We talk to a leading nutrition scientist on the everyday alternatives to superfoods and how humble fruits and veg can save you
Seeking an alternative to increasingly fashionable, obscure, and expensive ‘superfoods’, Fiona O’Brien spoke to renowned nutritionist Professor Aedin Cassidy, about the benefits of ‘ordinary’ fruit and veg.
With health articles chasing after the latest fad in order to get us healthy, and with companies making a lot of money out of the diet industry, a newly published scientific report shows that its back to basics for weight management.
In a world where we are constantly chastised to implement a list of exotic superfoods into our diet, that are far from readily available in our local shops – acai, maca, – this new study shows that our favourite staples are the key to keeping healthy.
Eating fruit and vegetables that contain high levels of flavonoids could help and the latest study, published last week in the BMJ, reveals that apples, pears, berries and peppers were found to have the greatest effect in reducing weight gain.
Researchers from the departments of nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and UEA’s Norwich Medical School examined the association between the dietary intake of all flavonoids and weight change in a large study of 124,086 men and women based across the US with data collected over 24 years.
Prof Aedin Cassidy, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “Dietary flavonoids are natural compounds found in fruits and vegetables.
“This is the first large study to examine the associations between consumption of all flavonoids and weight gain in middle-aged and older adults.”
Prof Cassidy, the Irish-born Chair in Nutrition from the University of East Anglia, qualified from the University of Ulster in the 1980s and is determined to help the average person maintain their health by increasing their intake of flavonoids without having to jump on the band wagon of any faddy diets.
With the foods rich in flavonoids mainly consisting of fruits consumed with “skin-on”, readers will be heartened to learn that dark chocolate, red wine and your everyday breakfast tea are also high in the compound.
“This is not a quirky shortterm plan. These low-calorie diets, while they can cause significant weight loss in a small period of time, are not sustainable.
“These goods are readily available. English and Irish consumers are used to being brought up around apples, bananas and oranges, and I know my time growing up in Ireland, even a peach could have been seen an exotic!”
It is these introductions of more exotic foods that seem to have confused people.
“But one form of flavonoid, anthocyanins, seem to cause the biggest benefit.
“The research shows that taking just 10mg of these per day can prevent weight gain.
“Seeing as one serving of blueberries on its own amounts to up to 121mg, these are perfect.”
And with berries as readily available as the traditional fruits, and with sales of blenders rising substantially due to Christmas gift wishlists, there is no better time than to start tackling the dreaded, and seemingly unavoidable middle age spread.
“Our research shows that most adults gain weight as they age, men up to 2kg ever four years, and women up to 4kg.
“That is fairly significant and even small increases in weight can have a substantial impact on risk of high blood pressure, developing heart disease, cancer or diabetes – so strategies to help individuals maintain a healthy weight in middle age are needed.
We found that an increased consumption of most flavonoids were associated with weight maintenance, and even a modest weight loss.
“It is very important to get kids to learn early on to adopt healthy habits and to give them exposure to fruit and vegetables”
“The results were found to be consistent across men and women, and different ages.
“However losing even small amounts of weight, or preventing weight gain, can improve health and these modest effects were seen with a small, readily achievable increase in intake of many of these fruits.
“Just a single portion of some of these fruits per day would have an important impact on health at a population level.”
The coveted anthocyanins can be found from many sources, including strawberries, cherries, blackberries, grapes, radishes and blackcurrant. They also found that flavonoid polymers – found in tea and apples – were particularly beneficial, along with flavonols – found in tea and onions.
When asked whether a specific tea needed to be consumed Prof Cassidy stressed the simplicity of the diet.
“The whole point was to test the benefits of goods people readily consume.
“We measured the effects of what we are used to in our normal brew, but I suppose green tea is lauded for its effects too, but it is not really what our middle aged audience have been drinking traditionally.
“There are a lot of studies on the benefits of herbal teas in animals but we have yet to measure what the difference is, flavonoid wise, in contrast with your more average tea. “That is the tricky part of these dietary reports.
“There are many superfoods, and yes, they probably are beneficial but there is little research behind them to back up the facts.
“And with some of these only available online or in health stores it seems as if the excitement behind the benefits are more of a marketing ploy than scientific.”
The science of it all
The research team tracked participants who were part of three large prospective cohort studies: the Health Professionals Follow Up Study, Nurses Health Study, and Nurses Health Study II.
Participants self-reported changes in their weight through a questionnaire every two years, between 1986 and 2011.
In addition, they self reported their diet, lifestyle habits, and any recently diagnosed diseases every four years. The study adjusted for a range of dietary and lifestyle factors that may have influenced the results, such as smoking status and physical activity.
The results show the amount of weight loss associated with very small intakes – called ‘standard deviations’ – including 10mg of anthocyanins and 138mg of polymers.
They found that consuming just small amounts of flavonoids correlated with maintaining a healthy weight, and even losing a little – but only around 0.1KG. However many fruits provide high amounts of flavonoids – for example a single serving per day of blueberries contains up to 121 mg of anthocyanins and tea contains a range of flavonoids (including flavonols, flavan-3-ols and their polymers).
The research team hopes that choosing flavonoidrich fruits and vegetables could help people shed up to one or two pounds.
The researchers conclude that even small changes in intake have the potential to have a significant impact on helping to maintain a healthy body weight.