Adding fiber to your diet too quickly may cause cramping, bloating and constipation, according to the Cleveland Clinic. To prevent these symptoms, stay hydrated as you increase your fiber intake, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

If you still find it difficult to get enough fiber through diet alone, fiber supplements may be an option, according to the Cleveland Clinic.


"Overall, it is encouraged to follow a meal plan rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plant-based proteins and low-fat dairy products to assist in the treatment and prevention of elevated cholesterol," Grommons says.




Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.

Report an Issue

screenshot of the current page

Screenshot loading...