Preventing a heart attack
Making lifestyle changes is the most effective way to prevent having a heart attack (or having another heart attack).
There are three main steps you can take to help prevent a heart attack (as well as stroke):
- eat a healthy, balanced diet
- avoid smoking
- try to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level
Eating an unhealthy diet high in fat will make your atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) worse and increase your risk of heart attack.
Continuing to eat high-fat foods will cause more fatty plaques to build up in your arteries. This is because fatty foods contain cholesterol.
There are two main types of cholesterol:
- low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – this is mostly made up of fat plus a small amount of protein; this type of cholesterol can block your arteries, so it is often referred to as "bad cholesterol"
- high-density lipoprotein (HDL) – this is mostly made up of protein plus a small amount of fat; this type of cholesterol can reduce deposits in your arteries, so is often referred to as "good cholesterol"
There are also two types of fat – saturated and unsaturated. Avoid foods containing high levels of saturated fat, as they increase 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
- foods that contain 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.
Smoking is a major risk factor for heart attacks, because it causes atherosclerosis and raises blood pressure.
If you decide to stop smoking, your GP will be able to refer you to an NHS Stop Smoking Service, which will provide dedicated help and advice about the best ways to quit.
You can also call the NHS Smoking Helpline on 0300 123 104 (England only). Specially trained helpline staff will offer free expert advice and encouragement.
If you are committed to quitting but do not want to be referred to a stop smoking service, your GP should be able to prescribe medical treatment to help with withdrawal symptoms you may experience.
For more information about giving up smoking, read our stop smoking page.
High blood pressure
Persistent high blood pressure can put your arteries and heart under extra strain, increasing your risk of a heart attack.
High blood pressure can often be reduced by a healthy diet, moderating your intake of alcohol, maintaining a healthy weight and taking regular exercise.
The dietary advice above also applies if you have high blood pressure. In addition, cut down on 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 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.
Read more about getting your 5 A Day.
Regularly drinking alcohol above the recommended limits can raise your 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
Read more about how many units are in your favourite tipple and tips on cutting down.
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 are in popular drinks.
Being overweight forces your heart to work harder to pump blood around your body, which can raise your blood pressure. Find out if you need to lose weight with the BMI healthy weight calculator.
If you do need to shed some weight, it is worth remembering that losing just a few pounds will make a big difference to your blood pressure and overall health. Get tips on losing weight safely.
Being active and taking regular exercise will lower your blood pressure by keeping your heart and blood vessels in good condition. Regular exercise can also help you lose weight, which will help lower your blood pressure.
Low-impact activities such as walking, swimming and cycling are recommended. More strenuous activities, such as playing football and squash, may not be recommended. Check with the doctor in charge of your care.
For tips, read our pages on walking for health, swimming for fitness and the benefits of cycling.
Read more on how to prevent high blood pressure.
Heart disease can be prevented by a healthy diet and lifestyle. Get the top 10 tips for a healthy heart
At least 25% of adults have high blood pressure. Get tips on how to keep healthy
Foods you can eat and those you should avoid to help lower your cholesterol
Page last reviewed: 13/06/2014
Next review due: 13/06/2016