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The Vegetarian Diet and Cholesterol

Does the Vegetarian Diet Lower Cholesterol?

By Betsy Lee-Frye

Updated October 03, 2008

(LifeWire) - There are many diets out there that can help lower cholesterol levels, and the vegetarian diet could be added to this list, too. And while most studies show that vegetarians typically have lower cholesterol levels than those who eat meat, there are some pitfalls to avoid.

The Vegetarian Diet

Though the vegetarian diet may seem to explain itself in its name alone, there are actually several different varieties.

Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Vegan or total vegetarian: only consumes foods derived from plant products, such as vegetables, fruits, beans, seeds, grains and nuts; will not eat foods made from or with any animal products

  • Lactovegetarian: will eat plant products and dairy products, but still avoids red meat, poultry and fish
  • Ovo-lactovegetarian: will eat plant products, dairy products and eggs, but will not consume red meat, poultry or fish
  • Semi-vegetarian: will eat plant products, dairy products, eggs and fish, but will not consume red meat or poultry

Nutritional Concerns for Vegetarians

Vegetarians typically consume more fruits and vegetables than their carnivorous peers. But there are still some nutritional concerns for vegetarians.

According to the American Heart Association, vegetarians of all types need to focus on eating enough protein. Protein, which is found in meat products, is essential for cell development. Alternative sources of protein include soy products, legumes, peas, protein-infused pastas, dairy products and eggs.

Iron intake should also be a focus. While iron can be found in eggs, egg yolks are also high in cholesterol. Vegetarians should focus on finding alternative sources of iron, like beans and dried fruit.

Calcium may also be a concern for vegans, and for others who do not eat milk products. Calcium is an essential nutrient for strong bones and teeth. Vegetarians can look for food products that are fortified with calcium, such as cereals and juices. Calcium is also found naturally in soy and some vegetables like spinach and collard greens.

Other nutrients found particularly in animal products include vitamin B12 and zinc. These nutrients can be found in other food products, but vegetarians need to pay attention to their intake to ensure adequate nutrition.

Vegetarians and Cholesterol

Because vegetarian diets can vary widely, it’s tough for researchers to say that switching to a vegetarian diet will help you lower your cholesterol. Eggs, which are consumed by some types of vegetarians, are high in cholesterol. On average, each yolk contains nearly 213 milligrams of cholesterol. Most experts agree that total daily cholesterol intake should be limited to 300 milligrams.

However, most studies indicate that vegetarians have lower cholesterol than non-vegetarians.

A 2007 Spanish study, which included 67 vegetarians, found that vegetarians had significantly lower total cholesterol numbers than the 134 meat-eating participants (73% of the vegetarians were the sort who eat eggs).

According to the study, 79% of the vegetarians had total cholesterol levels that the American Heart Associations considers “desirable.” Conversely, about 71% of the omnivores had “borderline high risk” total cholesterol levels. More than 32% of the omnivores had “high-risk” cholesterol levels, compared to just 3% of the vegetarians.

Another study, with similar findings, also found that vegans had significantly lower cholesterol levels than vegetarians who consumed eggs or non-meat animal products.

Talk to Your Doctor

If you have high cholesterol and are considering a switch to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, talk to your doctor about the change and any personal health concerns you might have. He or she will be able to help you avoid nutritional snags and can direct you to a dietician who can assist with developing meal plans.

Sources:

Almeida Teixeira, R., M. Bisi Molina, E. Zandonade, and J. Mill. "Cardiovascular Risk in Vegetarians and Omnivores: A Comparative Study." Arquivos Brasileiros de Cardiologia. 89:4(2007): 237-44. <www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0066-782X2007001600005&lng=en&nrm=iso&tlng=en>.

De Biase, S., S. Carrocha Fernandes, R. Gianini, and J. Garcia Duarte. "Vegetarian Diet and Cholesterol and Triglycerides [sic] Levels." Arquivos Brasileiros de Cardiologia. 88:1(2007): 35-39. <http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0066-782X2007000100006&tlng=en&lng=en&nrm=iso>.

Keyal, T., P. Applebya, and M.S. Rosell. "Health Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets." Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 65(2007): 35-41. Accessed: 21 Aug. 2008 <http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=814540>.

"Vegetarian Diets." AmericanHeart.org. 2008. American Heart Association. 21 Aug. 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4777>.

"Vegetarian Diets." MyPyramid.gov. Apr. 2008. United States Department of Agriculture. 21 Aug. 2008 <http://www.mypyramid.gov/tips_resources/vegetarian_diets.html>.

"What Your Cholesterol Levels Mean." AmericanHeart.org. 2008. American Heart Association. 21 Aug. 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=183#total>.


LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Betsy Lee-Frye is an independent journalist living in Kansas City. Her work has appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Corpus Christi Caller-Times and Kansas City Magazine.

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