Imagine hundreds of cars zooming down an eight-lane highway. One lane disappears, and then another, until the same cars crawl bumper-to-bumper along a one-lane country road. That’s sort of what happens when you have atherosclerosis. Your arteries, the highways for your blood, harden and narrow, and the same amount of blood has to make its way through a much tighter space. This traffic jam in your arteries leads to all sorts of trouble, including heart attack and stroke.
Atherosclerosis occurs when cholesterol, fat, and other substances in your blood build up in the walls of your arteries. The process can begin when you’re a child, but it may not become a problem until you’re in your 50s or 60s. As this muck gathers in your arteries, it forms plaque. Plaque can clog or completely block arteries, cutting off blood flow to your heart or brain. That’s when you have a heart attack or stroke.
Too much cholesterol and triglycerides – types of fat – in the blood, high blood pressure, and smoking cause the most damage to your arteries. Other risk factors for atherosclerosis include diabetes, a family history of the condition, stress, obesity, and an inactive lifestyle. Men, in general, are at greater risk, as are people who have an “apple” body shape – with the fat gathering at the belly rather than the hips and thighs.
You can fight atherosclerosis by making good food choices. Cut back on saturated fat and cholesterol from meat and whole-milk dairy products, and look for the following foods that lower cholesterol, bring down blood pressure, and keep your blood flowing smoothly.
Nutritional blockbusters that fight atherosclerosis
Fish. Reel in a big, fat fish and wriggle off the hook of atherosclerosis. Omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated kinds found in fatty fish like tuna, mackerel, and salmon, protect your arteries from damage.
First, omega-3 takes out triglycerides, the fats that build up on your artery walls. It also stops your blood’s platelets from clumping together. That way, your blood remains smooth instead of sticky. Sticky blood can clot and block blood flow. Lastly, omega-3 might lower blood pressure.
No wonder so many studies show that eating fish can reduce your risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two fish meals a week.
You can find a form of omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid in walnuts, which lower cholesterol. Other sources of omega-3 include flaxseed, wheat germ, and some green, leafy vegetables, like kale, spinach, and arugula.
Garlic. Anything fish can do garlic does, too. The sulfur compounds in this amazing herb not only lower cholesterol and triglycerides, but they also go after only the LDL or “bad” cholesterol and leave the HDL or “good” cholesterol alone.
Garlic can also lower blood pressure so your arteries don’t take as much of a pounding. Thanks to a substance called ajoene, garlic keeps your blood from clumping and clotting. One study even showed garlic helps your aorta, the body’s main artery, remain elastic as you age.
Experts recommend getting 4 grams of garlic – about one clove – into your diet each day.
Fiber. During the course of a day, you should eat about 25 to 35 grams of fiber. If you do, you’ll boost your general health and give atherosclerosis quite a battle.
Certain types of soluble fiber, such as the kind in oats, barley, apples, and other fruits, shrink your cholesterol levels. It works by slowing down your food as it passes through your stomach and small intestine so your “good” cholesterol has more time to take cholesterol to your liver and out of your body. Eating more than 25 grams of fiber every day might also cut your risk of developing high blood pressure by 25 percent.
Fiber comes with an added bonus – it fills you up. After a fiber-rich meal, you feel full, so you’re less likely to overeat and put on unwanted pounds. Because being overweight increases your risk of atherosclerosis and other heart problems, eating fiber could be part of an effective strategy to guard your arteries.
You’ll find fiber in fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain breads and cereals.
Antioxidants. An unarmed intruder poses less of a threat than one with a weapon. By stopping free radicals from oxidizing LDL cholesterol, antioxidants remove much of the danger. Once oxidized, LDL cholesterol makes a beeline for your artery walls much faster. In fact, some scientists believe LDL cholesterol only harms you once it has been oxidized.
Vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene are antioxidants. Peppers, oranges, strawberries, cantaloupe, and broccoli give you vitamin C, while carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, mangoes, and collard greens are full of beta carotene. Sources of vitamin E include wheat germ, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.
While you munch on those fruits and vegetables, you’ll get the added benefit of antioxidant substances called flavonoids. Resveratrol in grapes, anthocyanins in cranberry juice, and quercetin in onions, apples, and tea are some of the flavonoids that help your heart and arteries.
Monounsaturated fat. To keep your blood running smoothly, maybe you need an oil change. Olive oil, the main source of fat in the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, has mostly monounsaturated fat. This type of fat slashes the “bad” cholesterol without harming the “good” cholesterol. It also prevents clotting, giving your arteries even more protection.
Like fiber, monounsaturated fat also fills you up so you’re less likely to overeat.
Think about switching from soybean or corn oil to olive oil. After all, the Greeks – even while enjoying a rather high-fat diet – rarely develop atherosclerosis.
Besides olive oil, sources of monounsaturated fat include avocados, nuts, and canola oil.
Ginger. Make your dinner a little bit tastier and your arteries a little bit healthier with this ancient spice. Ginger contains phytochemicals called gingerol and shogaol, which give it its antioxidant power.
Animal studies show ginger not only lowers LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, it also prevents LDL oxidation. On top of that, ginger also keeps your blood from clotting by reducing the stickiness of your platelets.