Dr. MJ Bazos MD, Patient Handout

Coronary Artery Disease: How Your Diet Can Help

What is coronary artery disease?

The vessels that bring blood to the heart are called the coronary arteries. They are like narrow tubes. A fatty substance called plaque can build up in these arteries and make them narrow, so less blood gets to the heart. This is called coronary artery disease. If you have coronary artery disease, your heart isn't getting the blood and oxygen it needs to work like it should. Coronary artery disease can lead to serious health problems, including angina (pain or pressure in the chest) and heart attack.

Several things increase your risk for coronary artery disease, including high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, obesity, being male, a family history of the disease and a high cholesterol level.

Although you can't change all of the things that increase your risk for coronary artery disease, you can lower your cholesterol level by making changes in your diet (see the box below), and you can quit smoking (if you smoke now).

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a substance present in all of us. Our bodies make cholesterol. It's also present in meat and dairy foods. Plant foods don't have cholesterol. There are several types of cholesterol, including low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).

LDL cholesterol is called "bad" cholesterol because it can build up on the inside of your arteries, causing them to become narrow from plaque. HDL is called "good" cholesterol because it protects your arteries from plaque buildup.

How does lowering LDL cholesterol help?

Lowering your LDL cholesterol level will help keep plaque from building up in your arteries. This makes it easier for your heart to get the blood and nutrients it needs.

If you already have coronary artery disease, your doctor will probably want you to lower your LDL level by at least 30 to 35% through diet, exercise and, possibly, medicines. Another way to help is to increase your HDL level. If you can reduce your LDL level to less than 130 and increase your HDL level to at least 50, you're on the right track.

What foods should I add to my diet?

When trying to lower your LDL cholesterol, you should add foods to your diet that are low in cholesterol and saturated fats, because your body turns saturated fats into cholesterol. To do this, eat foods that are high in soluble fiber (see the box below).

Eat less of these foods:

Instead, eat more of these foods:

There are lots of ways to add healthy foods to your diet. Follow the tips and the serving-size guidelines below:

What else can I do if I have coronary artery disease?

Besides changing your diet, you should talk to your doctor about an exercise program that's right for you. If you smoke, quit. If you're overweight, try to lose weight (changing your diet and exercising will help you lose weight). Talk with your doctor about reducing other risk factors, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

What if changing my diet doesn't help?

Your body will need time to respond to changes in your diet. Your doctor will watch your progress. If your cholesterol level hasn't improved after 2 to 6 months, your doctor may prescribe medicine to lower your cholesterol. However, you will still need to eat a healthy diet to help the medicine work.