There are very few foods that match the beautiful color and intense flavor of berries. And, fortunately, these fruits are nutrition superstars.
For many years, most berries were regarded as nutritionally inferior because of their lack of traditional essential nutrients such as vitamins A and C. But that was before scientists recently discovered the presence of large amounts of beneficial phytochemicals (“phyto” is Greek for plant).
Apparently, each berry contains at least 100 nutrients and phytochemicals, the plant compounds with potent powers of healing. Some of the most important phytochemicals in berries are antioxidants, powerful substances believed to reduce inflammation, improve immune function and help prevent heart disease and cancers.
Antioxidants are compounds that absorb oxygen free radicals — molecules that cause oxidation in the body’s cells. Scientists believe that these molecules cause most of the diseases of aging, such as immune system decline, arthritis, heart disease, cancer and neurological impairments affecting cognition and balance. Think of oxidation as being similar to rusting. Or imagine an apple slice turning brown. By simply adding lemon juice, an antioxidant, the apple’s flesh stays fresh and prevents the browning or oxidation.
A similar thing happens in your body. Oxidation is constantly occurring in your cells because of environmental pollutants, smoking, exposure to the sun, heat generated through basic metabolic functioning, unhealthy diets and other factors. It takes a large supply of antioxidants to counter this. Berries have been found to have one of the highest antioxidant scores of all fruits and vegetables.
But there are other good reasons to eat berries. The berry family contains 300 to 400 beneficial, disease-fighting chemicals. The phytochemicals in berries, depending on the type, also stimulate the immune system, reduce inflammation, enhance cancer-fighting enzymes, positively influence hormone metabolism, have antibacterial and antiviral effects and may even reverse some aspects of brain aging.
The most potent berries are the more deeply colored varieties, especially blackberries, blueberries and cranberries, followed by raspberries, strawberries and cherries (not technically a berry, but similar nutritionally) but all more potent than most other fruits. Their color is provided by one of the most powerful phytochemicals, called anthocyanins, which berries synthesize to protect themselves from the elements.
“Anthocyanins play a role in . . . protecting against cancers of the gastrointestinal tract,” says Ronald Prior, nutritionist at the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center in Little Rock. “Blackberries have been shown in animals to protect against colon and esophageal cancer.” A preliminary human study found blueberries inhibited blood clotting, a risk factor in cardiovascular disease.
The anthocyanins in berries also may be responsible for improving some aspects of aging, such as memory, motor coordination, balance, vision and even symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, according to many years of animal studies.
“Blueberries have interesting, surprising qualities,” said Prior. “We’re hoping foods such as blueberries can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease in humans as they do in rats.”
The scientists found similar effects in cranberries, which have additional phytochemicals called tannins. They may be responsible for helping to prevent urinary tract infections, stomach ulcers, gum disease and even ear infections in children. Cranberries are also effective against antibiotic-resistant bacteria — and 20 percent of urinary tract infections are resistant to antibiotics. The tannins work by blocking the disease-causing bacteria and preventing it from adhering to human cell walls.
New research has found that raspberries, blueberries, cranberries and huckleberries contain a phytochemical called resveratrol, also present in wine, which is thought to help prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease, and is implicated as an important compound in the health benefits of the “French Paradox.”
Strawberries contain large amounts of phytochemicals called ellagitannins, which are also in raspberries and blackberries. Studies at the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition found those berries are capable of inhibiting a number of key steps in the development of cardiovascular disease and may have immense potential for the prevention and treatment of heart disease and stroke. Strawberries are also high in antioxidant Vitamin C and folic acid, important in preventing birth defects.
Most of what scientists know about berries has been determined in animal studies and in labs using cell cultures. But the few human clinical studies are showing promising results. Human studies on berries are limited because they’re very expensive, and as one scientist explained, “You can’t patent a berry!” This means that big pharmaceutical companies are unwilling to foot the research bill. Groups such as blueberry or strawberry growers fund some, but it’s up to Uncle Sam to find out if we can save millions on medications and hospitalizations by simply eating more berries.
