How to look after your heart

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the UK's biggest killer, causing around 73,000 deaths every year.

That's an average of 200 people every day, or one every seven minutes. Almost 1 in 6 men and 1 in 10 women die from coronary heart disease, but things could be very different.

Around 23,000 people under the age of 75 die from CHD in the UK each year, and most of these deaths are preventable. There are plenty of simple steps you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease.

What is coronary heart disease?

Coronary heart disease (CHD) happens when the blood supply to your heart muscle is reduced because the arteries taking blood to your heart become narrow or get blocked. This is caused by a gradual build-up of porridge-like fatty deposits inside your arteries.

Read more about the causes of coronary heart disease.

What increases your risk of heart disease?

There are several factors that increase your risk of developing CHD, but there's plenty you can do to reduce your risk:

  • quitting smoking
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • keeping active

A healthy, balanced diet and regular physical activity can help you keep your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels, and improve your heart health.

A healthy lifestyle can also lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, a risk factor for CHD, and help prevent other health problems, such as kidney disease and some cancers.

Find out how a healthy lifestyle helps you look after your heart.

But there are some things you can't change that put you at greater risk of CHD:

  • family history of heart disease – if your father, mother, brother or sister has, or had, coronary heart disease or a stroke when they were under 65 for women or under 55 for men
  • ethnic background – the risk of South Asian people in the UK dying from CHD is up to 50% higher than for white people, while people from an African Caribbean background are more likely to have high blood pressure, which means you're more likely to develop CHD
  • age – the likelihood of CHD increases as you grow older
  • gender – men are more likely to develop CHD at an earlier age than women

If you are in a high-risk category, you can still reduce your risk of developing CHD by making lifestyle changes to protect your heart.

Quit smoking

If you're a smoker, stopping is the biggest step you can take to reduce your risk of developing heart disease. Smokers are nearly twice as likely to have a heart attack as people who have never smoked. But within a year of stopping smoking, your risk of heart attack falls to about half that of a smoker.

Breathing in someone else's smoke is harmful, too. Non-smokers who live with smokers have a greater risk of heart disease than people who don't. The chemicals in cigarettes, such as nicotine, tar and carbon monoxide, can:

  • damage the lining of your arteries, leading to a build-up of fatty deposits
  • increase your blood pressure and heart rate, meaning your heart has to work harder
  • reduce the amount of oxygen your blood can carry to your heart and body
  • make your blood more likely to clot

Visit the Smokefree website or ask your GP for help with quitting. You're more likely to stop smoking for good using NHS stop smoking services.

Eat well 

A healthy, balanced diet can help reduce your risk of CHD.

You should try to eat:

  • at least five portions of different fruit and vegetables
  • plenty of starchy foods, especially wholemeal bread, brown rice and pasta
  • some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
  • some milk and dairy foods – choose lower-fat varieties 
  • just a small amount of food and drinks high in fat, sugar, or both

The eatwell plate shows the different types of food that should make up our diet, and the proportions we should eat of each type.

Eat more fibre

Eat plenty of fibre to help lower your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Adults should aim for at least 30g of fibre a day.

Your diet should include a mix of sources of fibre. Good sources of fibre include:

  • wholemeal bread, bran and wholegrain cereals
  • fruit and vegetables
  • potatoes with their skins on
  • oats and barley
  • pulses such as beans, peas and lentils
  • nuts and seeds

If you need to increase how much fibre you eat, it's wise to do it gradually and drink plenty of fluid as well. A sudden increase may make you produce more wind, leave you feeling bloated, and cause stomach cramps.

Get your 5 A DAY

Eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day. Fruit and veg can be a good source of fibre, vitamins and minerals. There are lots of ways to get your 5 A DAY.

Cut down on fat

Reduce your total fat intake, especially saturated fat. These lead to increased cholesterol, so are bad for your heart. Foods high in saturated fat include butter, hard cheese, fatty meat, biscuits, cakes, cream, lard, suet, ghee, coconut oil and palm oil.

