Cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a term used to describe conditions affecting the heart or blood vessels. This can include a stroke or coronary heart disease (CHD), which can lead to a heart attack.

Cardiovascular disease is one of the main causes of death in the UK and is often associated with a build-up of fatty deposits called cholesterol in the arteries, narrowing or blocking them. This results in the heart having to work harder to pump blood through them and over time this can cause high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.

Dietary factors contributing to the development of CVD

Diet plays an important part in preventing CVD.

Priority Health Issues - Cardiovascular Disease
  • Having a diet high in fat – An unhealthy diet high in saturated fat can increase cholesterol levels in the blood. Saturated fat should be limited, or replaced with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats (from foods such as avocados, olive oil and oily fish). Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids should be increased in the diet as these can help prevent blood clotting and positively affect cholesterol levels.
  • Being overweight or obese – If an individual has a BMI above 25, they are considered overweight. If they have a BMI over 30, they are considered obese. This can increase the risk of developing high blood pressure and diabetes, which can increase the risk of developing CVD.

Lifestyle factors contributing to the development of CVD

  • Having a diet high in salt – A diet high in salt will increase blood pressure (hypertension) due to the imbalance of water in the body, resulting in blood vessels being damaged. This increases the risk of CVD.
  • Smoking – This is a significant risk factor for CVD. Nicotine can damage the lining of the arteries, narrowing the arteries and increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. It can also reduce the amount of oxygen in your blood, which can lead to a heart attack.
  • Consuming high levels of alcohol – Alcohol contains a high number of calories which can lead to weight gain, a risk factor for CVD. High alcohol consumption can also damage the heart by increasing blood pressure.
  • Diet low in fruit and vegetables – Fruit and vegetables are high in antioxidants, which prevent damage to cells from free radicals. Dietary fibre from fruit can also help lower cholesterol levels. An absence of fruit and vegetables in the diet increases the risk of developing CVD.
  • Inactivity – If adults do not exercise for the recommended 150 minutes per week, it is more likely they will develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and be overweight, all of which are risk factors for CVD.
  • Family history of CVD – If your father or brother were diagnosed with CVD before the age of 55, or your mother or sister before the age of 65, you are considered to have a family history of CVD and therefore an increased risk of developing it.
  • Ethnic background – In the UK, CVD is more common in people of South Asian, African or Caribbean descent as they are more likely to have other contributing risk factors such as type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure.
  • Diabetes – Having diabetes increases the risk of developing high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure, both of which can lead to CVD.

Dietary advice to manage CVD

  • Eat 5-7 portions of fruit and vegetables a day – Fruit and vegetables are high in antioxidants, such as Vitamin E and C, which have benefits in preventing the risk of CVD. Fruit is also a rich source of fibre which can lower blood cholesterol levels.
  • Reduce saturated fat in your diet – This will help reduce blood cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of CVD. Increase the amount of unsaturated fats from sources such as oily fish to at least one portion per week.
  • Reduce salt in your diet – This will help to reduce blood pressure, reducing the risk of CVD. Adults should limit their salt intake to no more than 6g per day.

Lifestyle advice to manage CVD

  • Make good lifestyle choices – Stopping smoking will reduce the risk of damage to the arteries. Not exceeding alcohol consumption beyond the limits in government guidelines will limit damage to the heart.
  • Increase physical activity – Being physically active and following government recommendations (60 minutes a day for children and at least 150 minutes a week for adults) will help control weight, reducing the risk of developing CVD.
  • Maintain a healthy weight – Increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, physical activity levels and reducing fat intake should result in a good energy balance and control of weight.