Atherosclerosis, or arteriosclerosis, is a condition that occurs when blood vessels become thick and stiff. If you have ever heard the term “hard arteries,” it refers to this condition. Atherosclerosis is often preventable and treatable.

Because blood vessels carry oxygen and nutrients from your heart to the rest of your body, any impairment to them can restrict blood flow and cause problems. Arteries are flexible when they are healthy. When fat, cholesterol, and other substances build up in them, however, they can form plaques on the lining of the artery, causing them to become stiff and inflexible. This can pose a health risk.

Often, people do not know that they have this condition until an artery is actually clogged. Plaques can burst and cause a blood clot. If these clots get stuck in a spot where the artery is narrow, it can cut off blood flow, and cause stroke or heart attack.

Atherosclerosis can be caused by a number of conditions, such as high cholesterol, smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes. It can also occur when you have high levels of triglycerides in your blood, or inflammation caused by other diseases such as lupus or arthritis. A recent study published in 2014 linked low vitamin D levels in childhood to a higher likelihood of developing atherosclerosis.

Risk Factors for Atherosclerosis

Chest pain or pressure, also known as angina, can be a sign that you have atherosclerosis in your heart arteries (called coronary artery disease). If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries that go to your brain, you may experience sudden numbness or weakness in your arms or legs, slur your speech, or notice drooping facial muscles. These may be signs of a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which can lead to a stroke if it is not treated in a timely manner. Carotid artery disease refers to this atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to the brain.

Atherosclerosis can occur in the arms and legs, too. In that case, it is called peripheral artery disease and often shows up as pain during walking. High blood pressure or kidney failure can signal atherosclerosis in the arteries that lead to your kidneys. It can also affect your genitals, showing up as sexual dysfunction. Men may experience erectile dysfunction due to the reduced blood flow; women may have less pleasurable sex due to lower blood flow to the vagina.

Detecting Atherosclerosis

Doctors can use a variety of tests to diagnose atherosclerosis. Your doctor may take blood, administer a stress test, perform an imaging test, or use other methods.

In the event that atherosclerosis is detected, you can take action to treat the condition and hopefully prevent further complications, such as a stroke or heart attack. Taking a medication, exercising, and eating well are all courses of action that a doctor may recommend. Physicians may perform surgical procedures if they feel it is necessary.

Eating for Atherosclerosis

The foods you eat can play a large role in effectively managing atherosclerosis. According to a 2011 report, the following rules of thumb are good for patients with atherosclerosis or heart disease. They share very much with the Mediterranean Diet.

Learn More About the Mediterranean Diet »

  • Avoid foods high in saturated and trans fats. Switch to olive oil, peanut oil, or canola oil. Avoid hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated trans fats, which commonly are labeled as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Limit high fat and processed meats and cheese, baked goods, ice cream, fried foods, and other foods that are processed.
  • Reduce salt and sugar. Avoid adding salt to meals, and look for low-sodium products. Limit added sugar; sweeten foods with natural whole fruit instead. This can help increase fiber intake as well.
  • Boost unsaturated fats. “Good” fats come from foods such as avocados, almonds, black olives, and flaxseed. Unsaturated fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These can help raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is the good cholesterol that helps flush out low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is the bad type of cholesterol.
  • Eat more fiber. Unprocessed whole grains are preferred over processed carbohydrates, and legumes and seeds can add healthy fats as well as fiber. Think nuts, oatmeal, whole grains, and beans. 

Another diet that comes highly recommended for preventing heart disease as well as a host of other conditions is the Pritikin diet. This diet focuses on consuming fruits, vegetables, whole grains, starchy vegetables, legumes, calcium-rich foods, fish, and lean sources of protein. It includes eating from a list of “go” foods, “caution” foods, and “stop” foods, emphasizing foods that are low in total and saturated fat.