In 2020 a group of researchers from the University of Helsinki conducted a 12 week randomised controlled trial to see whether shifting from the typical Finnish diet (rich in animal foods) to a more environmentally friendly plant-based Nordic diet would improve blood cholesterol levels. They split 136 adult men and women into three groups:
The results? In just 12 weeks the researchers observed a step-wise reduction in total and LDL-cholesterol (the ‘cholesterol’ that causes plaque build up in our arteries) as subjects consumed less animal protein and more plant protein (shown below).
In these graphs the blue circle represents the group with the highest amount of animal protein (70/30), the green square the group that had half animal and half plant protein (50/50) and the yellow triangle the group who consumed the most plant protein (30/70). The group eating the highest amount of plant protein had an average LDL-cholesterol level that was 0.3 mmol/l (11.6mg/dL) less than the group eating the highest amount of animal protein. This was a significant difference.
This result is consistent with mountains of evidence that shows people adopting plant-based dietary patterns have significantly less risk of developing heart disease – the leading cause of death in Australia, killing one person every 18 minutes.
This is where science can be extremely powerful. We don’t have to add to these statistics. We can make changes to the way we eat.
1 – Where possible, replace processed and red meats with legumes. This means swapping foods such as bacon, ham, salami, pork, beef, lamb etc for beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh or chickpeas. What about chicken – isn’t that good for cholesterol levels? Despite headlines over the past decade, replacing red meat with white meat, is not as effective as replacing red meat with legumes when it comes to promoting healthy cholesterol levels.
2 – Replace dairy milk with a plant-based milk (soy, almond, macadamia etc). Where possible choose calcium fortified versions.
3 – Eat more nuts, seeds and whole grains (e.g brown rice, quinoa and oats).
The great thing about these three changes is that the benefit is twofold – you’re crowding out cholesterol raising foods with cholesterol lowering foods. The average person following a western diet today gets around 70-85% of their calories from animal protein. That’s a considerable amount of animal foods we can trade for plant foods to feel healthier today, and healthier for longer. Do we need to get this perfect? No. The key is just starting (hopefully today) because if we continue eating like the average person, how can we expect different results? We can’t. My suggestion is to start small – perhaps one meal – and progress from there.
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