The health of your heart can impact every part of your body, from the brain, kidneys and lungs to sexual function.
Slight diet and lifestyle tweaks can make a big difference in preventing heart disease, yet cardiologists keep seeing the toll it takes on Americans.
“Look at what happens to people when we get older: You work your whole life, you save your money and when you’re ready for retirement what do we look forward to? Heart attacks, strokes, peripheral artery disease, dementia, erectile dysfunction,” Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado, tells TODAY.com.
“These are scary things, and the goal is not to be scared, but rather inspired to make those changes now to enjoy life.”
It doesn’t take a complete lifestyle overhaul to improve heart health — “it’s always best to make small incremental changes over time because it helps you to maintain them,” says Dr. Jayne Morgan, a cardiologist and executive director of health and community education at Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta.
February is American?Heart Month. The Harvard Health Blog lists a few simple swaps for better heart health and TODAY.com asked experts to add to the list.
Here are simple changes you can make now:
Swap an unhealthy breakfast for a healthier one — or just skip it
While the debate over whether breakfast should be the biggest meal of the day or not rages on, the typical morning menu — centered on sugary treats like muffins and cereal, and processed meats like bacon — sets most people up with an unhealthy start.
Too much added sugar is linked with a higher risk of dying from heart disease, studies have warned. Consuming red and processed meat is linked to increased risk of heart disease, separate research has found.
Morgan advises patients to follow their biological clock: If you’re not hungry in the morning and prefer to start eating later in the day, it’s OK to skip breakfast, she said.
If you do like to eat it, go for healthy options such as fresh fruit, whole wheat toast or yogurt, she noted.
Swap the microwavable breakfast bowl for oatmeal, which you can also make in the microwave, and put some fresh fruit on top, Freeman suggested.
?“Try not to have the heavier, sweeter foods that are very common to the U.S. diet — we have sausage and waffles and pancakes. Save that for a special occasion,” Morgan advises.
Instead of cheese, have nuts or avocado
Cheese and red meat are the main sources of saturated fat in the typical American, says Elisabetta Politi, a dietitian at the Duke Lifestyle and Weight Management Center in Durham, North Carolina.
Eating too much saturated fat can raise the level of LDL, the bad type of cholesterol, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association.
Instead of indulging in butter, cheese, cream, fatty meats, tropical oils and sweets, such as ice-cream, cookies and cakes, get your dietary fat from extra-virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts and omega-3 fatty acids, which have also been shown to reduce inflammation, Politi advised.
If you like savory snacks: swap cheese for hummus and celery sticks.
If you like sweets: swap a cookie for a handful of honey-covered almonds.
But remember that nuts and avocadoes are high calories, so enjoy them in moderation, both Morgan and Freeman say.
Swap 20 minutes of scrolling for a 20-minute walk
Once you start scrolling on social media, it’s easy to get sucked in, which can leave you anxious and isolated. Give yourself an exercise break instead, ideally outside — it’s good for the heart and the soul.
Morgan suggested starting a walking program by picking three days a week and walking for 20 minutes each time, which adds up to an hour of exercise a week. Build up to 30 minutes of exercise a day, Freeman added, and take the time to disconnect in other ways.
“Instead of swiping a handful of times on TikTok, spend some time listening to a metronome tick tock and meditate,” Freeman says. “Swap a few minutes of screen time for a brisk walk every morning, which will give you plenty of energy.”
Instead of avoiding the gym, take a virtual class
Many people pay for a gym membership, but then don’t go because they worry about how they look or whether they can finish a class. Ease into the wonderful health benefits of exercise by taking virtual classes, Morgan advises.
“You can rest whenever you like and no one sees that you stopped,” she says. “You’re not concerned with how you look or what people may think of you. You’re not comparing yourself to the person next to you who has been coming to the class every day for 10 years.”
Swap an animal-source food for a plant-based dish
“Studies have shown that just small swaps of plant-based foods for animal foods make huge differences in outcomes,” Freeman says.
Instead of beef, chicken or pork tacos, try bean or lentil tacos, he suggested. Top them with salsa rather than sour cream or cheese.
He also likes swapping egg products for bean-based products that look and taste like folded eggs used in sandwiches, but contain no cholesterol.
Swap a processed food for a natural treat
Instead of candy, have some beautiful ripe strawberries. For carbohydrate-based foods, get rid of the white processed carbohydrates — or “garbage carbs,” as Freeman calls them — and go for whole grain, minimally processed, minimal ingredient options.
“So instead of having the super white fluffy bread, maybe have the dark brown thinner bread that’s made with just whole grain wheat, yeast and salt,” he says.
Instead of watching TV, get some extra sleep
“If there is one thing that we could do… it would be to sleep a little bit more,” Morgan says.