Coronary arteries carry blood to the heart muscle. In coronary artery disease, or CAD, LDL cholesterol builds up inside these arteries, forming plaque that causes them to become narrow, blocking or slowing the flow of blood and oxygen needed for proper heart function. Risk factors for increased cholesterol and the development of CAD depend largely on the types of foods eaten. Wise dietary choices can have a profound effect on improving coronary artery health.
Good Fats and Bad Fats
Clinical studies have revealed that it’s not the total amount of fat in the diet that is linked to CAD, it’s the type of fat. Saturated fats and trans fats increase blood LDL cholesterol and the subsequent risk for CAD while two other types of unsaturated fat -- monounsaturated and polyunsaturated -- are “healthy” fats that help improve cholesterol levels.
Reduce Unhealthy Fats and Cholesterol
The best way to reduce blood LDL cholesterol, and therefore the development or progression of CAD, is to reduce the amount of saturated and trans fats in the diet, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Saturated fats are found in foods such as cream, beef, pork, bacon, butter, hot dogs and luncheon meats. Most processed foods such as cookies, crackers and baked goods, as well as margarine, shortening and fried fast foods, are sources of trans fats.
Unsaturated Fats Promote Heart Health
HelpGuide.org points out that unsaturated fats are healthy fats that improve cholesterol levels and lower inflammation, which is a risk factor for CAD. Unsaturated fats are found primarily in plant-based foods. Monounsaturated fats are one of the healthiest fat sources and are found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oils, nuts and avocados. Polyunsaturated fats are found in fish, corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil and walnuts.
Choose Low-Fat Protein Sources
A heart-healthy diet includes low-fat protein sources such as lean meat, poultry, fish and low-fat dairy products. Using non-meat sources of protein instead of meat greatly reduces saturated fat and cholesterol. According to the "New York Times," fish is a healthy alternative to high-fat meats. Salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which help to reduce blood fats called triglycerides. In addition, legumes such as beans, peas and lentils are high in protein, low in fat and contain no cholesterol.
Vegetables and Fruits Are Heart-Healthy
In addition to containing many vitamins and minerals, vegetables and fruits are low in calories and high in dietary fiber, which helps reduce cholesterol, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Dietary fiber is found primarily in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans. Vegetables and fruits contain antioxidants that may help prevent CAD.
Reduce Salt Intake
Excess intake of sodium increases the risk of high blood pressure, which in turn increases the risk of heart attack, coronary heart disease and stroke. Reducing the amount of salt in food is an important part of a heart-healthy diet. The American Heart Association recommends eating less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, but studies show that Americans consume up to twice that amount daily. Canned or processed foods such as soups and frozen dinners account for much of the salt people consume, so consumers should look for products with reduced sodium.
- HelpGuide.org: Heart Healthy Diet Tips
- The New York Times: Eating Your Way to a Sturdy Heart
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Heart-Healthy Diet -- Nutrition Basics
- American Heart Association: Frequently Asked Questions About Sodium
- Journal of the American Medical Associaton; Optimal Diets for Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease; Frank B. Hu and Walter C. Willett