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updated: 6/5/2012 3:09 PM

Ask the Nutritionist: Pick a variety of berries for maximum health benefits

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Q. Are other berries as rich in antioxidants as blueberries, or should I just stick to blueberries every day?

A. Go for variety!

All berries are high in antioxidant compounds and vitamin C. Studies suggest that blueberries have good potential as a cancer-fighting, health-promoting food.

Since strawberries come into season a little sooner, start there. One cup of strawberries provides enough vitamin C to meet current recommendations for a whole day, and eating strawberries has been shown to increase blood levels of vitamin C and total antioxidant capacity.

Strawberries provide compounds called ellagitannins and ellagic acid, which bacteria in our digestive tract convert to other compounds. In laboratory studies those compounds show antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and direct anti-cancer effects.

We don't currently have, and may never have, large human studies that isolate effects of berries, especially particular types of berries, on cancer risk. Research does suggest, though, that compounds in a variety of berries could play many roles in cancer prevention. Antioxidant protection from vitamin C and phytochemicals appears to protect DNA from damage and enhance its repair.

Beyond that, berry phytochemicals seem able to inhibit carcinogens and stimulate self-destruction of abnormal cells. Enjoy your favorite berries in season when costs are lowest and you'll be rewarded with nutritional variety and fresh flavor.

Q. Is it true that regular soft drinks are a concern for heart health? Doesn't heart disease risk come from too much saturated fat and sodium?

A. Studies linking sugar-sweetened soft drink consumption with increased risk of heart disease have surprised many people. It's true that too much saturated fat increases risk of heart disease and too much sodium tends to raise blood pressure, which also raises risk. Being too sedentary raises heart disease risk as well.

Another concern is that regular soft drinks are concentrated sources of calories, and being overweight increases heart disease risk. Recent studies still link frequent consumption of regular (sugar-sweetened) soft drinks with increased heart disease even after adjusting for people's weight and recent weight changes.

In two large U.S. cohort (population) studies, the Nurses' Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, each 12-ounce daily serving of a regular soft drink increased risk of heart disease 15 to 19 percent, even after accounting for differences in physical activity, blood pressure, blood cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes.

Among women, weight related to part but not all of this link. For men, those with highest consumption of regular soft drinks had higher levels of several markers of chronic low-grade inflammation compared to those who drank the least. Inflammation can damage blood vessels and seems to be an important contributor to cardiovascular disease (as well possibly promoting development of Type 2 diabetes and cancer).

Perhaps part of the increased risk of heart disease was related to other differences between those with higher and lower soft drink consumption, but for now these findings do add more support to recommendations from several expert health panels that we avoid or minimize consumption of sugar-sweetened soft drinks.

• Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research.

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