Atherosclerosis — the buildup of plaque in your arteries, causing them to harden and narrow — develops slowly over a number of years.
Your chances of developing atherosclerosis are based on several different risk factors. Some of these can’t be changed, like your age and your personal and family medical history.
But other factors that influence the onset of atherosclerosis are either partially or fully under your control. Chief among these are your eating habits, how much exercise you get, and whether you smoke. (1)
Certain risk factors for atherosclerosis are measured values that can’t be changed on their own — things like your body weight, blood pressure, and blood cholesterol and glucose levels. But there are still steps you can take to reduce these risks, from leading an active and healthy lifestyle to taking medications as prescribed by your doctor.
It’s important to take whatever steps you can to reduce your risk of developing atherosclerosis since complications of the condition can include life-threatening medical emergencies like a stroke or heart attack. (2)
Kick Your Smoking Habit
If you smoke, quitting is the single most important step you can take to reduce your risk for atherosclerosis and other heart disease risk factors. (2)
Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death and illness in the United States, accounting for about 1 in 5 deaths each year. (3)
One major way that smoking takes its deadly toll is by harming your blood vessels. Cigarette smoke contains a number of toxic chemicals that enter your bloodstream. (4)
These chemicals raise your risk for atherosclerosis in a number of different ways, such as increasing inflammation in your arteries and making platelets in your blood coagulate (clot) more easily. (4)
If you smoke or use tobacco in another form, talk to your doctor about coming up with a strategy to effectively quit.
Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet
Your diet is an especially important factor in your risk for atherosclerosis, and heart disease generally.
A heart-healthy diet includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meats and poultry, low-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds, and legumes (dried beans and peas).
It also limits sodium, saturated and trans fats, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol. (1)
The following food groups and items form the basis of a heart-healthy diet:
Vegetables Good choices include fresh and frozen varieties of almost any vegetable, with special attention to getting a variety of colors and textures.
It’s important, though, to limit vegetables in creamy sauces, high-sodium canned vegetables, and those that are fried or breaded.
Fruits Fresh or frozen fruits, as well as those canned or preserved in juice or water, are good choices.
Avoid fruits canned in heavy sugar-based syrup, and frozen fruits with sugar added.
Grains Whole grains should form the basis of your grain intake. Good choices include:
- Whole-grain bread and wraps
- High-fiber cereals
- Whole-grain pasta
- Brown rice
- Bulgur wheat or farro
Avoid or limit the following items:
- White bread
- Muffins (most varieties)
- Frozen waffles (most varieties)
- Snack crackers (most varieties)
- Egg noodles
- Buttered popcorn
Dairy Products Good choices include low-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt. Avoid or limit full-fat milk and other dairy products in your diet.
Protein-Rich Foods Lean sources of protein are important to include in your diet — whether they come from animal or vegetarian sources.
Good sources of protein include:
- Lean meats (such as 95 percent lean ground beef or pork)
- Poultry without the skin
- Fish, especially cold-water fatty fish (salmon, tuna, trout)
- Soy products (tofu, tempeh, soy burgers)
- Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas)
Avoid or limit the following items:
- Fatty or marbled meats
- Chicken wings
- Hot dogs and sausages
- Breaded or fried meat, fish, or poultry
Oils and Fats It’s important to include healthy fats in your diet, ideally in the least-refined form possible — such as choosing nuts and seeds over refined oils.
Still, certain oils are considered healthier choices, and it’s important to choose lightly salted or unsalted varieties of nuts and seeds.
Healthy sources of fat include:
- Nuts and nut butters
- Seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, flax, sesame)
- Olive, canola, sesame, sunflower, corn, and soybean oils
Sources of fat to avoid include:
- Bacon fat
- Cream and cream-based sauces
- Nondairy creamers
- Vegetable shortening
- Margarine made with hydrogenated oils
- Palm, palm kernel, coconut, and cottonseed oils (1,5)
Get Enough Exercise
Along with your diet, exercise is a key component of a heart-healthy lifestyle.
Physical activity can help your muscles use oxygen more effectively, as well as improve your blood circulation by promoting new blood vessel growth. It can also lower high blood pressure — a key risk factor for atherosclerosis.
A good rule of thumb is to get 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise most days of the week. You can split this up into 10-minute segments if necessary. (2)
More specifically, guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicate that most adults should get 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week, or 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise.
But more physical activity will yield even more health benefits, and exercising less than is recommended is still better than no exercise at all. In fact, getting just 1 hour of moderate aerobic exercise each week has been shown to have health benefits. (1)
Aerobic exercise is any physical activity that raises your heart and breathing rate. Good choices may include:
- Running or jogging
- Cycling (regular or stationary)
- Cross-country skiing
- Aerobic dance
- Elliptical machines
- Stair-climbing machines (6)
Keep Track of Your Numbers
While you can’t control them directly, there are several body-related measurements that have been shown to correspond to your risk for atherosclerosis and heart disease.
It’s important to try to stay within recommended ranges of these measurements, both by following a heart-healthy lifestyle and by taking any treatments prescribed by your doctor to address them.
The following numbers are important to watch:
- Your blood pressure
- Your blood cholesterol levels
- Your blood glucose levels (as shown in screening tests if you don’t have diabetes)
- Your body weight
- Your waist circumference (1,2)