With every beat, your heart pumps blood filled with oxygen and other nutrients throughout your entire body. Yet, unless you’ve been diagnosed with a heart health-related condition, you probably take your ticker somewhat for granted. In fact, some of your seemingly harmless habits might even be straight-up bad for your heart. Here, nutritionists and cardiologists share the most common heart health mistakes they see—and how to show your heart some more love.
1. Not Prioritizing Unsaturated Fats
“Our bodies need a certain amount of fat—particularly unsaturated fats called omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids—which our bodies cannot make,” says dietitian Jeani Hunt-Gibbon, M.S., R.D., C.D., of VeggieLush.
Mediterranean diets (which are high in unsaturated fat-containing nuts, olives, and fish), in particular, are linked with heart health benefits.
Case in point: one landmark study (called the PREDIMED study), which followed 7,500 people at high risk for heart disease for over five years. It found that Mediterranean diet-eaters were 30 percent less likely to suffer major cardiovascular events than those who followed conventional heart health recommendations to reduce fat.
2. Falling Short On Fiber
“Fiber may be the most beneficial nutrient for preventing and reversing heart disease,” says dietitian Noelle Schleder, M.S., R.D. “Fiber lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol, helps maintain healthy blood pressure, and can support weight loss by helping you feel satiated.”
Men and women need about 38 and 25 grams of fiber per day, respectively. Schleder recommends incorporating as many whole grains, legumes, beans, fruits, and veggies into your diet to meet your needs.
3. Overlooking Subtle Signs Of Heart Issues
Long before dangerous chest tightness and shortness of breath, many other signs of heart issues can start to pop up.
Men with heart disease, specifically, may start to notice premature balding on top of the head, premature gray hair, and erectile dysfunction, explains Joel Kahn, M.D., F.A.C.C., founder of the Kahn Center for Cardiac Longevity. “ED, in particular, is referred to as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ of future heart attacks.”
Women, meanwhile, experience their own unique slew of heart disease issues. A few red flags, in particular, they should be wary of: shortness of breath, heart palpitations, fatigue upon exertion, and back pain.
“As blocked heart arteries are the number-one killer of both men and women, these clues must be addressed quickly,” says Kahn. If you’re experiencing any of these changes, make an appointment with your doctor.
4. Ignoring Exercise And Physical Activity Recommendations
You probably already know that exercise helps keep your cardiovascular system healthy. Still, it bears repeating: Get up and get sweating, friends. The American Heart Association currently recommends adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both.
Yes, the effort is worth it: Research published in Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine confirms a strong link between regular exercise and reduced cardiovascular mortality.
5. Sacrificing Sleep
In addition to the basics (like exercising and eating a healthy diet), sleep is also vital for your heart.
In fact, according to research published in SLEEP, regularly sleeping fewer than six or seven hours per night is linked with increased risk of hypertension.
“Often people wake up early after only six hours of sleep to get a workout in,” says Kate Huether, M.D., Founder of The ReKovery MD. “More times than not, though, it would be more beneficial to sleep an extra hour or two. This way, you aren’t as rushed in the morning and can start your day with less stress.”
Read More: 8 Tricks Nutritionists Use To Sleep Better
In addition to prioritizing eight hours of sleep per night, Schleder also recommends quitting caffeine after lunchtime and creating a relaxing routine for the hour before bed. “If necessary, speak with your doctor about supplementing with melatonin or magnesium,” she advises. (Both can help the body wind down for sleep.)
6. Thinking Your Standard Physical Alone Will Catch Heart Disease
“Heart blockages, which can be lethal, are often silent until days to minutes before a heart attack,” cautions Kahn. That’s why he recommends all adults ask their doctor to test their markers of inflammation and genetic Lipoprotein(a), and perform a heart scan to identify potential heart disease before it strikes hard.
7. Not Eating Enough Produce
According to a 2019 American Society of Nutrition study, “fruits and vegetables are good sources of fiber, potassium, magnesium, and antioxidants, which have been shown to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol,” two key metrics in heart health.
Issue is, “most people severely overestimate how many servings of fruits and vegetables they consume daily,” says Adrianne Delgado, R.D., L.D.N., dietitian and author of Nourish, Eat, Repeat: A Busy Woman’s Guide to a Healthier Mind, Body, and Life.
Delgado recommends consuming two servings of fruit and/or vegetables at every meal. Your goal: to hit the daily recommendation of seven to nine servings of produce a day. A few easy ways to start: Bulk up sandwiches with extra veggies and stir berries to your oatmeal.
8. Not Understanding Drug And Food Interactions
As with many medications, common heart health drugs may interact with certain foods, nutrients, and supplements.
A common example: “If you take [the blood thinner] Warfarin/Coumadin, keep your vitamin K intake consistent day-to-day,” says Kostro Miller. “Otherwise, it can affect your medication.” (Vitamin K is found in many green, leafy vegetables like kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.)
A recent heart condition diagnosis may spur you to drastically change your diet and load up on salads. However, make sure to talk with your doctor—or a dietitian—about your diet, medication, and any potential interactions first.
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