The 7 Best Foods for Your Heart (and Your Lifespan)

Incorporate these perfect foods into your day and stay healthy and energized for life.

Several years ago, a research team led by Oscar Franco, M.D., D.Sc., at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, set out to discover the safest, most natural, and tastiest diet they could find for preventing heart disease. And after analyzing the diets of thousands of men and women, Franco and his colleagues identified some common threads.

People who regularly consumed certain foods lived longer than those who didn't eat those foods. Franco's team then cross-referenced these foods against medical literature for independent studies that showcased the powers of the foods. The result? A daily meal plan that is made up of some pretty tasty stuff: almonds, garlic, dark chocolate, wine, fruits and vegetables, and four servings of fish a week.

"People can't afford to pass up eating this way," says D. Milton Stokes, R.D., clinical nutrition manager at New York City's North General Hospital. For most medical professionals like Stokes and David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., clinical professor of public health at Yale University School of Medicine and author of The Way to Eat, Franco's study is a starting point. "Do you eat the same meal over and over, or simply keep reshuffling those few foods into every possible combination?" asks Katz. To stick to any type of diet, it has to be appetizing and easy to follow. So, we asked Stokes and Katz to help craft a plan that puts the Franco's work into action—along with other healthy foods.

"I eat this way every day," Katz says. "And I will likely still be biking long after my contemporaries who ignored the powerful potentials of healthy eating are spending their leisure time in the coronary-care unit." And for more great eating advice, here are the 10 Painless Ways to Upgrade Your Diet.

7 am.
Oatmeal, fruit, and whole-wheat toast with a plant-stanol spread

Oatmeal is high in fiber, the nutritional scouring pad that keeps your arteries clear of cholesterol and your digestive tract running smoothly. It also helps keep the pounds off. When Harvard University researchers recently analyzed the diets of more than 27,000 men for 8 years, they discovered that guys who ate one to two servings of whole-grain foods each day gained 3.5 pounds less than men who ate only refined-grain goods, regardless of either group's exercise habits. Whether you choose slow-cooked steel-cut oats or instant rolled, top off your bowl with one handful of chopped almonds, a teaspoon or two of ground flaxseed, and as many berries as you like. If you go for the toast, that will count as a second whole-grain serving. Just hold the butter. "Spreads like Benecol and Smart Balance are rich in plant stanols, which compete with cholesterol in metabolism and can further lower cholesterol levels," says Katz. On mornings when you have some extra time, add another fruit to the mix-grapefruit. One per day can help lower LDL cholesterol by 11 percent and reduce narrowing of the arteries by 46 percent. And remember: oatmeal is just one of the 25 Foods Men Over 45 Should Eat.

8:15 am.

Along with a dose of polyphenols (the same heart-protective compounds found in red wine), apples contain a specific type of fiber called pectin,
a gellike substance that increases satiety. To get the most pectin, eat the peel, advises Stokes. And then be sure to read up on the 25 Foods That'll Keep You Young Forever.

10 am.
Handful of almonds or trail mix

Nuts are like a stock split. They supply two streams of long-lasting energy, one from fiber, one from protein. Add seeds and fruit, and you'll only increase the capital gains. "The nuts and seeds provide unsaturated fats, including some omega-3s that can reduce [arterial] inflammation and inhibit platelets from sticking together," says Katz. Just a handful will keep you energized until lunch—and will also help detoxify your liver.

1 pm.
Bean soup and a salad

This meal fits any situation. Client lunch at an upscale brasserie? Go for its fancy incarnation, Tuscan white-bean soup with rosemary and kale, and add a lightly dressed salad of mixed greens with toasted nuts and caramelized onions. If you slip out to enjoy a rare solo meal at your favorite diner, opt for the old-fashioned chili and a salad of spinach and tomato wedges with the house Italian or a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. "The beans or lentils provide high-quality protein with no saturated fat," says Katz. The salad is self explanatory-more fiber, plus vitamins and minerals. To make sure you leverage the full benefit of the salad, avoid fat-free dressings. In a recent Iowa State University study, researchers found that people who topped their salads with fat-free dressing failed to absorb carotenoids, antioxidants that have been linked to improved immunity.

3 pm.
Chocolate bar

Make yours a good one. "Look for a bar with a high cocoa content-70 percent or more," says Stokes. "Not a milk-chocolate Hershey's Kiss." More cocoa means more of the antioxidants that keep your pump primed. A 3.5-ounce bar can cut systolic blood pressure by 5.1 points and diastolic blood pressure by 1.8 points. This corresponds to a potential overall reduction in heart-disease risk of 21 percent, according to the Polymeal study. "Be careful with chocolate because it provides a lot of calories," says Franco, who recommends balancing the indulgence with increased physical activity. For more on the great benefits of cocoa, here's how a daily rationing of dark chocolate saved one famous author from writer's block.

7:30 pm.
Mixed salad, followed by grilled fish, vegetables, and wine

We challenge you to find this combo missing from most restaurant menus. You won't. And it's just as easy to make at home. "Begin with a mixed-greens salad with tomatoes, bell peppers, and onion," says Katz. "[Follow that with] grilled salmon marinated in citrus juices, olive oil, and garlic, and add a side of steamed or sautéed vegetables." Because of its strong flavor, salmon will stand up to a red wine that's packed with antioxidants, although white works, too. Part of the health benefit comes from the alcohol itself. "A small amount of ethanol"-a 5-ounce glass per day-"raises protective HDL cholesterol as well as a natural blood thinner called tissue plasminogen activator [t-PA]," says Katz. If you feel as though you've gotten your fix of salmon, here's a great and healthy, 10-Minute Dinner featuring halibut.

10:30 pm.
Banana and a small glass of skim milk

A perfect combination if you're having trouble falling asleep. Melatonin, a natural sleep-regulating hormone, is found in several foods, and these are two of them. Plus, the potassium (banana) and calcium (milk) can help lower your blood pressure, says Stokes.

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