Cholesterol has something of a bad reputation.  If we were the PR agent for cholesterol (we’re yet to receive the call), we would launch a social media campaign pointing out that without it, we would be unable to make cells, hormones, or many of the other key constituents of human beings.  It is true that we also have ‘bad’ cholesterol, which in excess leads to disease, but this substance circulating in our bloodstream is vital to keeping us alive.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy/fatty substance made in the liver which circulates in our blood on lipoproteins.  It is essential in the formation of our cells, vitamin D, hormones, and bile (necessary for fat digestion in the gut).  There are two broad types – LDL (which stands for Low-Density Lipoprotein), which is considered to be the ‘bad’ variant; and HDL (which stands for High-Density Lipoprotein) – the ‘good’ cholesterol.  The job of LDL is to transport cholesterol to the cells, and HDL transports it away back to the liver to be dismantled and removed from the body.

The effect of plants on cholesterol

The good news for us all is that we have control over how much ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol we have in our bodies, with the most effective method being diet.  Switching to a whole-food plant-based diet can have a transformative effect by reducing LDL cholesterol rapidly and sustainably.  This is because saturated and trans fats contained in animal-derived products and processed foods lead to more cholesterol being produced in the liver.  We know this, in part, because populations in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa and China, which traditionally had little or non-existent levels of heart disease also ate large amounts of fruit and vegetables, and little meat and dairy.

Our cholesterol profiles cannot be improved just by switching to a vegan diet, after all, if we still consume high levels of hydrogenated fats and oils, we still risk rising LDL.  The key to improving our cholesterol levels is in whole-foods.  Whole-foods, in this sense, means foods which are as little altered from their natural state as possible.  For example, consuming whole grains and wholewheat improves cholesterol markedly over their close cousins which are stripped of their fibre.

Which foods are shown to help to improve our cholesterol levels?

There is truly no lack of whole-foods which can bring our cholesterol to healthy levels within days.  Foods made from wholewheat and buckwheat (which has a much lower glycaemic index than other carbohydrates), such as pasta, are much superior to their refined white processed counterparts.  Indeed rutin, a glycoside contained within buckwheat in known to directly lower LDL cholesterol.

Other whole-foods to consider on a daily basis include oats, brown rice, pulses (such as peas, lentils, and beans), fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and soya.  With careful planning, you can include a wide variety of these base ingredients in every meal throughout the day.  You might have, for example, a bowl of warming porridge with berries and cinnamon for breakfast (made with a plant milk of your choice), a wholewheat wrap with humous, beetroot, and salad, or lentil soup for lunch, and buckwheat pasta with a freshly made tomato sauce and greens for dinner.

What kind of impact can whole-foods have on my cholesterol?

According to the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a meta-analysis in 2019 of 49 research studies showed that plant-based diets successfully lowered harmful levels of cholesterol, with typically reducing LDL levels by about 15 to 30%.  A study by the University of Toronto went further and found that those eating a whole-food rich diet, containing high levels of soluble fibre, soy protein, nuts, wheat germ, wheat bran, almonds, brussels sprouts, and foods containing substances called phytosterols, lowered LDL by 30% in just four weeks.

Wrapping up (no pun intended)

A whole-food plant based diet is highly effective in ensuring we have a healthy balance of cholesterol.  If used effectively, it is possible to see faster and larger improvements than provided by pharmaceuticals, without the harmful side effects, in addition to many other health benefits.  Remember, not all foods of the same type of equal.  By looking for foods which are higher in quality whole grains, you can help protect yourself from coronary artery disease, strokes, and heart attacks.