Berries are an ideal food. Besides being absolutely delicious and colorful on a plate, they’re loaded with nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and they’re low in calories. They have maximum flavor and nutrient content when picked at ripeness. Freezing them when ripe or buying ripe frozen berries is a great alternative. But, simply ripening a berry on your kitchen counter will increase its phytochemical content, too.
Berries can be eaten morning, noon or night – whatever your preference. I eat berries every morning on my oatmeal. In the summer, I’ll use any fresh local berry but in the winter, I stick with frozen blueberries.
“Berries are extremely versatile; they fit perfectly with any meal or snack,” says Janie Hibler, author of “The Berry Bible” (William Morrow, 2004). In “The Berry Bible,” Hibler provides a berry encyclopedia and berry recipes ranging from smoothies, drinks, and breads to soups, salads, salsas, main courses, and desserts.
So, what are some ways we can eat berries every day?
“A no-brainer,” she says, “is a berry smoothie for breakfast.” For lunch, she says, throw a handful into your salad. For snacks, carry dried berries and nuts. At dinner, berries go beautifully with meats, grains and main courses.
You will eat more berries if you simply keep them on hand and ready to grab. Get them now when they’re fresh and freeze them yourself. Frozen blueberries are fun snacks for kids to pop in their mouths, like hard candy. You can also make berry popcicles, syrups for pancakes and spritzers.
Hibler recommends always having berry purees, or “coulis” on hand. “A sauce rivaled by none,” she says. But they also are great added to drinks, smoothies, yogurts, cereal, you name it. To make a coulis, rinse and drain the berries, process in a food processor. Add a little sugar or even liqueur, if desired. It will keep in your refrigerator for three to four days or be frozen for a month.
Some of my favorite berry recipes:
Originally Published in The Washington Post
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Recently published in LiveScience.com, published in “The Washington Post,” and broadcast on WOR Radio New York City…
Eating healthy can be harder than you think, thanks to an enterprising food industry that wants us to consume more than we need. That’s because our country’s agricultural system produces twice what most people require – 3,900 calories per person per day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. This encourages creative marketing to unload the excess, much of it made with cheap ingredients, having long shelf-lives, and minimal nutritional value – the kinds of “food” with the highest profit margins.
As a nutrition consultant, I know that words such as “low fat,” “high fiber,” “multigrain,” gluten free,” and “natural” can confuse even the most sophisticated customers into believing what they’re buying is healthful. In fact, market research proves it.
What can you do? First, make a habit of reading the ingredients list, not just the Nutrition Facts panel. And remember the following products worth resisting…
Reduced-fat peanut butter
The oil is the healthiest part of a peanut* or a tree nut, containing most of the nutrients, so there’s no advantage to taking it out. In fact, it’s worse because it robs the peanut butter of its health benefits. “Reduced-fat peanut butter has as many calories and more sugar than the regular,” says Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Instead: Buy regular peanut butter. Eating one or two ounces of nuts daily is associated with reductions in heart disease and cancer risk. A recent Harvard study showed that eating nuts is associated with lower body weights.
Sports drinks, diluted soft drinks with salt, are only needed during intense exercise exceeding one hour or in extreme heat. Drinks such as Vitaminwater (c) are essentially sugary drinks with a vitamin pill. They are “unequivocally harmful to health,” says Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “Whether vitamins dissolved in water have any benefit will depend on who you are and whether you are already getting enough. . . . Some people may be getting too much of some vitamins and minerals if they add vitamin water on top of fortified foods and other supplements.” A recent Iowa Women’s Health Study found an association between certain commonly used vitamin and mineral supplements and increased death rates. But the worst offenders in this category are energy drinks such as Red Bull, Sobe Life Water, or Monster Drinks. They’re not only high in sugar, but most contain stimulants which may be harmful, especially with medical conditions like high blood pressure.
