There are many things that make the prospect of Summer getting closer alluring. Food-wise I believe one of the biggest anticipations is finally being able to eat fresh berries. And I mean literally just picked off the plants, fresh, scented, juicy. Perhaps accompanied by a glass of Champagne whilst sitting outside under a canopy of trees. Who else is salivating already?
But wait! Isn’t fruit a big no-no when it comes to fat loss?
Au contraire, in my opinion nothing is truly off-limits. Some things are perhaps more likely to hinder your progress, others can be downright destructive if you are intolerant or allergic to them but fruit offers plenty of benefits as well as providing us with a bit of healthy sweetness.
My personal experience is that once I got my shit together and sorted my nutrition out by going organic most of the time and buying from local farmers some of the time, I was once again able to enjoy the true flavour of cherries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries in its full intensity. It’s amazing how sweet real fruit can be once you wean yourself off from pre-fab foods.
It’s not just the flavour that you should go for though, there are also many health benefits in eating berries on a regular basis.
LET’S TAKE STRAWBERRIES FOR EXAMPLE
Research recently carried out into why strawberries are good for humans1 showed that they are a rich source of micronutrients and phytochemicals such as α-carotene, vitamin C and phenolic compounds. Because of this they have shown to have antioxidant properties, can help in preventing cancer (or at least slow down its progress) and assist with the correct function of the immune system.
In order to establish how many of the beneficial compounds were available to us a small group of healthy individuals were made to consume “acute quantities (300g)” of fresh and stored (refrigerated for 4 days) strawberries obtained from a local grower and then blood tests were carried out. Of particular importance was to establish what difference eating fresh vs. stored strawberries would make to the bio-availability to humans of the many phytochemicals, after all it had been previously proven that storage methods can indeed have an influence on nutrients’ absorption but also on the chemical structure of produce.
Surprisingly (but also yay!) the blood tests carried out over a period of hours showed that there were minimal differences in the levels of Vitamin A and Vitamin E between fresh and stored strawberries, with the only significant difference shown in the levels of Vitamin C after consumption of stored strawberries. Levels of α-carotene were higher after eating fresh produce whilst antioxidant compounds didn’t show any significant results.
The takeaway from this experiment is that yes, storage methods can have an impact on the bio-availability of nutrients from fruit but that it’s so minimal that we really shouldn’t worry too much about it as long as the fruit is refrigerated immediately after harvest and consumed within 4 days. In fact, researchers have hinted that it’s the process of deterioration of the fruit that can possibly make some of the beneficial compounds more easily processed by our bodies.
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER BERRIES?
Well, berry flavonoids and their health benefits for humans seem to have been the subject of many research papers. Women seem to have a particular interest in berries and have increased their consumption on the basis that they might help them cope with menopausal symptoms. Studies have demonstrated that post-menopausal women who consumed berries at least once a week over a 16 year period of time had a remarkably lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
From the data currently available2 it seems that berries have indeed beneficial effects, albeit moderate, on cardiovascular health, “bad cholesterol” levels, free radicals and weight loss. They appear to inhibit the expression of the inflammation gene and are helpful in the prevention of oesophageal cancer. The reasons for this effect are multiple: like strawberries other berries are also rich in polyphenols, flavonoids, vitamins A, E and C, carotene, selenium and folic acid. “Berry anthocyanins also improve neuronal and cognitive brain functions, eyes health as well as protect genomic DNA integrity4″. The bio-availability of these compounds unfortunately isn’t great and they tend to be concentrated in the skin of the fruits.
Berries are low in calories (approx. 40KCal/100g) and contain modest amounts of fibre which is always a bonus especially when on a calorie controlled programme. Of particular interest to me is the fact that berries, like chocolate, contain catechins which can support muscle growth when performing regular resistance training.
If all this wasn’t a good enough reason to regularly include berries in our diet researchers have found that “specific berries, such as bilberry and black currant extracts, chokeberry juice, cranberry extracts, and freeze-dried strawberries were shown to have favorable effects on plasma glucose or lipid profiles in subjects with metabolic risk factors including type 1 or type 2 diabetes mellitus, dyslipidemia, or metabolic syndrome”3. Blueberries have been shown to be useful in improving insulin resistance.
The consensus among researchers seems to be that it’s best to eat berries either fresh or frozen when all their nutritional compounds are still intact. In the Summer it’s really easy to eat them straight out of the punnet they tend to come in. The rest of the year we can still enjoy them frozen.
I like to use mixed berries for my post-workout recovery shakes: I add 1 scoop of unflavoured whey protein powder to a mug with 1.5 scoops of raw cocoa powder, 2 grams of cinnamon extract and 1 cup of frozen mix berries from the local supermarket. Sometimes I mix the ingredient with mineral water, other times with coconut milk and then I blitz them until I have a thick but frothy shake and enjoy it as if it was a dessert. In fact, in the rare occasions when the temperature raises above 25ºC I might even turn this into a sorbet.
Had I not ripped out all the strawberry plants in my back garden mistaking them from weeds I would be repeating these experiment every year with my own crops. Especially the bit in which I have to consume berries in acute quantities like a whole punnet every day (but skipping the blood test bit). Instead I am forced to resort to some of the local growers who kindly sell their produce every fortnight at the local Farmers’ Market and eat them in moderation to make it cost effective.
I love all berries but I think if I really had to choose a favourite it would have to be strawberries. What about you?
1 – E. Azzini et al. , “Absorption of strawberry phytochemicals and antioxidant status changes in humans”, Journal of Berry Research 1 (2010) 81–89, DOI:10.3233/BR-2010-009
2 – Huntley, A.L. “The health benefits of berry flavonoids for menopausal women: cardiovascular disease, cancer and cognition.”, Maturitas (2009), DOI: http://www.maturitas.org/article/S0378-5122(09)00174-1/fulltext
3 – Basu, A et al., “Berries: emerging impact on cardiovascular health”, Nutr Rev. Author manuscript; PMCID: PMC3068482
4 – Zafra-Stone, S. et al., “Berry anthocyanins as novel antioxidants in human health and disease prevention”, Mol. Nutr. Food Res. 2007, 51, 675 – 683 DOI 10.1002/mnfr.200700002