scaleJudging by our charitable giving, Americans have huge hearts. Judging by our waistlines, many of us—more than two-thirds, according to the National Institutes of Health—also have a huge risk factor for problems with our hearts.

With so many of us overweight or obese, nudging the scale downward is an important part of taking care of our hearts. Being overweight or obese is associated with coronary heart disease, heart failure, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglycerides, Type 2 diabetes—the list keeps going.

Finding pounds seems so effortless, but losing them can be a daunting task.

Slow and Steady Wins the Heart Race

But this doesn’t have to be a case of “go big or go home.” Studies suggest that even a modest weight loss of 5 or 10 percent can reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Sustaining that loss is important too, rather than going up and down in weight—a tendency that’s earned the nickname “yo-yo dieting.”

Small changes can make a big difference in your overall heart health. “Rapid weight loss and fad diets can be discouraging and potentially damaging to your health,” says Ansley Hill, a clinical dietician at Adventist Medical Center in Portland, Oregon. “Set small goals and make small changes that are realistic and sustainable for you.”

Three Heart-Healthy, Waist-Trimming Goals

waist-sizeRather than signing up for a seemingly quick fix, Hill suggests starting with one to three healthy changes and set a limited time during which you’re going to try to achieve these goal—three weeks, for example.

“A diet is something that we quit,” explains Cheryl Ortner, Adventist Health diabetes clinical coordinator. “A lifestyle change is something that we do because we want to be healthy.”

Ortner and Hill have plenty of ideas for small changes you could try:

  • Fill your plate: But make half of it full of fruits and vegetables—“an excellent source of fiber and phytochemicals, which promote heart health,” says Hill.
  • Move it, move it: Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. “I have started an exercise program and do it almost every day,” says Ortner. And she should know what works—she’s lost and kept off 40 pounds.
  • Drink like a fish: “I know this isn’t a novel idea,” admits Hill. “But staying adequately hydrated can really help you achieve a healthy weight.” Water helps you feel full and keeps you from feeling hungry when, in fact, your body needs hydration. And if you’re drinking high-calorie beverages regularly, trading them for water could translate into a big difference with just a little effort.
  • Home is where the heart is: And your heart will thank you kindly if you cook at home more. A 2014 study found that people who cook at home usually consume fewer calories as well as less sugar and fat. Hill recommends committing to cooking at least three meals at home each week and working your way up.
  • Eat less, eat more: Ortner points out that most of us want to eat like we’re teenagers, even though our activity levels are much lower as we move through adulthood. She suggests eating more whole foods and foods high in fiber, which helps you feel full and satisfied. Eat less junk food and cut down on how many sweet treats and desserts you’re consuming.
  • Making a list, checking it…once: Save time and money while sticking to your heart-healthy nutrition goals? Hill says you can do all that if you make a grocery list…and actually stick to it. “It’s a win-win-win,” she says.

Yes, losing weight is difficult—“obviously, or we would all be skinny,” says Ortner. But trying three small changes for a few weeks isn’t nearly so difficult and can lead to a lasting change in your habits as well as your BMI.

A Better Scale for Heart Health

Keep in mind, though, your bathroom scale only tells your overall weight. What really matters is how much extra fat you’re carrying.

That can be measured most accurately through body composition testing, which is available at Adventist Medical Center’s wellness services department. Test options include a skin fold test, which helps measure fat under the skin, and hydrostatic weighing, called the “gold standard” of body composition testing.

You can make an appointment for body composition testing by calling 503-408-7043. If you have your body tested before and after making a few changes, you’ll know for sure how the changes are impacting your overall body fat.

And those small, steady changes will make a big difference for your heart. “Heart health isn’t about a quick fix,” says Hill. “It is about creating a lifestyle that you can continue throughout the duration of your life.”