Being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for developing heart disease because it puts extra strain on the heart. In fact, obesity has overtaken smoking as the leading cause of premature heart attack.

Eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising are the best ways to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol and maintain a healthy weight so that you can reduce your risk of heart disease.

“When it comes to heart disease, you cannot control your genetics, but you can control your lifestyle,” said Sheila Patterson, RD, a registered outpatient dietitian.

For Heart Month, Patterson offers these five tips on how to eat heart healthy.

1. Aim for a balanced variety of these nutrient rich foods.

  • Fruits and vegetables: Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables.
  • Whole grains: Fill one-quarter of your plate with whole grains like whole wheat, barley, wheat berries, quinoa, oats and brown rice.
  • Lean protein: Fill one-quarter of plate with lean proteins like fish, chicken, beans and nuts.

2. Eat more healthy fats and limit unhealthy fats.

  • Incorporate fatty fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocados into your diet for more healthy fat.
  • Choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products, like low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese.

3. Limit added sugar.

Excessive sugar intake can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and other conditions that eventually cause plaque to build up in the heart’s arteries.

  • Avoid soda, sports drinks, juice and other sugary drinks.
  • Always read the ingredients and avoid foods with added sugars like corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, honey and caramel.
  • Drink water or beverages with less than 10 calories per serving.
  • Limit processed snacks and sweets like baked goods, ice cream and candy.

4. Limit salt.

Consuming too much sodium or salt can cause high blood pressure, which puts stress on the heart and can eventually lead to a heart attack. Cut sodium in your diet with these tips.

  • Choose foods with 140 mg of sodium or less per serving.
  • Limit intake of packaged or processed foods.
  • Always rinse canned vegetables and choose the low sodium options.
  • Add flavor to dishes with fresh herbs and spices, instead of salt.

5. Exercise regularly.

To keep your heart healthy, the American Heart Association recommends:

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, or
  • 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity.

You should also aim to burn as many or slightly more than the calories you consume each day.

Do you know your heart's age? Find out how healthy your heart is with our fast & free heart risk assessment.