A vegetarian diet can be heart-healthy and nutritious. Learn how easy it can be to change what you eat and help lower your cholesterol levels.
The American Heart Association recommends a diet that is low in saturated fats and trans fats, the types of fat that can raise blood cholesterol. Since cholesterol and saturated fats come primarily from animal foods, one way to adjust your diet for high cholesterol is to start a vegetarian diet.
You don’t actually need any cholesterol in your diet, since your body can make all the cholesterol it needs. Studies show that a vegetarian diet can lower your risk for obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer.
Is a Vegetarian Diet Safe and Nutritious?
A well-rounded vegetarian diet can be healthy and nutritionally sound with some careful planning. Here are some tips to make sure you are getting enough essential nutrients:
- Protein. Although foods from animals are important sources of protein, you can get all the protein you need from a vegetarian diet. Soy has been shown to be as rich a source of protein as animal food. Good sources of plant protein include whole grains, vegetables, seeds, and nuts.
- Iron. Red meat is an important source of iron. A vegetarian diet may put you at higher risk for iron deficiency. Make sure to get enough dried beans, spinach, brewer’s yeast, and dried fruits in your diet. These are all good sources of iron.
- Vitamin B12. This vitamin only comes naturally from animal foods. Vitamin B12 is important in reducing the risk of heart disease, and vegetarians with low B12 may be at risk. You can make sure to get enough B12 by using fortified products like B12-fortified soy milk or cereal. You can also take a B12 supplement.
- Zinc. This mineral is important for growth and development. Grains, nuts, and legumes are good sources, but you might also consider a zinc supplement.
- Vitamin D. If you don’t include dairy in your vegetarian diet and you don’t spend much time outdoors, you also may want to supplement vitamin D.
Cooking Tips for High Cholesterol
Even though a vegetarian diet eliminates animal food as a source of cholesterol, you still need to watch out for sources of fat that can raise your cholesterol.
- Trans fats. Many vegetable oils have hydrogen added to them. Hydrogenated oils are high in trans fats that can raise your cholesterol. Read the labels of any butter substitute or cooking oil to make sure there are no trans fats.
- Saturated fats. These fats can raise your cholesterol and are primarily found in animal and dairy products but watch out for coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils which do have saturated fats.
- Heart-healthy oils. Cooking with unsaturated fats found in safflower, corn, olive, canola, and peanut oils can help lower your cholesterol.
- Low-fat cooking. You can sauté in water instead of oil or use just a very small amount of canola or olive oil. Broiling, streaming, poaching, and boiling are better than frying. When you are baking, you can cut your oil or margarine in half and replace it with water, juice, or applesauce.
Vegetarian Diet: Eating Out
Eating out and sticking to your vegetarian diet can be a challenge. Here are some tips to help you:
- Plan in advance. Think about what kind of restaurant you want to go to. International restaurants such as Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Thai, and Japanese tend to have more vegetarian diet selections. There are also restaurants that serve only vegetarian food.
- Call ahead. Inquire about the menu when you make reservations.
- Talk to your server. Don’t assume that your server knows that food prepared in chicken stock is not vegetarian or that lard and gelatin are animal products. Be specific about your dietary requirements.
- Ask for a substitution. Many restaurants will gladly substitute meatless pasta or exchange a baked potato for a fried side order. You can request that your meal be prepared from unsaturated oil.
Talking to Your Family About Your Vegetarian Diet
Family members who are unfamiliar with a vegetarian diet may try to discourage you because they think a diet without animal foods is not safe or nutritious. Here are some tips to get their support:
- Educate yourself. Be ready to explain the benefits of a vegetarian diet and to assure family members that a balanced vegetarian diet can be as healthy as a diet that includes animal products.
- Don’t preach. You have decided to pursue a vegetarian diet because you think it’s a healthier choice, but don’t expect to change your family’s diet right away.
- Be patient. A vegetarian diet can seem like a radical idea to family members who are not familiar with it.
- Be responsible. Don’t expect your family to change their cooking and eating habits and start preparing meals just for you. Be prepared to do your own cooking and shopping.
- Share your food. Once you have convinced your family that a vegetarian diet is healthy, prepare a vegetarian meal once a week to share with them. Show them that a vegetarian diet can also be appetizing and filling.
If you are worried about cholesterol, a vegetarian diet is an option you should consider. Vegetarian diets are low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. A carefully planned vegetarian diet is good for your heart and can include all the important nutrients you need.