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What you eat each day may have an impact on your blood cholesterol levels.

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If your cholesterol is high, changing your diet may help get your numbers under control without medication—or may help cholesterol-lowering medication work better. One dietary change you may be considering to lower cholesterol is a plant-based (vegetarian) diet. Plant-based diets are typically lower in saturated fat and higher in fiber than diets that include a lot of animal products, both of which can help improve cholesterol levels.

But before you jump headfirst into a vegetarian diet, remember that just because a food comes from a plant instead of an animal doesn’t make it healthy. Soda, chips and many snack foods may be plant-based, but they aren’t good for you and likely won’t improve your cholesterol.

What vegetarian foods should I watch out for?

Here are some plant-based foods that seem healthy, but may not be that good for you:

    • Meatless burgers: Plant-based burgers can be a healthy and delicious alternative to meat, but some brands are highly processed and full of additives and sodium. They may also have more fat and calories than regular burgers. Read labels carefully.
    • Frozen vegetarian meals: Check the first ingredient in your meatless entrée before taking a bite. Beans, legumes, quinoa and hemp are healthy sources of plant protein and should top the list. If there’s more than 500mg sodium per serving or lots of ingredients you can’t pronounce, you may want to find something healthier to eat.
    • Vegan desserts: Just because a dessert doesn’t have butter or eggs, doesn’t make it good for you. Vegan products may contain starches, gums and pectin instead. They may also contain more sugar, fat and calories than non-vegan desserts.
    • Veggie Chips: We want to think veggie chips are healthier than potato chips, but any food fried in oil and loaded with salt isn’t so healthy. If you can’t resist chips, look for kale, beet or carrot chips that are very lightly seasoned, or better yet, make your own.

What vegetarian foods are part of a healthy diet?

The benefits of a whole-food based vegetarian diet are that it typically contains little saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, which helps keep blood cholesterol levels down. It also contains a lot of fiber, which also helps regulate cholesterol levels. It’s important, however, to make sure you still get important nutrients you would typically get from meat, such as protein, iron and vitamin B12. Here are some key foods to make part of your daily meal plan:

    • Beans, legumes, peas and whole food sources of soy, like tofu, tempeh and edamame, are rich sources of protein, along with some whole grains, seeds and nuts.
    • Dried beans, spinach and dried fruit help boost iron levels.
    • Nutritional yeast, as well as B12-fortified soy milk and cereal, supply much-needed vitamin B12.

You don’t need to take an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to deciding whether to follow a vegetarian diet. Even if you eat meat sometimes, or only eat some types of animal foods, such as fish or eggs, you’ll reap benefits from adding more plant-based foods to your diet. That is, as long as you’re choosing whole plant-based foods and not overly processed foods that may not be healthy at all.

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Date Last Reviewed: July 22, 2022

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Jane Schwartz, RDN, CLT

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