6 Easy Steps to a Healthier Heart

A heart-healthy diet can reduce your risk of heart disease and improve your overall health.

The statistics are alarming: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. The same source reports that in the U.S. someone suffers a heart attack every 40 seconds. And every minute, more than one person in the U.S. dies from a heart disease-related event.

A bit unsettling, we know.

But here’s the good news: Many of the risk factors for heart disease are within your control. In fact, with just a few simple lifestyle changes, you can reduce your risk–and improve your overall health.

Here are six simple tweaks that will benefit your ticker:

Veg Out

Set a goal to fill half your plate with fruits and veggies at every meal. These foods are loaded with heart-healthy vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and nutrients. All contain fiber, and diets rich in this nutrient have been associated with decreased risk of coronary heart disease, improved blood cholesterol levels and lowered risk of stroke, obesity and even type 2 diabetes. Many of these foods, such as tomatoes, bananas and kiwi, also contain potassium, which can help with healthy blood pressure maintenance.

Most fruits and veggies are also fat-free (or, in the case of the avocado, full of healthy fats), cholesterol-free and low in calories.

Filling half your plate might seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be! Start your day with an easy fruit and protein smoothie, and sneak in some leafy greens. We love combining one cup of frozen blueberries with one cup of mixed greens, one scoop of vanilla protein powder and a cup of low-fat milk. For lunch, opt for a big salad or bowl of soup full of colorful veggies, or enjoy a side salad with a sandwich. At dinner time, roast up some veggies for a filling side dish–we love roasted sweet potatoes, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, carrots or beets with our last meal of the day. Some of the best snacks involve fruits and veggies, too. Try carrot sticks and cucumber slices with hummus or apple slices with peanut butter.

Make sure you’re also noshing on legumes like beans and lentils, which are especially great sources of fiber and also dish out plenty of protein. Consider making a big batch of beans one day a week so you have them all ready to go at meal time. Toss them on top of salads, mix them with brown rice and your favorite sauce or seasoning, or use them as a base for tacos and burritos.

Shake Your Salt Habit

Excess sodium consumption can put you at risk for serious medical conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and even stroke. Scary stuff considering that the average American is consuming more than 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily–that’s more than 1,000 mg over the recommended upper limit of 2,300.

And although cutting back on the table salt will certainly help your cause, most of the sodium in our diets comes from packaged, processed foods, like heat-and-eat freezer meals.

By cutting back on a few of these each week, you can dramatically reduce your sodium intake, which can help lower your blood pressure. Even if you don’t have high blood pressure, this is still a solid move since it can help prevent you from developing this condition in the future.

If it’s the convenience of these processed foods that appeals to you, consider investing in a slow cooker, and whipping up big batches of soups, stews, risottos, etc., one night a week. You can then freeze the extras so you have convenient options on hand come meal time. Making your own foods is a great way to stay in control of the ingredients–you can opt for low sodium broths and no salt added veggies.

Check out this article for more tips on how to cut back on sodium.

Don’t Be Afraid of Fats

“Fats” might be a four-letter word but if you’ve been writing them off as bad, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Fat is an essential nutrient, and a major source of energy for your body. It plays a crucial role in the absorption of some very important vitamins, including A, D, K and E. Dietary fat can also keep you feeling full and satisfied, which can help prevent overeating.

And while it’s true that some fats should be avoided, such as trans fats (often listed as “partially hydrogenated oils” on food labels), healthy fats like omega-3 and monounsaturated fats may actually help improve blood cholesterol levels, which can reduce your risk of heart disease.

Sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish like salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel; walnuts; flaxseeds and fortified eggs. Sources of monounsaturated fats include nuts, avocados, olive oil and peanut butter.

Try starting your day with some scrambled eggs and avocado, adding fatty fishes to your dinner plate twice a week and snacking on nuts or veggies with peanut butter to up your healthy fat intake.

Lean Out Your Proteins

You’ve heard it a million times: Protein is the building block of muscles. And while that’s true, this essential nutrient serves plenty of other important functions as well. For instance, your body uses protein to make bones, hair and even skin. It’s a key component of hormones and enzymes that keep your body’s systems running smoothly. And, since dietary protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, it can help you stay fuller longer–an important piece of the healthy weight maintenance puzzle.

But here’s the rub: Not all protein sources are created equal. If you tend to get your protein from meats high in saturated fats like beef, pork and lamb, you may see increases in what’s called Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL)–more commonly known as “bad” cholesterol. Since elevated LDL is a risk factor for heart disease, it’s best to limit these foods.

Leaner animal proteins like chicken, fish and low-fat turkey are better choices, as are plant-based sources, like beans and legumes, nuts and whole grains.

Keep it Whole

Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, barley and oatmeal are full of fiber, which is a heart-healthy diet staple. Dietary fiber can help improve blood cholesterol levels and lower your risk of not only heart disease, but also stroke, obesity and even type 2 diabetes.

Whole grains also provide a host of body-boosting vitamins and minerals, plus lots of free radical-fighting antioxidants.

When shopping for grains, skip refined options like white rice, white pasta and white breads, which include only part of the grain and therefore have less fiber. Just make sure the ingredient list includes “whole grains” or “100% whole grains.” Don’t be fooled by labels like “Multi-grain,” which could still not include the entire grain.

Stress Less

Easier said than done, we know. But while scientists are still exploring the direct impact of stress on heart health, one thing is clear: Stress can cause high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease. So, it’s best to keep the worrying to a minimum.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, meditation and yoga can be great ways to alleviate stress. There are plenty of “classes” online that you can download right to your phone and do at home. If that doesn’t cut it, consider calling a loved one for a good old-fashioned venting session or lace up your sneakers and go for a brisk stroll–research suggests that regular walks can help with stress management. In fact, make sure you’re exercising a few times a week–engaging in a regular exercise program can help lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, maintain an ideal body weight and reduce the risk of developing diabetes, all of which can contribute to better heart health.

While you can’t necessarily control the stressors that come into your life, you can certainly control how you react to them, which can pave the way for a healthier heart.