Instead: Drink water, ideally from the tap (“Eau du Potomac,” as it’s known locally). It’s the best drink for hydrating your body, is naturally calorie-free and contains fluoride to prevent tooth decay. No supplement matches the nutrients in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains.
The reputation of these bars, also known as meal replacement bars, is that they are healthy, aid in weight loss or help build muscle. In fact, they are calorie bombs: candy bars with vitamins, protein or fiber added. For most of them, sugar is either the first (predominant) or second ingredient.
Instead: Snack on fruit or veggies for weight loss and yogurt for muscle gain. If you’re hiking a long distance and want a healthful, nonperishable calorie bomb, try nuts and dried fruit.
Multigrain breads, crackers and cereals are often the most confusing foods. People see “multigrain” and think “whole grain.” That’s not necessarily so. This is an important distinction because people who eat whole grains have a lower incidence of diabetes, heart disease and cancers, and are less likely to be overweight compared with those who eat refined grains. Note that when “enriched wheat flour” is listed in the ingredients, that’s refined flour.
Instead: Be sure a whole grain, such as whole wheat, whole rye, whole oats or brown rice, is the first and preferably the only grain in the ingredient list. A great example is a cereal listing whole rolled oats as the only grain or a bread listing whole wheat as the only wheat. Alternatively, consider an egg for breakfast. “The huge amounts of refined starch and sugar that many people eat for breakfast, often thinking that this is the healthy choice, does far more damage to their well-being than an egg,” says Harvard’s Willett.
Non-fried chips and crackers
It’s easy to believe these foods are healthful because of labels such as “baked,” “low fat” or “gluten free.” But most are made with refined grain or starch, which provide plenty of calories and few nutrients. Popchips, for example, are a new product marketed as healthful. But the ingredients are highly refined potato flakes, starch, oil, salt and about 14 additional things. Pita chips, made with white flour, oil, salt and several more ingredients, are no better. To boot, research shows that too much refined grains and starches increases the risk for heart disease, cancers, diabetes and weight gain.
Instead: Try Wasa or Finn Crisp Original Rye crackers. They’re 100 percent whole grain and have little sodium. If you’d like a chip, try Terra Chips, made with sliced vegetables, or even a 100 percent whole grain chip fried in a healthy oil, such as olive or canola. Tortilla chips and SunChips are two examples. “Now that trans fats have been removed from most cooking oils, the healthiest part of potato chips is the fat,” Willett says. “And chips made of whole grains rather than potatoes, like Frito-Lay’s SunChips, can legitimately be considered a health food,” so long as you keep to the one-ounce serving size.
*Peanuts are technically a legume, but we call them nuts nutritionally because their nutritional characteristics and health benefits closely match those of tree nuts.
Find this article originally printed in The Washington Post February 28, 2012
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Original Content: Washington Post:, 15 December 2004
Our grandmothers have been extolling the virtues of “roughage” for generations. Turns out, they were right. But the benefits of roughage, aka fiber, are far more vast than grandmother ever realized.
High fiber diets have been shown to reduce the occurrence of several chronic diseases. Because of this, in 2002 the expert scientists on the National Academy of Sciences’ Food and Nutrition Board, the group which issues periodic dietary recommendations for Americans, for the first time recommended Americans double their daily fiber intake to 38 grams for men and 25 grams for women. That’s the level they found is protective against heart disease.
Fiber is mainly carbohydrate, the undigestible part of plant foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts)– it travels unchanged through the intestines. Fiber comes in many different forms in food. It is concentrated, for instance, in the skin of fruits and vegetables, such as apples, corn, and legumes, the seeds of vegetables and fruits such as berries and cucumbers, and the germ and bran or coating which surrounds wheat kernels and other grains. These essential parts of the grain are removed to create white flour and other refined grains.
