I'm a vegetarian. Will my plant-based diet help me control my cholesterol?

Answers from Martha Grogan, M.D.

A vegetarian diet made up of healthy food choices can help control your cholesterol. But unhealthy foods can also be vegetarian, so choose foods wisely.

Studies show that vegetarians have lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol, and a lower risk of developing heart disease than do people who eat meat.

Here's why. Saturated fats often make up the largest source of cholesterol in a person's diet. These fats are commonly found in fatty meats and full-fat dairy products such as milk, ice cream and cheese. Most vegetarian diets are lower in or completely without animal products, so they're naturally lower in cholesterol.

A vegetarian diet also improves the body's metabolism of triglyceride-rich lipoproteins — another form of fat — by increasing the clearance of fatty plaques from the blood. And plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils, contain phytosterols, which are similar in structure and function to cholesterol but can actually lower artery-clogging bad cholesterol.

Keep in mind, however, that many foods high in sugar and trans fat, such as a variety of fried foods, baked goods and dairy products, are also vegetarian. Plan your diet carefully so that it contains essential nutrients and limits sugars and fats.

Sept. 03, 2015