Heart disease

Written by Bonnie Gifford
Bonnie Gifford
Nutritionist Resource Content Team

Last updated 10th January 2023 | Next update due 9th January 2026

Heart disease is an umbrella term often used to refer to several heart-related conditions. Used interchangeably with cardiac disease, coronary heart disease is the most common and deadly type 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.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease refers to a number of different types of heart conditions. Most commonly, heart disease is used to refer to coronary heart disease (CHD), a condition which affects how blood flows to your heart. This decrease in blood flow can cause a heart attack. 

Coronary heart disease (CHD)

Coronary heart disease (also referred to as ischaemic heart disease or coronary artery disease) 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.

Symptoms of coronary heart disease

The two most common symptoms of CHD are heart attack and angina.

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.

Heart attacks - 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
  • nausea
  • sweating
  • lightheadedness
  • 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.

Other common symptoms of coronary heart disease can include:

  • pain throughout your body or specifically in your chest

  • feeling short of breath, nauseous, or faint 

Not everyone will experience the same symptoms of CHD. Some people may not have any symptoms at all prior to diagnosis.

Causes of coronary heart disease 

Many causes of coronary heart disease can be reduced by making a number of lifestyle changes. Causes can include:

  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • smoking
  • being overweight or obese
  • lack of physical activity
  • excessive alcohol consumption

Some risk factors are predetermined and cannot be changed. These include age, sex, ethnic background and family history. 

Nutritional professionals who can help with nutrition for heart disease

Reducing your risk of coronary heart disease

It’s possible to reduce your risk of developing CHD by making lifestyle changes. Lifestyle changes can also help reduce the risk of further episodes if you already have coronary heart disease. Suggested changes include:

Preventing heart disease

There are different ways you can help to prevent or reduce your risk of developing heart disease. Your GP may recommend you try to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Other recommended, preventative measures can include:  

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.

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

Exercise regularly

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 a 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 to 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:

  • obesity
  • weight gain
  • controlling cravings

Quit smoking

To improve your heart health as a smoker, one of the best things you can do is quit, as smoking is one of the major causes of coronary heart disease. Chemicals in cigarette smoke can cause your blood to thicken, which can lead to the formation of clots, and make the walls of your arteries sticky, reducing how much space you have for your blood to flow properly. If your arteries get clogged, this can lead to stroke, heart attack, raised heart rate and blood pressure, and reduced oxygen delivered around your body. 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. 

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, spread across at least three days. 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 here, 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 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 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.

Frequently asked questions: Nutrition and heart disease

How does nutrition influence heart disease?

What you eat (and how much you exercise) can have a significant impact on your heart’s health and your risk of developing heart disease. Having a diet that is high in cholesterol, saturated fats, and trans fats has been linked to heart disease as well as a number of related conditions. If your diet has too much salt (more than 6g a day for adults, approximately one teaspoon) this can raise your blood pressure which is a major risk for developing heart disease. 

Making changes to what you eat through increasing how many fresh fruits and vegetables are in your diet, reducing processed foods, and eating foods high in fibre and low in saturated fats can be a big help. Working together with a nutritional professional can help you to better understand how nutrition and diet can influence heart disease. A professional can also help create a tailored diet plan for your individual circumstances and needs. 

What is the best diet if you have heart disease?

Maintaining a healthy diet filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, as well as low-fat dairy, skinless poultry and fish, can all be helpful if you have heart disease. It’s important to maintain a balanced diet to ensure you are getting all of the vitamins and nutrients your body needs. 

A nutritional professional can highlight the most helpful dietary changes to suit your individual needs. They may consider health concerns, allergies and intolerances, and other food-related issues, to help create a sustainable plan that works best for you. They may also be able to advise you of any nutrients, vitamins or supplements that may be recommended. You should always consult with your GP before starting any supplements. 

If you are unsure where to get started, the Eatwell guide provides a great visual representation of what your plate should look like, and how much you should eat and drink each day.  

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.

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