Cholesterol is a hugely misunderstood, yet incredibly important part of your health. While certain types of cholesterol have been shown to lead to heart disease and other issues, other types of cholesterol actually help combat these illnesses. Therefore, in order to create a well-rounded plant-based diet, it’s important to understand what cholesterol is, how it affects your body, and what the best sources are for healthy cholesterol.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a “waxy, fat-like substance” that resides within your cells and aids in vital bodily functions including digesting food, creating certain hormones (such as testosterone and estrogen), and making vitamin D. You can get cholesterol via two sources: your body and your food. The liver and intestines generate 80 percent of the total amount of cholesterol to keep the body running smoothly. The remaining 20 percent necessary for optimal health comes from the foods you eat.
While cholesterol is essential for good health, it can also cause issues. When your body consumes or makes too much cholesterol it combines with other materials in the blood creating a harmful substance called plaque. This plaque sticks to arterial walls, a condition called atherosclerosis and may lead to heart disease such as coronary artery disease, which can be fatal.
Types of Cholesterol
Doctors monitor cholesterol levels by running blood tests due to the fact that cholesterol travels via the bloodstream in protein casings called lipoproteins. This creation of cholesterol and protein, lipoproteins, manifests in different forms creating the distinct types of cholesterol: Chylomicrons, Very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL), Intermediate-density lipoprotein (IDL), Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and High-density lipoprotein (HDL).
Chylomicrons are “large particles that mainly carry triglycerides.” These lipoproteins work with cholesterol and are made in the digestive tract and are therefore influenced by the foods you eat. Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in the human body and come from fatty foods, such as butter and oil, as well as from leftover calories that your body didn’t use. Chylomicrons are vital as they carry “dietary lipids” throughout the body.
Very-Low-Density Lipoprotein (VLDL)
Very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) are very similar to chylomicrons in that they carry triglycerides, yet this lipoprotein is created in the liver. Yet, these lipoprotein-cholesterol combinations can mutate into intermediate-density lipoproteins (IDL) and then into low-density lipoproteins (LDL), which is also referred to as “bad cholesterol”. This change occurs as cell “extracts fatty acids” from the lipoproteins.
Intermediate-Density Lipoprotein (IDL)
These lipoproteins generally act as an intermediate stage between very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). Intermediate-density lipoproteins begin as VLDL’s, yet, as they give up their fatty acids, their lipoprotein structure changes and some become low-density lipoproteins (LDL).
Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL)
By the time low-density lipoproteins are created most of the fatty acids or triglycerides have been removed leaving an incredibly pure form of cholesterol. Low-density lipoproteins are referred to as bad cholesterol due to the fact that high levels of LDL have been linked to atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque, as well as heart disease.
Yet, LDL is not the only cholesterol culprit. Very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) has also been attributed to arterial wall plaque buildup, yet for different reasons. VLDL carries triglycerides, fatty acids, while LDL carries pure cholesterol, both of which can cause atherosclerosis.
High-Density Lipoprotein (LDL)
Last, but definitely not least, are high-density lipoproteins, also referred to as “good cholesterol.” High-density lipoproteins serve as the cholesterol cleaner of the body and help balance out cholesterol levels by transporting cholesterol back into the liver where it can be removed from the body altogether. HDL has also been shown to remove arterial plaque, decrease your risk of atherosclerosis, as well as increase antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Plant-Based Foods for Healthy Cholesterol
Cholesterol is essential for your health. With that said, the human body does a great job of creating cholesterol for these functions, which gives you the opportunity to focus on getting the good or healthy cholesterol referred to as high-density lipoproteins or HDL. Below are a few great plant-based sources to get your fill of HDL!
Olive Oil Bread Rolls/One Green Planet
Luckily, olive oil is already a staple in most plant-based diets. A study conducted on 800,000 participants showed a relationship between consuming olive oil and a higher level of HDL. Olive oil is an incredibly healthy source of fat, but it also has an antioxidant called polyphenol which has been attributed to the positive relationship between olive oil and HDL. Polyphenols are naturally occurring chemicals attributed to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, inflammation, obesity, and heart disease.
