Making lifestyle changes is a very effective way of preventing or reversing the process of atherosclerosis.
These changes can also help reduce your risk of developing a cardiovascular disease, such as coronary heart disease, heart attack or stroke.
There are five ways you can help reduce your risk of developing further coronary heart disease:
- eat a healthy diet
- stop smoking (if you smoke)
- take regular exercise
- lose weight (if you are overweight or obese)
- moderate your consumption of alcohol
These lifestyle changes are discussed in more detail below.
Eating an unhealthy diet high in fat will make your atherosclerosis worse and increase your risk of developing a heart attack or stroke.
There are two types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Avoid foods that contain saturated fats as they increase the levels of bad cholesterol in your blood.
Foods high in saturated fat include:
- meat pies
- sausages and fatty cuts of meat
- ghee – a type of butter often used in Indian cooking
- hard cheese
- cakes and biscuits
- food that contains coconut or palm oil
Eating a small amount of unsaturated fat will increase the level of good cholesterol and help reduce any blockage in your arteries.
Foods high in unsaturated fat include:
- oily fish
- nuts and seeds
- sunflower, rapeseed and olive oil
Read more about healthy eating and facts about fat.
Plant sterols and stanols are naturally occurring substances found in some types of food, and are known to lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad cholesterol").
Sources of sterols and stanols include:
- legumes – such as beans or peas
- olive oil
- vegetable oil
Research suggests eating 2,000mg of sterols and stanols a day reduces levels of LDL cholesterol by around 10%, which in turn should reduce the risk of heart disease by around 25%. The average intake of plant sterols and stanols is about 100-450mg.
There are now a number of commercial products promoted for their alleged "cholesterol-lowering" effects. These contain higher levels of sterols and stanols, and include special types of yoghurt, milk, margarine and cheese.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has stated there may be a role for these types of products in the treatment of high cholesterol and atherosclerosis.
However, there is currently not enough evidence to confirm whether plant sterols and stanols are an effective method of preventing cardiovascular disease.
Smoking is a major risk factor for both heart attacks and strokes because it causes atherosclerosis and raises your blood pressure.
If you decide to stop smoking, your GP will be able to refer you to an NHS stop smoking service, which will offer dedicated help and advice about the best ways to quit.
You can also call the Smokefree helpline on 0300 123 1044 (Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm, and 11am to 4pm at the weekend). The specially trained helpline staff offer free expert advice and encouragement.
If you are committed to giving up smoking but do not want to be referred to a stop smoking service, your GP should be able to prescribe treatment to ease your withdrawal symptoms.
For more information about giving up smoking, see treatment for quitting smoking and stop smoking.
High blood pressure
Persistent high blood pressure can put both your arteries and heart under extra strain, increasing your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
High blood pressure can often be reduced by having a healthy diet, moderating your consumption of alcohol, maintaining a healthy weight, and taking regular exercise.
The dietary advice above also applies if you have high blood pressure. You should also cut the amount of salt in your food and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables.
Salt raises your blood pressure. The more salt you eat, the higher your blood pressure. You should aim to eat less than 6g (0.2oz) of salt a day, which is about a teaspoonful.
Find out more about how to cut down on salt.
Eating a low-fat diet that includes lots of fibre, such as wholegrain rice, bread and pasta, and plenty of fruit and vegetables has been proven to help lower blood pressure.
Fruit and vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals and fibre, and help keep your body in good condition. You should aim to eat five 80g portions of fruit and vegetables every day.
Find out more about getting your 5 A DAY.
Regularly drinking alcohol above the limits recommended by the NHS will raise your blood pressure. Staying within the recommended levels is the best way to reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure:
- men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week
- spread your drinking over three days or more if you drink as much as 14 units a week
Find out how many units are in your favourite tipple, track your drinking over time, and get tips on cutting down on alcohol.
Alcohol is also high in calories, so you will gain weight if you drink regularly. Being overweight will also increase your blood pressure.
Find out how many calories there are in popular drinks.
Being overweight forces your heart to work harder to pump blood around your body, which can raise your blood pressure.
If you do need to shed some weight, it is worth remembering just losing a few pounds will make a big difference to your blood pressure and overall health – get tips on losing weight safely.
Find out if you need to lose weight with the BMI healthy weight calculator.
Being active and taking regular exercise will lower your blood pressure by keeping your heart and blood vessels in good condition. Regular exercise will help you lose weight, which will also help lower your blood pressure.
If you have a history of cardiovascular disease, low-impact activities such as walking, swimming and cycling are recommended. More strenuous activities such as playing football and squash may not be advised. Check with your GP for more information.
Find out more about walking for health, swimming for fitness, and the benefits of cycling.
Read more about preventing high blood pressure.
Heart disease is the most common cause of death in the UK. Find out what to do to keep your heart fit for purpose
Page last reviewed: 13/06/2014
Next review due: 13/06/2016