Americans eat very little fiber – half of what is recommended, eating a highly refined diet, instead. And if you’re on a low carb diet, you’re lucky to be eating any. There are plenty of great reasons to increase your intake of fiber. My clients who do discover multiple benefits.
Easier Weight Loss
Not eating enough fiber may be one reason why people are getting fatter.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year found that women with the highest fiber intake had a 49 percent lower risk of major weight gain compared with women eating less fiber.
High fiber diets are usually lower in calories. Though fiber is mainly carbohydrate, very little of it, if any, is actually digested. So, with foods high in fiber, you’re actually eating food which only partially counts as calories (and you thought that was only in your dreams!).
High fiber foods are also bulky, and often watery foods, which means they fill you up for fewer calories. Studies have shown adding high fiber foods, such as vegetables, before or during a meal decreases the overall calorie content of the meal by about 100. While saving 100 calories a day may not sound like much, it translates into losing ten pounds in one year.
Another factor which helps you feel satisfied with fewer calories is the “chew” factor, High fiber foods require more chewing and take longer to eat, which leads to more physical and psychological satisfaction with your meals.
Improve Intestinal Function
Digestive disorders are on the rise and a main reason may be the dearth of fiber in our diets. For most digestive disorders such as reflux disease, constipation, diarrhea, hemmorhoids, diverticulitis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, a higher fiber diet relieves symptoms and can even prevent the disorder in the first place.
Many people with these disorders, particularly Crohn’s disease or diarrhea, think they should avoid fiber, but that’s a mistake for most. Fiber increases bulk and motility and this relieves pressure, keeps everything regular and more comfortable for the whole gammit of intestinal disorders.
Imagine fiber as a dry sponge in your intestinal tract. Fiber pulls water into the system, keeping everything larger, softer and moving more quickly and easily.
Lower Diabetes Risk
Numerous studies have shown that high fiber diets improve diabetes control and may even prevent diabetes. In fact, it’s been estimated that fiber, especially cereal fiber from whole grains, reduces diabetes risk by about 35 percent.
There are several theories explaining why this may be true. First, high fiber foods tend to have a lower glycemic index. This means that after eating, blood sugar levels rise less (diabetes is characterized by high blood sugar). And studies confirm that people eating high fiber diets usually have lower fasting insulin levels, an indicator of overall lower blood sugar levels.
Also, high fiber foods contain many nutrients which may improve diabetes. For one, magnesium, a nutrient found in whole grains, legumes, tofu and some vegetables, improves insulin resistance, a cause of Diabetes Type II, the most prevalent type of diabetes. Vitamin E, found in whole grains and nuts, may also improve insulin resistance.
Prevent Heart Disease
Fiber helps prevent heart disease in a variety of ways. Lower circulating insulin caused by a high fiber diet reduces heart disease risk and heart attacks. Also, research shows viscous fiber found in legumes, oats, rye, barley and some fruits and vegetables, reduces LDL cholesterol (the bad kind which correlates with heart attack). In fact, it has been estimated by the NAS expert panel that for every gram of soluble fiber you eat, you’ll reduce heart disease risk by 2.4 percent.
High fiber diets reduce triglycerides, or blood fat, another heart disease risk factor. New evidence shows fiber intake is linked to lower C-reactive protein, an indicator of inflammation, which is an emerging heart disease risk factor.
Whole grains and some legumes contain many beneficial healthful substances, including phytoestrogens, which affect circulating hormone levels and may impact heart disease positively. Diets high in fruits and vegetables, containing high levels of the nutrient potassium, also significantly lower blood pressure and stroke.
High fiber foods such as dark green vegetables, legumes and fortified cereals contain the nutrient, Folate (or folic acid). Researchers have found that low blood levels of folate are linked to heart disease.
Reduce Cancer Risk
In populations eating low dietary fiber, doubling fiber intake from foods could reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by forty percent, according to recent findings in the EPIC study (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition), an on-going study of 500,000 people in 10 European countries.