Olive oil can be substituted for almost any other oil, with a few baking or frying exceptions. To get you started, try a few of these easy and delicious plant-based olive oil recipes: Olive Oil Bread Rolls, Savory Sweet Potato Breakfast Bowl, Olive Oil Tamales, 4-Ingredient Rosemary Olive Oil Buns, or this Garlic Bread Soup.
Peanut Butter Cup Chocolate Fudge Brownie Cake/One Green Planet
Another option is coconut oil. This plant-based diet friendly oil is burgeoning as an incredibly diverse ingredient with health benefits including increased metabolism, brain health, and reduced appetite. While research has shown that the fats in coconut oil help increase HDL levels, these studies also show that coconut oil may “improve the ratio of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the ‘bad’ cholesterol, to HDL cholesterol.”
Due to its high-fat content, coconut oil is a great option for dessert recipes. Try substituting coconut oil for butter when baking. Here are a few dessert recipe ideas to get you on your way: Peanut Butter Cup Chocolate Fudge Brownie Cake, Soft Chocolate Chip Buns, Mixed Berry Jam Filled Cupcakes, Orange Coconut Truffles, or these Acai Blueberry Bars With Chocolate.
Roasted Cauliflower and Coconut Overnight Porridge Pots/One Green Planet
Oats are filling, versatile, and tasty! They are also linked to healthier cholesterol levels. Oats have been shown to clean arteries of the dangerous plaque with beta-glucan fibers. Beta-glucan fiber is a soluble dietary fiber that is directly linked to improved cholesterol levels. This wonderful fiber can also be ingested through whole grain, bran, wheat, and barley, along with your morning oats.
Oats are a great ingredient for a hearty and healthy breakfast. They are filling, can be mixed with your favorite fruits and nuts, or can be done up in a savory style. Try a few of these breakfast recipes: Instant Pot Coconut Steel Cut Oats, Roasted Cauliflower and Coconut Overnight Porridge Pots, Apple Walnut Bars, or this Caramelized Banana Porridge.
Braised Red Cabbage With Apples and Pecans/One Green Planet
This may seem strange, yet studies have shown that purple colored produce may help raise HDL levels. This is due to the fact that many purple veggies have anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant. Vegetables that have a high level of anthocyanins include eggplant, blackcurrants, blueberries and blackberries, and red cabbage.
Integrating purple plants into your plant-based diet is super easy! Simple snack on some berries or get a little creative and choose from one of the hundreds of recipes: Roasted Eggplant Filets, Braised Red Cabbage With Apples and Pecans, Raw Blueberry Lavender and Vanilla Cheesecake Squares, or this Healthy Blackcurrant Jam.
Grilled Avocado With Roasted Tomato/One Green Planet
These tasty fruits are truly medicine wrapped in a wonderfully creamy exterior. Avocadoes have also been linked to lower cholesterol levels due to a particular fat called beta-sitosterol, also referred to as plant sterol ester. Beta-sitosterol offers incredible health benefits and has been used to treat various conditions including boosting the immune system, preventing colon cancer and gallstones, treating the common cold and influenza, and managing fibromyalgia, lupus, and chronic fatigue syndrome, to name a few. Along with these benefits, beta-sitosterol has also been used to lower cholesterol levels.
There are no limits to what you can use an avocado for. Some prefer the creamy texture in tacos, while others would rather use it as a substitute in baking. Here are a couple creative ideas that you may not have thought of before: Veggie Pasta Salad With Avocado Mustard Dressing, Grilled Avocado With Roasted Tomato, Mini Veggie Cucumber Wraps With Avocado Hummus, or this Raw Chocolate and Cherry Mousse Tart.
A great place to find more recipes that use your favorite cholesterol-friendly plant-based foods is the Food Monster App. We highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 10,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
Lead image source: Shutterstock