Cardiologists Say Adding This One Food to Your Diet Can Be a Total Game-Changer For Your Arteries

Woman shopping for food to benefit her arteries

Modern medicine has given rise to incredible strategies for treating clogged arteries and the issues they cause, from transplants to medication. Yet, cardiologists agree: Prevention remains the best medicine for atherosclerotic disease, or the build-up of substances like fats and cholesterol in the artery walls.

"It is far better to avoid atherosclerotic disease than to attempt to treat atherosclerotic disease," says Dr. Bradley Serwer, MD, a cardiologist and Chief Medical Officer at VitalSolution. "By the time we prescribe medications, the disease process has risen to an advanced state."

What's on your plate can affect what winds up in your arteries. Cardiologists explain that a nutritious diet is critical for maintaining and improving artery health.

"An unhealthy diet can lead to blockage formation in the heart arteries that can present as a massive heart attack," says Dr. Nicholas Ruthmann, MD of Cleveland Clinic. "A heart-healthy diet can decrease the onset of diabetes as well as inflammation levels in the body."

Dr. Ruthmann also says that some factors out of our control, like genetics, play a role in heart health. However, diet is an area that he empowers patients to take ownership of. What's on the menu? Cardiologists discuss one food and a popular diet for artery health.

Related: The One Food You Should Stop Eating ASAP if You Want To Live to 100, According To Registered Dietitians

What Do Arteries Do?

Maintaining artery health is a critical component of minimizing cardiovascular disease risk.

"Arteries are conduit tubes that bring oxygen-rich blood to the organs of the body," says Dr. Guy L. Mintz, M.D., FACP, FACC, FNLA, the director of Cardiovascular Health & Lipidology at Northwell Health's Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital and North Shore University Hospital. "The cells need oxygen for their metabolism-function."

Dr. Serwer explains that arteries have thick walls that can constrict and relax. However, that biological function can put the arteries at risk.

"Arterial walls are vulnerable to have cholesterol embedded into them, causing plaque or atherosclerosis," Dr. Serwer says.

What Does It Mean To Have Clogged Arteries?

We often use "clogged" when referring to plumbing, like sinks and toilets. Dr. Ruthmann says thinking of an artery like a hollow pipe can help people understand what "clogged arteries" mean. "Healthy arteries have smooth inner walls without any blockages within the tubing," he adds. "As a result, blood flows smoothly and quickly without any restriction."

Clogged arteries are like a tube with rough, bumpy inner walls.

"The hollow pipe becomes clogged, so blood can’t flow as easily through," Dr. Ruthmann explains.

That's a problem. "Limiting the amount of blood flow to a major organ, like the heart, brain or legs can ultimately lead to damage, heart attack, stroke and limb pain or loss," Dr. Mintz says.

The No. 1 Food For Artery Health

Dr. Ruthmann recommends loading up on leafy green veggies like kale, spinach, romaine and arugula. "In other words, eat more salads," he says, explaining that leafy greens have a nutrient profile that offers big benefits for heart health.

"Leafy greens are jam-packed full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and nitrates, which help to lower blood pressure and keep arteries open," Dr. Ruthmann says.

A 2021 study of more than 53,000 people indicated that participants who consumed nitrate-rich veggies, especially leafy greens, had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

Related: This One Nutrient Can Make a Huge Difference for Blood Vessel Plaque—Are You Getting Enough?

How to Add More Leafy Greens to Your Diet

Dr. Ruthmann suggests exchanging leafy greens for carbs like bread, rice or pasta.

"If you substitute leafy greens for rice or noodles, you’re taking in significantly fewer calories and carbohydrates that can, over time, help prevent weight gain and the formation of diabetes," he explains.

Sound boring? The fiber in leafy green veggies can leave you feeling satisfied.

"You may be surprised that you don’t miss the more calorie-filled carbohydrates after all," Dr. Ruthmann adds.

Refined carbohydrates like white bread, pasta and noodles can increase the risk of  cardiovascular disease (whole grains are considered heart-healthy), according to research.

You don't have to clear carbs or other favorite foods off your plate entirely. However, Dr. Ruthmann recommends having a leafy green-loaded salad to take up more real estate.

"Make it the focus and in the process, you’ll be less hungry and less motivated to consume more unhealthy food options instead," he says.

What Else to Consume For Artery Health

While Dr. Ruthmann called out leafy greens for their heart-healthy benefits, he and Dr. Mintz both stressed that a complete diet is better than over-emphasizing one food. Of course, there are tons of diets out there. The two recommend a Mediterranean diet.

"It minimizes the food most likely to lead to blockage in the heart arteries and limits foods that are more likely to lead to diabetes," Dr. Ruthmann says.

In addition to leafy greens, Dr. Mintz explains that the Mediterranean diet limits meat (particularly red meat), processed food and saturated fats. Instead, he says people consume a diet rich in whole grains, nuts, healthy fats like avocadoes and plant-based proteins like beans.

Related: The #1 Way to Unclog Your Arteries Naturally, According to Cardiologists

4 Other Ways to Improve Heart Health

1. Exercise

The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity weekly.

"Exercise increases blood flow and circulation, decreases inflammation, burns off fat and increases your overall heart artery health," Dr. Ruthmann says. "I recommend doing any activity that increases your heart rate and gets a sweat going."

Dr. Ruthmann also suggests finding something you enjoy—you're more likely to stick with it if you do.

2. Stress reduction

Dr. Serwer says that stress can have a ripple effect on our mental health, including contributing to weight gain that can increase heart disease risk.

"Stress reduction with meditation, yoga, exercise or relaxation can be highly beneficial," Dr. Serwer suggests.

3. Know your risk factors

Knowing you are at risk for cardiovascular disease can empower you to seek care and screening.

"There are screening tests for early atherosclerotic heart disease beyond blood tests such as coronary artery calcium score or, if appropriate, a stress test," Dr. Mintz says.

Dr. Mintz says risk factors include:

  • Hypertension

  • Diabetes

  • Smokers

  • High cholesterol with a positive family history of atherosclerotic heart disease in a first-degree relative

  • Inflammatory disease states such as rheumatoid arthritis

  • Lupus, early menopause

  • Pregnancy-induced high blood pressure or diabetes

  • Obesity, particularly manifested in the belly

  • Elevated blood biomarkers such as elevated lipoprotein a, high blood sugar-prediabetes

  • Sleep apnea

A primary care physician can refer you to a cardiologist if necessary.

4. Reach out for help

Certain symptoms are red flags to seek care. Dr. Mintz suggests calling a doctor if you are experiencing:

  • Chest pain

  • Shortness of breath at rest or with exercise

  • Reduction in energy or ability to be active because of symptoms

If you believe you are having a heart attack or stroke, seek immediate care by calling 9-1-1. Remember, it's always better to play it safe.

"The human body does not follow a textbook of symptoms and signs of cardiovascular disease—everyone is different," Dr. Mintz says. "If you don’t feel well, seek out medical advice."

Next up: 'I'm a Cardiologist—Here's the Exact Time of Day I Eat Breakfast Every Morning'