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Vegan Nutrition with Dina Aronson, M.S. R.D.

Dina AronsonDina Aronson, MS, RD is a vegan dietitian whose specialties include chronic disease prevention, vegetarian/vegan nutrition, and lifestyle management. She is the founder and director of VeganRD.com, a nutrition consulting company. Active in many vegetarian nutrition organizations, Dina was the recipient of the American Dietetic Association's Recognized Young Dietitian of the Year Award in 2002.


My husband and I are both vegan. He has continually told his doctor that foods from plant-origin do not contain cholesterol but he continually disagrees and states that plants have cells and ALL cell membranes contain cholesterol. I have also read an article that suggests different textbooks are wrong when they state that plants do not contain cholesterol (http://bip.cnrs-mrs.fr/bip10/choles.htm) He bases his argument on: E. J. Behrman and V. Gopalan (2005) Cholesterol and plants J. Chem. Educ. in press. Behrman and Gopalan (2005) suggest the following as an accurate account of the real sterol content of plants:
More than 250 steroids have been described in plants. Of these, perhaps sitosterol, which differs from cholesterol by an ethyl substituent at position 24, is the most common. But plants also contain cholesterol both free and esterified. Cholesterol occurs as a component of plant membranes and as part of the surface lipids of leaves where it is sometimes the major sterol. The quantity of cholesterol is generally small when expressed a percent of total lipid. While cholesterol averages perhaps 50 mg/kg total lipid in plants, it can be as high as 5 g/kg (or more) in animals.
I have used the argument many times...that the ONLY way that we get cholesterol is through the consumption of animal-derived products; however, I do not want to give info that is not completely correct. Can you tell me or guide me to specific scientific articles that credibly discount what this article here states? Thank you and thanks for all that you do.

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Here's the deal. Plant foods do contain sterols whose structures are very similar or even clinically the same to those of animal-based cholesterol. However, this is a distraction from the main issue, which is not about technical analysis of miniscule amounts, but about food sources known to be harmful to human health. No researcher ever blamed the cholesterol in carrots for the high rate of cardiovascular disease in industrialized nations.

Most people can't really visualize 50/mg/kg (amount in plants) versus 5 g/kg (amount in animal products). If my math is correct, this means that if we extract all the fat from plants (remember how low in fat most plant foods are to begin with), that would be 1 OUNCE of cholesterol per 1247 POUNDS of plant fat! In other words, the ratio of plant cholesterol to plant fat in foods is one to 20,000. If we try to measure the ratio of plant cholesterol to the total weight of plants, it would be one in several million. That's why we round the cholesterol number to ZERO when reporting the nutritional components of food.

The scenario is reminiscent to many others that vegans and vegetarians often encounter. For example, we're all heard the claim that humans must need to eat meat because we have "sharp" (triangular-shaped) incisors (ignoring the fact that these teeth won't help us much if we try to kill a live deer with them). We've all heard that if we eat packaged foods with trace amounts of animal products (from animal foods being processed on the same equipment, for example), we're not "really" vegan. These arguments are designed to distract from the main issue, which is that minimizing animal foods is the best way to maximize health and minimize animal suffering.

So, please do continue using the argument that plant foods contain no cholesterol (or in amounts that are essentially microscopic in a given day's vegan diet), because the amount is way too insignificant to have an impact on human health.

Disclaimer: The advice given here is for eductional purposes only. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified health care provider.

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