Berries offer big benefits in cardiovascular protection: eating heart-healthy berries can help keep your blood pressure and cholesterol under control
Are you trying to fit more fruit into your diet? Put berries at the top of your grocery list–researchers have shown that eating more berries helps protect your heart and vascular system in three specific ways: by increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, and inhibiting platelet function.
“The fact that fruits play a vital role in your health is not new,” says Sari Greaves, RD, a dietitian at Weill Cornell’s Cardiac Health Center. “What is new is that numerous bioactive compounds in vegetables and fruit, especially berries, are being identified for their role in disease prevention.”
In one study, published in the February issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Finnish researchers split participants who had cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and low HDL cholesterol into two groups. One group consumed 150 grams (about two-thirds of a cup) of berries and berry juice every day for eight weeks, while the other group had no berries during the eight weeks. The berry-eating group’s HDL cholesterol increased, while their systolic blood pressure decreased and their platelet function was inhibited.
Inhibiting platelet function decreases the likelihood of developing blood clots, and higher HDL and lower blood pressure are associated with lower risks of heart attack and stroke.
“All three benefits of berry consumption that were shown in this study have been found to benefit cardiovascular health in numerous prior studies,” says Erica Jones, MD, a cardiologist at the Iris Cantor Women’s Health Center at Weill Cornell Medical College.
The participants who consumed berries also had increased levels of polyphenols (natural compounds found in plant foods) in their blood. The researchers say that it’s likely the polyphenols were responsible for the positive results.
“Polyphenols act as antioxidants and vasodilators, and they also have potential anti-carcinogenic, antiinflammatory and antibiotic properties,” explains Dr. Jones.
More berry bonuses
“Berries also offer many other nutrients, such as vitamins A, C, and E and folic acid, and minerals that include potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium, and selenium,” says Greaves. They also contain fiber, known for its protective effects on the colon. Plus, berries contain no saturated fat or cholesterol, they’re low in calories, and they have negligible fat and sodium.
Dr. Jones points out another benefit: “Eating berries allows ‘sweets’ in the diet without eating processed simple sugars and trans fats.” However, she cautions that people with diabetes or high triglycerides need to consider the natural sugars that berries contain.
Advice on supplements
Can you get the same beneficial effects by taking supplements? Many nutrition experts believe that fruits and vegetables have disease-fighting properties because of the synergistic activity that occurs among the many different phytochemicals in these foods, such as flavonoids, carotenoids, and antioxidants–activity that doesn’t occur when just one of these components is isolated in supplement form.
“I always recommend choosing whole foods instead of supplements to get the greatest health benefits from your diet,” says Greaves.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Follow these easy suggestions from Sari Greaves, RD, to increase your berry intake:
* Add fresh, frozen, or dried berries to hot or cold cereal. Sprinkle fresh or dried berries on green salads.
* Layer berries with low-fat yogurt and slivered almonds to create a nutritious parfait.
* Satisfy your sweet tooth with a berry smoothie.
* Include berries in sauces–for example, try a blackberry barbeque sauce or a raspberry chipotle sauce.
NUTRITION NUMBERS FOR POPULAR BERRIES *
Berry Calories total fat Fiber Sugar
Blackberries 62 <1g 8g 7g
Blueberries 82 <1g 4g 14g
Raspberries 64 <1g 8g 5g
Strawberries 53 <1g 3g 8g
* All values based on one cup
Source: USDA National Nutrient Database
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