The single most important step you can take for heart health starts with what you put on your plate
Eat to Your Heart’s Content
With heart disease the number one killer of both men and women in this country, you would think a cure that could dramatically reduce these deaths would be big news. And yet the most effective remedy is so simple that most people can’t seem to believe it works. “In traditional societies, where people don’t eat processed foods, heart disease is rare,” says cardiologist Arthur Agatston, MD, author of The South Beach Wake-Up Call. “If you start with a healthy diet in childhood, heart attacks are almost completely preventable.”
But even if you’ve downed a small army’s worth of french fries, cleaning up your diet as an adult can still have a profound effect. Studies have shown that up to 70% of heart disease can be averted with the right regimen, according to Walter Willett, MD, chair of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. But is diet alone as powerful as drugs? “Oh, no, it’s much more powerful,” says Dr. Willett. “Statins, the most effective single medications for reducing heart disease, only cut risk by 25 to 30%.”
In fact, you would need a cabinet full of prescription drugs to bestow all the benefits of a serious heart-healthy meal plan. There’s nothing a drug can do that foods can’t do too—lower our blood pressure (like ACE inhibitors), slash “bad” LDL cholesterol (like statins), reduce harmful triglycerides (like fibrates), raise “good” HDL (like niacin tablets), and prevent the unwanted clotting that causes heart attacks and strokes (like aspirin).
Diet can be so effective that the British Medical Journal published a paper suggesting that doctors shelve the idea of developing a combination drug with multiple heart meds in it—the Polypill, as it’s come to be known. Instead they recommended a Polymeal—a “tastier and safer alternative” that would include wine, fish, dark chocolate, garlic, almonds, and heaping servings of fruits and vegetables. “But the longer you wait, the more likely you’ll need drugs,” warns Dr. Agatston.
In that spirit, here are nine top foods for the heart. But this list is only a beginning. A truly healthy diet features a broad range of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes—not a select few. So while you’re shopping for kale, don’t neglect Swiss chard, arugula, spinach, and romaine. An orange is great, but so are strawberries, apples, bananas, and kiwifruit. Hippocrates understood the concept more than 2,000 years ago: “Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food.”