Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for one in every four deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Decades of scientific research in humans and animals suggest that a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits can help prevent many of the changes in blood vessels that lead to the onset of heart disease. Among the most potent of these fruits are blueberries and strawberries, says Anandh Babu Pon Velayutham, Ph.D., an associate professor of Nutrition & Integrative Physiology at University of Utah Health.
"Many studies show that blueberries and strawberries can specifically improve blood vessel function," Velayutham says. "They help the blood vessels relax so that blood can flow through them more smoothly."
Although scientists aren't fully sure why blueberries and strawberries have this effect on blood vessels, they suspect that a natural substance called anthocyanin, which is plentiful in both fruits, is the key. Anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid, have a beneficial anti-inflammatory effect on cells.
In a recent animal study, Velayutham and colleagues concluded that blueberries can potentially prevent certain complications of diabetes such as blood vessel damage. They also found that these fruits might be good for the beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Based on these and other results, the USDA recommends eating about 8 large strawberries a day or a cup of fresh or frozen blueberries daily. And no, you don't have to eat them all in one sitting. Regularly adding these fruits to cereals, oatmeal, salads, and yogurt smoothies can help promote blood vessel health a bit at a time.
However, Velayutham stresses that eating these fruits is just one part of a healthy diet. Eating other fruits as well as more beans and whole grain foods helps. Cutting back on salt usage and fatty foods, such as pizzas, burgers, and creamy sauces or gravy is essential, he says.
In addition, he suggests using organic strawberries because they are less likely to be exposed to pesticides. Regular blueberries are okay because they contain relatively fewer pesticides than regular strawberries, Velayutham says.
To get started, here are three recipes using blueberries and strawberries suggested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate:
Fresh avocado doubles for dressing and filling complementing blueberries, carrots, arugula and chicken in this appetizing summer wrap.
Fresh broccoli and strawberries are colorful additions to this refreshing summer delight. Lemon dressing brings a bright flavor to this pasta dish.
Enjoy this hearty snack or dessert, abounding with fresh fruit, granola, and low-fat yogurt.