Replace foods high in saturated fat with lower-fat versions, or eat them less often and in smaller amounts. Include small amounts of unsaturated fats, which are good for cholesterol levels. Foods high in unsaturated fat include oily fish, vegetable oils and spreads, and nuts and seeds.

Grilling, steaming, poaching, boiling or microwaving your food instead of roasting or frying means you don't need to add fat when you're cooking.

Find out more about fats in your diet.

Eat less sugar

Cut down on sugary foods and drinks so you have them only occasionally in small amounts. Cakes, biscuits, chocolate, sweets and some fizzy and juice drinks contain "free sugars". Free sugars include the sugars added to food or drink, as well as the sugars found naturally in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juice.

Many foods and drinks with added sugars contain a lot of calories (or kilojoules), so eating them too often can lead to weight gain. Being overweight can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Free sugars shouldn't make up more than 5% of the energy (calories or kilojoules) you get from food and drink each day. That's a maximum of 30g of free sugars a day for adults, which is roughly seven sugar cubes.

Find out how to cut down on sugars.

Reduce salt

Your body needs small amounts of salt. But eating too much salt can cause high blood pressure, which is linked to heart disease.

Adults should eat less than 6g of salt a day – that's about one teaspoon. About 75% of the salt in our diet is already in the food we buy. For example, popular foods such as bacon, sausages and bread, as well as ready meals, often contain a lot of salt.

To reduce the amount of salt you eat, avoid adding salt at the dinner table or when you're cooking. Get into the habit of checking food labels for salt content when you're shopping. A food is high in salt if it has more than 1.5g of salt or 0.6g of sodium per 100g.

Eat fish

Eat at least two portions of fish a week, including a portion of oily fish. Pregnant women should not eat more than two portions of oily fish a week.

Oily fish contains unsaturated fats, which can help keep your cholesterol at healthy levels. Examples of oily fish include mackerel, salmon, fresh tuna (but not canned tuna), sardines, trout, kippers and pilchards.

Check whether fish are tinned in brine, and choose fish in water or tomato juice instead to cut down on added salt.

Snack on nuts and seeds

Eat a mixture of unsalted nuts and seeds. Some nuts and seeds can provide you with unsaturated fats that, in small amounts, are helpful to your diet and may help lower your cholesterol level.

Drink less alcohol

If you drink alcohol, keep to the recommended daily limits. Regularly drinking more than this can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, and a higher risk of heart disease.

Find out more about a healthy, balanced diet in Food and diet.

Get moving

An active lifestyle can reduce your risk of developing heart disease. Past activity levels don't count: it's how active you are now that matters.

Regular exercise can lower your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and weight. Physical activity isn't just good for your body, it's good for your mood as well.

Adults should do 150 minutes of moderate activity every week. One way of achieving this target is to do 30 minutes of activity five days a week. Inactive people will achieve benefits very quickly when they resume activity.

For your physical activity to count, you need to be active enough to make you feel warm and slightly out of breath. Activities can range from a brisk walk to more vigorous exercise such as running or energetic dancing.

No matter how active you are, sitting down for long periods is unhealthy and linked to weight gain. You can reduce the amount of time you spend sitting by building activity into your day, and taking breaks when you do have to stay seated for a long time. Why not walk while you talk with colleagues or friends, and get up and move around between sessions of screen time?

Get more tips for reducing your sitting time.

Find out more ways to get more active in Health and fitness.

Your NHS Health Check

If you are aged 40 to 74 and don't already have a health condition, the NHS Health Check is your chance to get a free midlife MOT.

It checks your circulatory and vascular health, and looks at your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, stroke and dementia. Your NHS Health Check can spot early signs of these conditions and help you work out how to lower your risk.

Page last reviewed: 23/07/2015

Next review due: 23/07/2017


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Media last reviewed: 22/06/2015

Next review due: 22/06/2017