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Ask the Dietitian: I'm a vegetarian and my cholesterol is high. What can I do?

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

At my last physical, my doctor told me that my cholesterol was high and that I needed to follow a low cholesterol diet. I was surprised because I am a vegetarian. How can I lower my cholesterol if I already don't eat meat?

Lowering your cholesterol can be tough with so much conflicting information and dietary advice. One day eggs should be avoided and the next day, eggs are the new superfood. It all can seem very confusing!

Even though you are not getting cholesterol from meat, other sources of cholesterol are found on a vegetarian diet. Do you eat dairy products such as butter, cheese, and ice cream? Cholesterol is produced in the liver of animals, so any food that comes from animal contains cholesterol. Having said this, your elevated cholesterol most likely has less to do with the amount of cholesterol you are consuming and more to do with other dietary and lifestyle factors.

Elevated cholesterol levels, occur by consuming excess amounts of saturated and trans fat, found in full fat dairy and processed foods. Eating too much full-fat dairy and baked goods, in combination with a sedentary lifestyle could lead to elevated cholesterol.

A low cholesterol diet entails choosing unsaturated fat [vegetable oil, olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds] instead of saturated [butter, whole milk, ice cream] and trans fat [partially hydrogenated oil]. It is also important to increase your fiber intake by eating a variety of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Exercise also plays a crucial role in reducing cholesterol. Studies have shown that moderately-intensive exercise reduces LDL [bad cholesterol] and increases HDL [good cholesterol].

Talk to your doctor if you are already living a low cholesterol lifestyle and your cholesterol is still elevated. There could be underlining medical reasons and medication may be needed.

Visit the Diet Resource Center to learn more about cholesterol lowering diets.

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