Six easy swaps for a healthy heart

Little changes can make a big difference...

Various nuts in woman hands  forming heart shape

If your blood pressure and cholesterol levels are on the high side, your doctor will have told you about the importance of following a healthy lifestyle. While some people manage to overhaul their diet and activity levels, many of us struggle to make lasting changes. If that sounds like you, here are six easy swaps that could make all the difference to your heart.

See also: Ten surprising ways to lower your blood pressure

See also: Three things NEVER to do if you think you're having a heart attack

1. Swap sitting for a brisk walk
If you don't do any exercise, a 15-minute brisk walk is a good way to start. A sedentary lifestyle is now the second leading preventable cause of heart disease – second only to smoking. So get away from your desk at lunch time and power walk around a park or the shops. If you walk at the same time each day – say for 15-minutes after dinner – it will soon become part of your routine. Once your fitness levels improve, aim to do 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity most days of the week.

2. Swap processed foods for homemade
You know to watch your salt intake to keep your blood pressure in check – but do you know that eating too much sugar could be even worse? Researchers from New York and Kansas found that high sugar levels affects the hypothalamus in the brain, which causes the heart rate to quicken and blood pressure to rise. At the same time, it causes the body to produce more insulin, which may cause the heart to beat faster.

Processed foods, such as tinned tomato soup, jars of sauces, packet cereal, and ready meals, can be surprisingly high in salt and sugar. Switch to making meals at home and you will know exactly what you're eating. It might take a bit more effort but your heart – and your tastebuds – will benefit. When making meals, add as many fruits and vegetables as you can: sneak some carrots into your curry or red pepper into your Bolognese sauce and you'll easily get your five-a-day.

3. Swap crisps and biscuits for a handful of nuts
Next time you want to snack, reach for a handful of nuts. Walnuts, almonds, pistachios, and other nuts are all good for your heart. Research shows that eating almonds can lower your LDL cholesterol, or bad cholesterol, which can increase your risk of a heart attack.

Walnuts are another great choice. As well as helping to improve cholesterol levels, they contain alpha-linoleic acid, which acts as an anti-inflammatory agent and has been shown to help reduce plaque build-up in coronary arteries.

4. Swap skipping breakfast for eating
Skipping meals has been linked to a higher risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity. One Harvard study found that men who didn't have breakfast were 27% more likely to have a heart attack or die from coronary heart disease.

Experts say that fasting is a stressful state for the body, and regularly going without breakfast puts a strain on our bodies that over time can lead to blood pressure problems, as well as insulin resistance and an excess of cholesterol in the bloodstream – all of which can lead to heart trouble.

5. Swap red meat for vegetables
Diets low in saturated fat and high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fibre are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. If you only do one thing to improve your diet, swap red meat for fish or go vegetarian two nights of the week.

Eating fruits and vegetables, particularly leafy greens and those high in vitamin C, has a protective effect against coronary heart disease, according to research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine journal. Add some olive oil to your fish and vegetables and you'll be doing your heart an even bigger favour.

6. Swap anger for gratitude
Chronic anger, worry, and stress are associated with high blood pressure and heart disease. Taking a few moments each day to focus on your mental wellbeing - whether that's doing a yoga class, breathing deeply, or simply tapping into feelings of gratitude - can make a surprising difference to your health.