In fact, the majority of studies suggest that dietary fiber is protective against colon cancer, according to the NAS expert panel’s report on fiber. But, a few important studies have not found a link so the issue remains to be resolved, concluded the report.
Several mechanisms have been proposed for this beneficial effect. First, because it pulls water into the intestinal tract, fiber dilutes carcinogens and other tumor-promoters, and causes a more rapid transit, thus causing less exposure of your body to potentially damaging substances. Fiber also causes other beneficial chemical reactions, such as lowering the ph. And lower insulin levels caused by high fiber diets are correlated with lower colon cancer risk. The EPIC researchers stressed that foods supplying fiber also contribute many other nutrients and phytochemcials (beneficial plant chemicals) that have been linked to cancer protection, according to the study reported in The Lancet last year.
Reasons given for some disappointing results connecting fiber to cancer prevention are that the benefits of dietary fiber may not occur until fiber intake is sufficiently high, and Americans eat very low levels, compared with Europeans, so it’s hard for scientists to measure an effect in American diets. Also, some studies tested fiber supplements, as opposed to fiber in food, and researchers say that’s a completely different animal.
Human studies specifically looking at fiber supplements haven’t shown good results and did not find a lower incidence of colon polyps, a precursor to colon cancer. In fact animal studies suggest fiber supplements might increase cell proliferation, which suggests a negative effect, increasing one’s risk of developing cancer rather than reducing the risk.
Scientists believe that fiber supplements will probably not produce most of the health benefits found with high fiber foods (regardless of what the commercials on TV say), except for improved gastrointestinal function and slightly lower LDL, if the supplement is made from viscous fibers such as guar gum or psyllium. But fiber supplements’ role in chronic disease prevention remains unproven. It’s best to get fiber from whole foods in your diet.
Adding Fiber To Your Diet
The key to adding fiber while preventing gas or cramps sometimes associated with increased fiber intake, is eating fiber consistently, adding it slowly, and drinking plenty of fluids. If you eat a low fiber diet and suddenly at a party scarf down a large bowl of baked beans, you may suffer negative side effects. To prevent this, Leslie Bonci, author of “The American Dietetic Association Guide to Better Digestion,” recommends adding fiber by just five gram increments each week until you get to the recommended daily intake of 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. Then, it’s important that you consistently eat regular amounts of fiber throughout each day.
Fiber content of selected foods:
Whole grains and are the largest source of fiber in your diet.
Grains Grams fiber
whole wheat bread, 1 slice (1 oz) 1.4
whole wheat spaghetti, 1/2 cup cooked 2
Bulghur, ½ cup cooked 4
Brown Rice, ½ cup cooked 2
Wasa Sourdough Rye Crispbread, 2 slices 4
air popped popcorn, 1 cup 1.0
Oats, ½ cup dry 4
Swiss Muesli, ½ cup 4
Post Great Grains Cereral, ½ cup 4
Kashi Good Friends Cereal, ½ cup 6
Fruits contain about 2 grams per 4 ounce serving, but they vary.
Fruits Grams fiber
blueberries, 1/2cup 2.05
cantaloupe, 1/4 melon 1.0
cherries, 10 1.2
grapefruit, 1/2 1.6
grapes, 10 0.3
grapes, 1 lb. 2.7
pineapple, 1/2 cup 1.1
strawberries, 1 cup 3.0
Vegetables contain 1 – 2 grams per serving, or 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw.
Vegetables, 1/2 cup cooked Grams fiber
beans, green 1.6
Brussels sprouts 2.3
cucumbers, sliced 1 cup 0.8
zucchini squash 1.3
Starchy Vegetables, 1/2 cup cooked Grams fiber
green peas 3.6
potato, with skin 2.5
Legumes are a great protein source and can substitute for meat. They average 6 grams of fiber per 1/2 cup cooked serving.
Legumes, 1/2 cup cooked Grams fiber
kidney beans 7.3
lima beans 4.5
navy beans 6.0