The Surprising Habit That Leads to Plaque Buildup in Your Arteries, According to Cardiologists

Heart and stethoscope

It’s common knowledge that plaque can damage your teeth. But did you know that plaque can also damage your heart? It’s true. One of the biggest risk factors for heart disease is plaque buildup in the arteries. Since this type of plaque buildup is happening inside the body, it’s not something we can see happening just by inspecting our body or looking in the mirror. That’s why it’s important to know exactly what causes plaque buildup and how to avoid it.

As you likely know, there is a strong link between dietary habits and heart health, including plaque buildup. While it may be common knowledge that nutrient-rich foods are good for heart health and ultra-processed foods aren’t, there’s one way of eating that many people do in the name of wellness that can actually cause more harm than good.

Related: This Is the Worst Habit for Heart Health, According to Cardiologists

What Is Plaque Buildup and How Does It Impact the Heart?

“Plaque buildup, or atherosclerosis, is the process that leads to blockages of the coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle. This is also called coronary artery disease. It's caused by the build-up of cholesterol and inflammatory cells inside the lining of the blood vessels,” explains Dr. Ali Haider, MD, an interventional cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens. Dr. Haider says that multiple risk factors can lead to plaque buildup, including some that are out of one’s control such as genetics and age. He says that other risk factors for plaque buildup include elevated cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cigarette smoking and unhealthy diet and lifestyle habits.

Dr. Haider says that the reason why it’s important to take plaque buildup seriously is because it’s detrimental to heart health and heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the U.S. “This buildup of plaque is what can ultimately lead to heart attacks, when the plaque is ‘unstable’ and can rupture, causing a sudden blockage and causing injury to the heart muscle,” he explains.

Related: 25 Foods That Are Good for Your Heart, From Fruits and Vegetables to Heart-Healthy Nuts and Seeds

Doctors don’t typically look for the presence of plaque buildup in patients, Dr. Haider says, explaining that the focus is instead on managing risk factors to prevent the buildup from happening in the first place. However, he does share that there are some tests physicians may do to look for the presence of plaque. This includes a coronary artery calcium score (a low-dose CAT scan of the heart that looks for calcium deposits in the arteries, which is a sign of plaque buildup), a coronary CTA (an imaging test to view the blood vessels and tissues) and a coronary angiogram (an invasive procedure that is performed when someone is having significant symptoms or having a heart attack to need to fix a blockage).

While tests like these can be beneficial, Dr. Haider emphasizes that, typically, the focus is on managing risk factors to prevent the buildup of plaque, which in part includes the way we eat.

Related: Want to Improve Your Heart Health Quickly? Here's How, According to Doctors

The Surprising Dietary Habit That Can Cause Plaque Buildup

If you want to eat with heart health in mind, Dr. Haider says that one major mistake many people make is following the ketogenic diet. “Recently, there are a lot of people pushing a high-fat, low-carb keto diet. Despite what folks might hear out there, a high saturated fat diet is one of the worst diets when it comes to plaque buildup,” he explains. 

Dr. Haider says that while the ketogenic diet may help some people lose weight, it’s not a good eating plan for heart health. This is because a diet high in saturated fat is linked to raising LDL cholesterol, which can then lead to plaque buildup in the arteries.

If the ketogenic diet is not the best eating plan for heart health, then what is? Dr. Haider recommends the tried-and-true Mediterranean diet. This eating plan has repeatedly been scientifically shown to benefit heart health and Dr. Haider points out that, unlike the ketogenic diet, it is low in saturated fat.

To avoid plaque buildup, Dr. Haider recommends three key steps:

  • Know your numbers: Get your blood pressure, blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels checked regularly and talk to a doctor about strategies to modify them, if needed.

  • Live a healthy lifestyle: Don’t smoke, eat a nutrient-rich diet and get regular exercise.

  • Know your family history: Be sure to see a cardiologist or preventive cardiologist if there is a history of heart disease in your family.

With these three rules in place, you will be doing your part to prevent plaque buildup in your arteries and keep your heart healthy. As for the keto diet, let this serve as a reminder that just because something is trendy—even in the wellness world—that doesn’t mean it’s actually healthy.

Next up, find out what the number one sign is that someone has a healthy heart.