How going vegan could cut your risk of heart attack and stroke

Followers of a plant-based diet have less harmful cholesterol and higher amounts of protective HDL

Senior man grilling vegan food
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You've probably heard that reducing your intake of red meat is good for your heart, but how about switching to a plant-based diet? Once a fringe movement, veganism is becoming mainstream, and now we're learning more about the health benefits of this animal product-free lifestyle too. 

You may have read about how to go vegan before, even if you ultimately didn't make the switch permanently. However, there's more to this dietary modification than a lifestyle change, as new research has shown that a vegan diet reduces the amount of harmful cholesterol in your blood. 

The study, which looked at the health outcomes for a group of Polish women following either a vegan or vegetarian diet, examined the role of this dietary choice on our cholesterol levels and overall heart health.

To isolate the effects of each diet, the researchers recruited participants with a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) and no chronic health conditions. The women were split into vegan or vegetarian groups with a meat-eating group as a control. 

Blood samples were taken from each woman to assess cholesterol levels. Although overall cholesterol levels are often used to measure heart health, there are actually two types that have different effects on our bodies. 

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is a form of cholesterol that causes fatty materials to stick to our artery walls. Meanwhile, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) carries cholesterol away from your cells to be broken down by your liver. Too much LDL in your blood could lead to health emergencies like a stroke or heart attack.

Woman outdoors collecting vegetables

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The study's authors found that all plant-based, meat-free diets reduced levels of LDL, especially in those following an entirely vegan diet, while also increasing HDL cholesterol levels. 

They also estimate these effects might be down to the higher fiber and polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) in plant-based diets. As a result, the researchers believe that meat-eaters could also protect their hearts by finding ways to incorporate PUFA and fiber into their diets.

If you're looking for a place to start, you can use specific foods to lower cholesterol, and many of them are vegan-friendly. Though, oily fish also makes it onto the list for any non-vegans hoping to reduce their cholesterol. 

Although the terms are used interchangeably, there are subtle differences between veganism and a plant-based diet. If you take an ethical stance on the use of animal products, you're likely to call yourself a vegan, follow a vegan diet, and purchase vegan non-food products. 

However, some people want to cut down their consumption of animal products because of climate change, ethics, or health-related reasons. If you aren't an adherent of a vegan lifestyle, you might instead follow a primarily plant-based diet. 

This is especially ideal if you're just starting to experiment with meat-free alternatives. You can try a few vegetarian or vegan recipes throughout the week while still enjoying meat, fish, and dairy occasionally. 

If you're ready to start cooking plant-based meals, the best vegan cookbooks are a great place to start. These feature some delicious meals, snacks, and smoothie recipes for you to try out across a range of cuisines. 

James Frew
Fitness Editor

James is a London-based journalist and Fitness Editor at Fit&Well. He has over five years experience in fitness tech, including time spent as the Buyer’s Guide Editor and Staff Writer at technology publication MakeUseOf. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a chronic health condition, which spurred his interest in health, fitness, and lifestyle management.

In the years since, he has become a devoted meditator, experimented with workout styles and exercises, and used various gadgets to monitor his health. In recent times, James has been absorbed by the intersection between mental health, fitness, sustainability, and environmentalism. When not concerning himself with health and technology, James can be found excitedly checking out each week’s New Music Friday releases.