Vegans Can Have High Cholesterol?


By Amy Kushner

I recently had my yearly blood work done (though I really only do it every 5 or 6 years), and imagine my surprise when my physician’s assistant, with a bemused expression, told me, “You have high cholesterol.” It hit me square in my thinking, like a tofu brick to the head.

For decades, my cholesterol numbers were as dependable as my morning workout—always in the safe zone between 120 and 130. But recently, the numbers have crept up to 231, and now, six months later, they are slightly down to 216. Still, for someone who follows a plant-based diet, exercises more than eight hours a week, and practices mindfulness to keep stress at bay, this was as shocking as finding out Oreos are vegan (seriously, Google it).

The Unexpected Diagnosis

“How can this be?” I asked, picturing all the tofu, quinoa, and lentils I had dutifully consumed. “I’m as plant-based as it gets!”

The physician’s assistant gave me a sympathetic look. “Sometimes it’s not just about diet and exercise. Genetics can play a big role, too.”

Genetics. The one thing tofu can’t fix.

I left the office, feeling like I’d been betrayed by my own body. High cholesterol, despite my immaculate lifestyle, was the ultimate irony. I had always prided myself on making healthy choices and maintaining a lifestyle that seemed impervious to such common health issues. To add to the confusion, I’m height-weight proportionate with a body fat percentage lower than the average female my age. I’m also somewhat of an enigma as a vegan who doesn’t eat avocado or kale. I just never thought it would happen to me because I was too healthy and took all the right precautions, living a preventative lifestyle.

Cholesterol 101: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Before diving further into my cholesterol saga, let’s break it down for those of us who might have missed a few health classes in high school. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in your blood. It’s necessary for building cells, but too much can pose serious health risks.

There are two types of cholesterol:

  1. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): Often called “bad” cholesterol, LDL can build up in the walls of your arteries, making them narrower and less flexible.
  2. High-density lipoprotein (HDL): Known as “good” cholesterol, HDL helps remove other forms of cholesterol from the bloodstream.

High cholesterol can lead to heart disease, stroke, and a slew of other issues that nobody wants to deal with. For years, I had been blissfully ignorant of this, thinking my plant-based lifestyle shielded me from such woes.

The Healthy Person’s Paradox

The thing about being a health-conscious person with high cholesterol is that it feels like a paradox. You do all the right things—eat well, exercise, meditate—yet here you are, facing a health issue typically associated with sedentary lifestyles and poor dietary choices.

For instance, I’ve seen the looks of disbelief when I tell people about my cholesterol. “But you’re vegan! How is that possible?” they ask as if my dietary choices alone should grant me immunity from all health issues.

Cholesterol Conundrums: How to Manage it Naturally

Determined not to resort to medication, I delved into research to find natural ways to manage my cholesterol. Here are some strategies I found:

  1. Increase Soluble Fiber Intake: Foods like oats, beans, lentils, and flaxseeds help reduce cholesterol absorption into the bloodstream. It’s time to stock up on oatmeal!
  2. Eat More Healthy Fats: Nuts and seeds are rich in monounsaturated fats, which can help lower LDL levels.
  3. Cut Back on Sugar and Refined Carbs: Even vegans can fall prey to sugary treats and refined carbs, which can raise cholesterol levels. Sorry, vegan cookies!
  4. Stay Active: Regular exercise helps boost HDL cholesterol. Luckily, my eight-plus hours a week should keep me in good stead.
  5. Stress Less: Chronic stress can negatively impact your cholesterol levels. Techniques like yoga, meditation, and even simple deep-breathing exercises can help manage stress.

The Humorous Side of High Cholesterol

Finding humor in the situation is essential. After all, laughter is great for your heart! Here are a few observations from my cholesterol adventure:

  • Cholesterol Foe: Discovering you have high cholesterol when you’re a vegan is like finding out your electric car is bad for the environment. It just doesn’t make sense!
  • The Tofu Betrayal: I’ve eaten more tofu than any human should, yet here I am. Tofu, is it time to break up?
  • The Genetics Game: Realizing my parents might have handed down more than just their quirky sense of humor.

Conclusion: Embracing the Unexpected

Navigating high cholesterol as a health-conscious vegan has been an eye-opening experience. It’s taught me that even the most diligent lifestyle choices can’t always override genetics or other factors. But it’s also shown me the importance of adapting and finding new ways to stay healthy without compromising my principles.

So, here I am, still munching on my rice cakes, still dedicated to my plant-based lifestyle, and now on a mission to conquer cholesterol with a little humor and a lot of fiber. After all, life is too short to be taken too seriously—even when dealing with something as serious as high cholesterol. And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll look back on this and laugh about how a few quirky genes managed to outwit my decades-long dedication to health. Until then, pass the oatmeal.