A person’s arteries can become clogged when plaques build up inside them, reducing blood flow. Eating specific foods cannot cleanse plaques out of the arteries, but a healthful diet can help manage and prevent heart disease.
Over time, plaque buildup can lead to thickened or hardened arteries. This is a condition known as atherosclerosis.
This article looks at how diet can help with atherosclerosis, foods to eat and avoid, and strategies for heart health.
Atherosclerosis is the thickening or hardening of the arteries. A buildup of plaque in the artery lining causes this. Plaques comprise cholesterol, calcium, a blood-clotting protein called fibrin, and cellular waste products.
As the plaque builds up, it can block blood flow through the arteries.
Blocked arteries can cause coronary heart disease, angina, and peripheral artery disease. If a piece of plaque breaks off and gets stuck in the bloodstream, it can reduce blood flow, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Scientists do not know exactly how atherosclerosis starts or what causes it. It is a slowly progressing disease that can begin in childhood. Risk factors may include diet, smoking, and having obesity.
Diet is an essential part of keeping the arteries healthy, along with other lifestyle aspects.
Certain foods are beneficial for cardiovascular health, while other foods can increase a person’s risk of heart disease.
The following sections look at the scientific evidence behind how diet can help with atherosclerosis and maintain artery health.
Eat a Mediterranean diet
The PREDIMED study followed participants aged 55–80 years with high cardiovascular risk for nearly 5 years.
The participants ate either a low fat or Mediterranean diet with extra virgin olive oil or nuts. During the study period, the groups eating the Mediterranean diets experienced fewer major cardiovascular events than those following the low fat diet.
In the DIRECT-Carotid study published in 2010, researchers looked at how diet affected carotid artery thickness, a measure of atherosclerosis. They found that, over 2 years, diets resulting in weight loss positively affected arteries.
This study found that low fat, low carb, and Mediterranean diets were all equally effective at reducing participants’ body weight and blood pressure.
Include antioxidants from fruits and vegetables
Harmful molecules known as free radicals can oxidize low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the blood in a process called oxidative stress. This process contributes to inflammation and plaque in the arteries.
Antioxidants can counteract oxidative stress, which could be why the antioxidant-rich Mediterranean diet is beneficial for atherosclerosis.
Studies suggest that antioxidants are beneficial for cardiovascular health, but researchers do not all agree.
Many studies use synthetic forms of antioxidants, which may act differently than natural antioxidants from food sources.
A 2015 review looked at the evidence for a plant-based diet in preventing atherosclerosis-related coronary artery disease. The study suggested that red meat increases the molecule trimethylamine N-oxide, which contributes to atherosclerosis.
Avoid unhealthful fats and sugar
However, some research suggests that saturated fat does not clog the arteries.
People also need to be wary of factors other than fat. Eating foods high in sugar or refined carbohydrates can increase triglycerides in the blood and boost the risk of heart disease.
Overall, the evidence supports a Mediterranean-style diet of antioxidant-rich plant foods, olive oil, and nuts. People should be aware of their saturated fat and sugar intake and avoid all trans fats.
The following foods may help support healthy arteries.
Different colored fruits and vegetables
To obtain a wide range of antioxidants, someone should vary the vegetables and fruits they eat. Remembering to “eat a rainbow” is a useful way to do this.
Moderating intake of starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, can help someone manage their weight and risk of cardiovascular disease.
Extra virgin olive oil
Someone can include extra virgin olive oil in their recipes and as a salad dressing.
The flavor of olive oil can vary according to where and how manufacturers extract it. A person can sample different types to see which they prefer.
Nuts are a healthful addition to a person’s diet.
There are many different types of nuts to choose from, and someone can eat them as a snack or add them to salads or breakfasts.
If someone is trying to maintain a moderate weight, they should be aware of their portion size of nuts, since they can be high in calories.
Fatty fish are part of the Mediterranean diet, and the omega-3 fatty acids that they contain have anti-inflammatory properties.
Fatty fish include:
People can include fatty fish in their meals up to twice a week but should limit their consumption of fish with higher mercury levels, such as swordfish and marlin.
Legumes, beans, and pulses
A person can purchase them precooked in tins, or soak and cook them from dry. Types to include are:
- black beans
- split peas
- red or green lentils
- Puy lentils
- fava beans
- kidney beans
- adzuki beans
- pinto beans
- lima beans
People should eat grains in their whole, natural state. Whole grains contain more fiber than processed grains and can help balance blood glucose.
Someone should be mindful of their portion size and aim to eat no more than a quarter of a plate of whole grains.
People can include whole grain:
People should limit or avoid the following foods:
- added sugars in sodas, sweets, breakfast cereals, biscuits, and cakes
- processed foods that contain trans fats, high sugar, and high salt
- margarine, which may contain trans fats or hydrogenated fats
- red meat
- processed meats such as burgers, bacon, ham, and salami
- refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white pasta, and white rice
Other than eating a healthful diet, someone can help prevent atherosclerosis by maintaining a healthful lifestyle that includes:
Doctors can prescribe medicines to treat atherosclerosis. These include:
- antiplatelet medication, such as aspirin or clopidogrel, to reduce blood clotting
- anticoagulants, such as warfarin or heparin, to thin the blood
- cholesterol-lowering medicines, such as statins
- blood pressure medicines
Sometimes, a doctor needs to perform surgery for atherosclerosis. This may include balloon angioplasty or a stent to open a blocked artery. Healthcare professionals can treat angina with a coronary artery bypass. The doctor grafts a piece of a healthy vein to an area above the blockage to allow blood to flow.
A person may not experience signs and symptoms of atherosclerosis in the early stages. However, when a major artery becomes blocked, this could lead to a heart attack or stroke.
If a person has concerns about their symptoms, they should speak with their doctor or visit the emergency room in more severe cases.
When it comes to atherosclerosis or clogged arteries, prevention is better than the cure. Someone can reduce their risk of the condition by adopting a healthful diet and maintaining a moderate weight.
Evidence suggests that a Mediterranean diet may be beneficial, so where possible, people should eat a diet with plenty of vegetables, olive oil, and nuts.
Having a regular exercise routine and being physically active can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.