What is Coronary Plaque?

Erin J. Hill

Coronary plaque refers to the buildup that gradually accumulates on the walls of arteries leading to and from the heart. Plaque is made up of various materials, including cholesterol and proteins, and it is a leading cause of heart disease and stroke. Almost all people have some level of coronary plaque buildup, but those who eat a diet high in certain foods are more likely to have plaque in levels considered dangerous for overall health.

The anatomy of a heart attack. Cholesterol in the bloodstream can build up as atherosclerotic plaque.
The anatomy of a heart attack. Cholesterol in the bloodstream can build up as atherosclerotic plaque.

The coronary plaque most people have is comprised of various components including cholesterol, protein, calcium, fat, cellular waste, and a substance used in blood clotting called fibrin. While some of these things cannot be prevented from forming, since they are part of the body’s natural systems, things like cholesterol can be prevented. When plaque becomes heavily accumulated on the artery walls, it can result in a serious condition called atherosclerosis. This is a condition caused by plaque which results in the arteries becoming narrow and hardened.

When atherosclerosis occurs, blood cannot pass through the arteries as efficiently as it needs to. This is what causes serious complications like heart attack. If coronary plaque buildup is caught early enough, there are medications and surgical procedures which may help clear the arteries. Lifestyle changes are also generally recommended to prevent plaque from building up once again.

To prevent coronary plaque from building up, it is important to follow certain dietary and lifestyle guidelines. First of all, it’s recommended that the diet contain only very limited amounts of the “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and higher amounts of “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. HDL helps remove "bad" cholesterol and plaque from the arteries, making blockages less likely. Those who wish to prevent heart disease and other conditions related to coronary plaque should also engage in cardiovascular activity at least three times a week, although half an hour each day is highly recommended.

Risk factors for developing excessive coronary plaque buildup include eating a diet high in fat, having a close relative who suffers or suffered from atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes which can cause arteries to swell, high blood pressure, being overweight, and smoking. Aside from keeping HDL and LDL cholesterol levels balanced, it is important to avoid too much saturated and trans fats in the diet and to maintain a healthy weight by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and avoiding fatty foods and sugar. These things will also help to prevent type 2 diabetes, which is heavily related to weight gain and sugar consumption.

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