Guest Writer: Timi Gustafson, RD
Blueberries have long been popular for their tangy flavor and multiple uses in desserts, yogurts, juices and baked goods. They also rank among the healthiest foods you can possibly eat. In fact, the list of possible health benefits from blueberries grows longer every year, as more medical studies uncover their incredible healing power.
Here is a short list of the more recent findings:
• Blueberries have been shown to shrink cancerous tumors and prevent the development and growth of cancer cells.
• Blueberries can slow down and even reverse age-related memory loss.
• Blueberries can help improve physical coordination and balance at an advanced age.
• Blueberries reduce cholesterol levels.
• Blueberries prevent urinary tract infections.
• Blueberries are low in calories and high in fiber, vitamin C and antioxidants, all of which makes them extremely nutritionally beneficial.
This seems a lot of punch to pack for such a plain little berry, but all these claims are backed up by growing evidence.
For example, a study conducted at Ohio State University in 2009 found that when lab rats with blood vessel tumors were fed blueberry extract, their cancer growth was halted and even reversed. The blueberry-fed rats lived on average twice as long as those that were given none. Blood vessel tumor is among the most common cancer types affecting young children and occurs in about three percent of all infants. Researchers hope that the use of blueberries may some day be part of the treatment of these usually inoperable tumors.
A separate study that was conducted in 2007 at Rutgers University in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that a specific compound in blueberries, named pterostilbene, was able to inhibit the spread of cancer cells in the colon of lab rats. And in 2005, researchers at the University of Illinois reported that antioxidants in wild blueberries, called anthocyanins, could prevent certain cancers from forming and proliferating in the prostate and the liver. “Blueberries seem to have “cancer-fighting properties at all stages: Initiation, promotion and proliferation,” said Dr. Mary Ann Lila, the lead author of the study report. “Wild blueberry compounds offer a multi-pronged attack against cancer,” she added.
Blueberries have also been praised for their ability to reduce age-related deterioration of brain functions and memory. A research team from England concluded in 2008 that eating blueberries can actually reverse problems with memory and other cognitive functions. Almost ten years earlier, a USDA-sponsored study found that blueberries improved the physical coordination and balance in aging lab rats.
USDA researchers also reported findings of cholesterol-lowering properties in blueberries, based on animal studies they conducted in 2004. In fact, their experimentation showed that blueberries were more effective in lowering cholesterol levels than many widely prescribed cholesterol medications.
A 2004 study from Rutgers University confirmed that blueberries, like cranberries, can be helpful in preventing and healing urinary tract infections. A compound, called epicatechin, keeps infectious bacteria from attaching themselves to the bladder wall.
Besides these astounding health benefits, blueberries are also nutritional powerhouses. They are low in calories – one cup is 82 calories – high in fiber and loaded with vitamins, especially vitamin C. They rank among the top providers of antioxidants, which are essential to nutritional health. Antioxidants like anthocyanin, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E and mineral selenium, and also copper (a highly effective anti-bacterial agent), zinc and iron (which raises hemoglobin and the concentration of oxygen in the blood), among other important micronutrients, boost the immune system and help to prevent infections.
In addition to its rich nutritional qualities, blueberries have the ability to neutralize so-called “free radicals,” which are unstable molecules that can cause many diseases and accelerate the aging process. This is mainly due to the concentrated presence of anthocyanin, the pigment that gives these berries their dark bluish color.
Some believers in the multiple powers of this “superfruit” think of blueberries also as an effective anti-depressant, although, to my knowledge, no conclusive research has yet been done in this regard. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all. I personally eat a bowl of blueberries every morning as part of my breakfast – and I haven’t had a bad day in a very long time. Maybe it’s the berries.
Timi Gustafson RD, LDN. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.