Cholesterol, blood pressure and family history comprise the trifecta of cardiovascular data most often used by doctors to predict a person's heart disease risk. But some experts believe one key factor is missing from this group: arterial plaque.

"Our current approach to heart health is so archaic. We need a revolution in how we offer heart disease care," says Steven Masley, M.D., author of The 30 Day Heart Tune-Up. Masley feels that the true age of a person's heart (and thus their risk of cardiac troubles) can be determined by examining the amount of plaque accumulated in the blood vessels surrounding the vital organ. "Looking at the traditional measures isn't enough—it's the buildup in your arteries that really ages your heart."

The number one cause of death in America (and the most common heart problem) is coronary artery disease (CAD)—a condition which causes the arteries around the heart to narrow and harden as layers of cholesterol, fat and calcium build up inside them. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of CAD is that the warning signs of the condition are minimal in the beginning. "For many people, a heart attack is their first symptom," says Masley. "If you wait until someone has heart disease to manage it, then it's too late."

Plaque perpetrators and detection

Sugar and trans fat—not cholesterol—are the primary contributors to CAD and the true enemies of heart health, according to Masley; "Those two ingredients are the biochemical equivalent of injecting liquid plastic into your veins. Sugar coats the insides of the arteries, making it easier for plaque to form, while trans fats act more like embalming fluid that anything else."

The simplest way to measure arterial plaque is to have a doctor perform a carotid intima-media thickness (CIMT) test; essentially an ultrasound of the arteries around the heart. However, broad use of the CIMT test remains controversial in the cardiac community.

Most insurance plans don't cover the cost of the procedure—which runs between $250 and $350, on average—and many medical experts debate the benefits of the exam for people who have no symptoms of heart disease. The American Heart Association says there's currently not enough scientific evidence to warrant widespread use of the test and urges individual patients to consult with their doctor to learn more about CIMT.

Healing the heart with healthy foods

There is a silver lining when it comes to arterial plaque—it can be reduced with natural heart disease treatments, such as adopting the right diet and exercise program. "I've had hundreds of patients who've shrunk their plaque—reducing their heart's age by 10 years," says Masley. "In the U.S. we spend 90 percent of our time and money on procedures and prescriptions, not prevention. But the reality is that we can prevent 90 percent of heart disease with the right diet and exercise program."

The usual list of suspects (fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains) form the basis of Masley's suggested list of foods and beverages for a heart healthy diet, which includes:

  • Water
  • Red wine (in moderation)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Nuts and nut oil
  • Wild seafood
  • Free-range, organic poultry
  • Beans
  • Avocados
  • Cocoa (Dark chocolate is an acceptable treat, as long as it's 70% cocoa)
  • Heart-healthy spices (curry, ginger, chili, garlic)

He also offers two of his go-to recipes: an easy-to-make senior-friendly shake that is both heart-healthy and filling, and a 30-minute chicken dinner.

Heart Shake

Ingredients

2 scoops (20 grams) protein powder

1 cup frozen fruit (blueberries, raspberries, organic strawberries)

1 cup almond milk or coconut milk

1 Tbsp. of chia seed, flax seed or cilium fiber

Preparation

Put all ingredients into a blender and blend until desired thickness is achieved.

Italian Herb Chicken and Quinoa Sauté

Ingredients

24 oz. chicken breast, uncooked, organic, free-range, sliced into thin strips for sautéing

2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO)

1 tsp. oregano

1 tsp. rosemary, fresh, minced

¼ tsp. cayenne pepper, ground

2 cups low-sodium vegetable of chicken stock

2 cups quinoa, rinsed and drained

1 medium onion, chopped

¼ tsp. sea salt

¼ tsp. black pepper, ground

2 medium carrots, diced

2 medium celery stalks, diced

1 medium red bell pepper, sliced thinly into 1-inch strips

½ cup pistachio nuts, chopped (or sliced almonds)

Preparation

Rinse chicken with water, pat dry with paper towels, slice into strips, and rub chicken with 1 Tbsp. EVOO, with oregano, and rosemary and set chicken aside.

In a saucepan, bring stock to a gentle boil. Rinse and drain quinoa grain in a sieve. When stock is boiling, add quinoa, cover and stir. When it begins to boil again, remove from heat and set aside, covered. It should be fully cooked in 15 to 20 minutes.

Heat a sauté pan to medium-high, add the remaining (1) tablespoon of olive oil, the onion, salt and black pepper. Sauté one minute, stirring occasionally. Add chicken with herbs and sauté 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until chicken is mostly opaque. Add carrots and celery, and cook another 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add bell peppers and heat a final 2 minutes.

Heat nuts in a pan over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes to warm, but stop before they brown. Stir nuts into quinoa. Serve quinoa with nuts on plates. Then serve the chicken and vegetable sauté over the quinoa.

Nutrition information for chicken dinner

Calories: 685

Fat: 21 grams

Protein: 55 grams

Fiber: 8.3 grams

Saturated Fat: 2.9 grams

Carbohydrates: 70 grams

Sodium: 600 mg