Foods That Cause Plaque Buildup in the Arteries

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Meat and Cheese

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

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 dietary 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, doughnuts, and even 'healthful' energy bars

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 man-made 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.

To reduce your dietary cholesterol:

  • Read food labels whenever possible. Choose products that are low in cholesterol, as well as in saturated fat and trans fat.
  • Avoid liver meat, which is very high in cholesterol.
  • Substitute egg whites for whole eggs. The cholesterol in eggs is all in the yolk.

Get Empowered

Although it may not be possible to eat a perfect diet all the time, the key is to make good choices most of the time. Try your best to avoid foods that can lead to plaque buildup. In addition, be sure to make other heart-healthy lifestyle choices, such as not smoking, and exercising regularly. These actions will have a major impact on your cardiovascular health.

Key Takeaways

  • Food that contributes to high levels of blood cholesterol contains too much saturated fat, transfat, and dietary cholesterol.
  • Saturated fat is a main dietary culprit in plaque buildup. It’s found in foods like whole milk, high-fat cheese, ice cream, sausage, and hot dogs
  • Trans fat is found in fried foods and fast foods, frozen pizza, margarine, cake, cookies, and more.
  • Dietary cholesterol is found only in animal products, such as eggs, meat, and cheese.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Sep 10
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.