Foods That Cause Plaque Buildup in the Arteries

You’ve probably heard that what you eat can greatly affect your cardiovascular health. But knowing which foods to choose — and which to skip — to achieve your health goals, can be confusing. Rest assured, heart-healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated. Find out how to avoid the foods that can lead to plaque buildup and fill your plate with healthy alternatives instead.  

The Power of Food

cholesterol, blood

Certain foods can cause the body to make too much of a waxy substance called cholesterol. Cholesterol can combine with fat, calcium, and other substances in the blood to form plaque. Plaque then slowly builds up and hardens in the arteries, causing them to narrow. This buildup of plaque, a condition called atherosclerosis, can lead to heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

The good news? When we focus our diets on healthy foods, we can stop and potentially even reverse this narrowing of the arteries. Experts know that food that contributes to high levels of blood cholesterol contains too much saturated fat, trans fat, and dietary cholesterol. The information below can help you identify problem foods and get your arteries into healthier shape.

Saturated Fat

Saturated fat is a main culprit in the buildup of plaque in the arteries. As a result, experts suggest trying to keep saturated fat to less than 7% of total daily calories. A primary source of saturated fat is animal products. Certain oils are high in saturated fat, too. Examples of food high in saturated fat include:

  • Whole milk and cream

  • Butter

  • High-fat cheese

  • High-fat cuts of meat, such as those that look “marbled” with fat

  • Processed meats, including sausage, hot dogs, salami and bologna

  • Ice cream

  • Palm and coconut oils, which are often added to packaged and prepared foods, such as cookies and doughnuts

To cut down on saturated fat:

  • Choose leaner cuts of meat over high-fat meat. Lean beef cuts include the round, chuck, sirloin, or loin. Lean pork cuts include tenderloin or loin chops. Trim visible fat before cooking.

  • Remove skin from turkey or chicken before cooking.

  • Choose 1% or fat-free milk over higher fat milk.

  • When reheating soups, skim the solid fat off the top first.

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are low in saturated fat.

Trans Fat

Trans fat is a type of fat that is found in foods that contain partially hydrogenated oil. It forms when hydrogen is added to liquid oil, turning it into solid fat. Trans fat is found in many processed and restaurant foods, because it improves taste and texture and prolongs the shelf life of foods. Experts recommend trying to consume as little trans fat as possible.

Not all processed foods contain trans fat. And more and more food manufacturers and restaurant owners are beginning to take it out of their foods. Still, some of the biggest contributors of trans fat in our diet include fried foods and fast foods, microwave popcorn and other savory snacks, frozen pizza, margarine, cake, cookies, and more.

To avoid trans fat:

  • Read the nutrition label before buying packaged or processed foods. Look for 0 grams of trans fat. Also, scan the ingredient list. If the words “partially hydrogenated” appear anywhere, skip the product. Because products containing fewer than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can be labeled as trans fat-free, the only way to tell for sure is to check the ingredients. 

  • Seek out restaurants that have chosen not to use partially hydrogenated oils in their cooking.

  • Order foods steamed, baked, broiled or grilled over fried whenever possible.

  • Try to eat less processed food.  

Dietary Cholesterol

Although fats in your diet are the biggest contributors to high LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, dietary cholesterol matters, too. Cholesterol is found only in animal products, such as eggs, meat, and cheese. Experts recommend aiming for less than 200 mg of cholesterol in your food each day.

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