Heart disease is an umbrella term that consists of several conditions affecting the heart. The term is used interchangeably with cardiac disease but is not to be confused with cardiovascular disease that includes heart and blood vessels disorders.
Coronary heart disease is referred to as ‘heart disease’. As well as being the most common, it is the most deadly. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the UK and worldwide.
Other conditions that sit under the heart disease umbrella include, but are not limited to; angina, arrhythmia, congenital heart disease and heart failure.
On this page, we will explore coronary heart disease in more detail, its symptoms and how a heart healthy diet can aid in preventing it. We will also explore how a nutrition professional can help.
Coronary heart disease
Coronary heart disease (CHD) describes the process where your coronary arteries narrow due to an accumulation of fatty deposits in their walls. Over time, these deposits may break away, causing a blockage in the arteries and stopping the flow of oxygenated blood to the heart. This process is called atherosclerosis. The pain atherosclerosis causes is known as angina, one of the main symptoms of CHD.
The two most common symptoms of CHD are heart attack and angina.
Angina, a type of chest pain, is caused when your coronary arteries become narrowed.
You may have felt a similar sensation if you have had indigestion before, as it can be mild and uncomfortable. However, if you experience a severe angina attack, it can feel painful. There is typically a tightness around the centre of the chest, which can spread to the stomach, neck, arms, back or jaw.
Angina is usually triggered when taking part in physical activity or in stressful situations. Symptoms tend to pass in 10 minutes or less and they can be relieved by a nitrate tablet or spray, or simply by resting.
A heart attack is caused by a complete blockage of your arteries. It can cause considerable damage if it is not treated straight away and can be fatal.
The symptoms of a heart attack often correlate with angina, but they are more severe.
Symptoms of a heart attack include:
- bouts of breathlessness
- pain in other parts of the body.
Similar to angina, the symptoms can feel like indigestion. For example, they may include heartburn, a heaviness in your chest or a stomach ache.
Heart attacks can happen at any moment in time, even when you are relaxing. If you suffer from heart pains for more than 15 minutes, this could indicate the start of a heart attack.
Many causes of coronary heart disease can be reduced by making a number of lifestyle changes. Causes include:
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- being overweight or obese
- lack of physical activity
- excessive alcohol consumption.
Some risk factors are predetermined and cannot be changed. These include:
- ethnic background
- family history.
Preventing coronary heart disease
You can reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease by making certain lifestyle changes. If you already have it, you can reduce the chance of having any further episodes by doing the same.
The lifestyle changes include:
- healthy eating
- becoming physically active
- managing your weight
- quitting smoking
- drinking less alcohol
Preventing heart disease
Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet
As part of a balanced diet, eating a variety of health-promoting, nutrient-dense foods is key to preventing heart disease.
To reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease, you should aim to eat:
- some eggs, meat, beans, fish and other sources of protein that are non-dairy
- a minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day
- some dairy foods including milk
- starchy whole-grain foods, including brown rice and pasta, whole grain (wholemeal, wholewheat and rye) bread and oats, pulses (beans and lentils)
- only a small amount of drinks and food that are high in sugar, fat or both.
In this article, we share 8 diet tips for a healthy heart
Eat lots of vegetables each day to obtain your plant sterols (which may help lower cholesterol) and fibre, which can also lower cholesterol, as well as folic acid and magnesium. Eating whole grains, like brown bread and pasta, is also rich in fibre and many minerals good for heart health.
- Nutritional therapist Melody Mackeown on how to keep your heart healthy
Lifestyle changes for a healthy heart
The benefits of exercise are boundless. Cardiovascular exercise will help burn calories and get rid of excess fat, reducing the risk of cholesterol blockages in the arteries and preventing heart disease. Just 150 minutes of moderate to intensive exercise a week will help improve your cholesterol levels. This could include:
- cycling - puts very little strain on joints
- brisk walking - can burn a lot of calories without exerting the heart too much
- swimming - like cycling, impact on joints is minimal due to the uplift of the water
- yoga - helps build core muscles without adding extra resistance (weight training), which could potentially put strain on the heart.
Manage your weight
Your practice nurse or GP will be able to tell you if you are a healthy weight. You can also visit our weight management page and use the BMI calculator to find out your body mass index (BMI) and find out how a nutritionist can help you maintain a healthy weight.
In the case of managing your weight, a nutrition professional will be able to develop a healthy eating plan to help you achieve a healthier body. This plan will be tailored to you, taking your metabolism, build/frame, lifestyle, dietary requirements and level of exercise you do, all into consideration.
The three main areas of weight management that a nutrition professional can help you with include:
- weight gain
- controlling cravings
To improve your heart health as a smoker, the best thing you can do is quit, as smoking is one of the major causes of coronary heart disease. If you stop smoking, your heart attack risk drops by half of that of a smoker.
‘Second-hand smoking’ is dangerous too. Non-smokers that live with smokers are at a greater risk of developing heart disease than those who do not. The chemicals in cigarettes (tar, carbon monoxide, nicotine etc.) can:
- increase the likelihood of your blood clotting
- inhibit the amount of oxygen that your blood can transport to your body and heart
- increase your heart rate and blood pressure, which will make your heart work harder
- cause damage to the lining of your arteries, which can lead to an accumulation of fatty deposits.
Drink less alcohol
It is best not to drink alcohol as it increases your risk of getting cancer, but if you do then limit it to 14 units per week for men and women. Try to have at least three to four days per week when you do not drink alcohol. Alcohol contains calories and it is easy to put on weight if you regularly drink.
How can a nutrition professional help?
A nutrition professional can offer you expert guidance without the confusion of conflicting theories or commercial dieting fads. Although we have covered the basics on this fact-sheet, a nutrition professional will tailor a food plan to your personal needs and requirements.
A nutrition professional can provide you with help and support to discover where you may be going wrong with your current eating habits. They can also help find out what food groups you are eating too much of, or are lacking.
Finding a nutrition professional that you personally get along with is the perfect first step to take to adopt a suitable heart-healthy diet plan that will fit around your life. A balanced diet can help you lose weight, lower your cholesterol, reduce your risk of heart disease and experiencing a stroke or heart attack, and improve the quality of your life.
If you are concerned that you may be lacking the motivation and diet knowledge, are suffering a deficiency or may have an intolerance to a food, speaking to a nutrition professional can really help.
Content reviewed by dietitian, Elizabeth Campling. All content displayed on Nutritionist Resource is provided for general information purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for advice given by your GP or any other healthcare professional.