February is American Heart Month and a great opportunity to focus on your cardiovascular health. According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease accounts for about one of every three deaths.

Taking care of your heart starts with your diet and making healthy changes. Cutting down on sugar, which experts say most Americans consume far too much of on a daily basis, is the perfect place to start. Processed sugars add empty calories to your diet and can disrupt your metabolism, making weight loss or maintenance difficult and posing serious health risks.

Americans on average get about 16 percent of their daily calories from added sugars, according to an Food and Drug Administration report, but the USDA’s dietary guidelines recommend less than one-third of that amount. And it’s not just the usual suspects like candy, cookies and cake that can cause the sugar surplus.

“Foods like white bread and bagels break down the same as added sugar, so, it’s about the types of carbs you’re eating, too. In fact, I would say fats aren’t making us fat, sugar is.” says Dr. Arthur Agatston, founder of the South Beach Diet.

To avoid extra sugar in your diet and get on a path to greater health, consider these simple strategies.

• Shop the Perimeter. Sticking to the perimeter of the grocery store is a good rule of thumb, as this tends to be where you’ll find the least processed foods, such as vegetables, fruit, dairy, meat and seafood, most of which are free of added sugar.

• Read Food Labels. Seek out foods containing little to no sugar, being careful to read labels. You may have to look hard though, as sugar is ubiquitous in American foods. Bear in mind that ingredient listings on packaged foods are in order of volume.

• Learn Sugar’s Other Names. “Pretty much anything ending in ‘ose’ is a sugar. And whether it’s fructose, dextrose or sucrose, it will end up as a sugar in your body,” says Mandi Knowles, Registered Dietitian at South Beach Diet. Avoid them if you want to eat less sugar.

• Buy Unsweetened Foods. Look for food labels that say the food is unsweetened. Not “naturally sweetened.” Unsweetened. That means there won’t be anything lurking in there that could throw you off.

• Make Sugar Swaps. Simple swaps can help you save on sugar. Swap soda for unsweetened iced tea and save 31 grams of sugar. Swap non-fat flavored yogurt for Greek yogurt with fresh strawberries and save 19 grams of sugar. Swap your favorite vanilla latte for black coffee with a splash of cream and save 35 grams of sugar.

• Try Something New. Consider a diet plan that focuses on good carbs, good fats, healthy protein and high fiber, such as the South Beach Diet, which is proven to have a positive impact on heart health, weight loss and belly fat. Delivering on average just 1 percent of calories from added sugars, it was the first plan to propose dieters focus less on cutting out fats and carbs and focus more on considering the quality of the fats and carbs they’re eating.

A healthy diet and lifestyle are among your best defenses to help fight cardiovascular disease. This American Heart Month, you can help improve your heart health and overall health by reducing sugar in your diet.