Growing up, I rarely hungered for apples. I lived in Los Angeles, so I never once roamed through an orchard or yanked an apple off a tree, or even sliced up apples for a pie. But these days I’m making up for lost time. Over the past couple of years, I’ve eaten at least one apple each day because a raft of new research suggests that doing so really can help keep the doctor away.
Consider: After researchers put some mice on a month-long diet that included an unlimited amount of apple juice, they showed a significant improvement in memory. Even more astounding, in a later study apple juice actually ramped up the production of antioxidants by altering the expression of the genes that make them.
“The implication is that apples can help us fight disease and keep us healthier in old age,” says Thomas Shea, lead researcher and a professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.
There’s more good news: Men who ate at least five apples a week had better lung function than others, in a study published in Thorax. Apples were singled out as the fruit that could actually halve the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among smokers in a Netherlands study.
And at the University of California at Davis, drinking apple juice was found to delay the breakdown of LDL or “bad” cholesterol, theoretically preventing plaque from accumulating along the arterial walls. In fact, eating apples appears to lower the risk of many chronic diseases, including heart disease and stroke, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and asthma.
What makes apples so special? Researchers think the secret lies in the combination of certain superantioxidants called quercetins and catechins. “Apples are very rich in these chemicals, which somehow help protect cells from oxidative damage,” says Shea.
Each apple also packs a lot of fiber—about twice as much in every bite as fruits like peaches, grapes, and grapefruit. “One big reason apples are gaining favor is because researchers are learning about the disease-fighting potential of fiber,” say Roberta Anding, of the American Dietetic Association. Studies show it’s a key ingredient in the battle against heart disease and diabetes, among other illnesses.
Another bonus and, frankly, one big reason I’m so conscientious about eating my daily apple: Dieters who ate three apples (or pears) a day lost significantly more weight than those who ate three oat cookies a day, in a study at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.
The key is the three grams of fiber, which gives you a full feeling without adding a lot of calories, and therefore tricks the body into eating less. “The fiber helps flip on the fullness switch,” says Anding. She suggests that anyone trying to lose weight get into the habit of eating an apple before dinner. (She likes hers cored and served with a spoonful of low-fat vanilla yogurt.) “That way you’ll eat a little less of your meal as the fiber starts to kick in,” she says.
I like to eat my apple in the mid-afternoon–usually with a tablespoon of peanut butter or some cheese. It powers me through the rest of the day and actually does curb my appetite at dinner. I can’t say I’ve lost weight on my apple-a-day diet, but I haven’t gained any either. And that–plus the fondness I’ve developed for the crisp, crunchy taste of my ever-changing supply–is why I’m sticking with my program.
Apples are among the least finicky of fruits and can stay fresh in the refrigerator for weeks. That said, there are limits to how long their nutrients remain fully intact. As with all fruits and vegetables, the fresher they are when you eat them, the more nutritious they’ll be. Here are other suggestions for making the most of apples.
Go local and seasonal. An apple that is shipped or stored for long periods is more likely to have been picked before it’s ripe; sun-ripened fruit tends to contain higher levels of nutrients.
Opt for organic. Why? Because conventionally grown apples can carry high levels of pesticides. If conventional is your only option, rinse in tap water, then scrub with a produce brush.
Store apples in a cool place. They can last up to six weeks when refrigerated in a plastic bag, with only a minimal loss of nutrients.
Drink 100 percent apple juice. But try to limit it to one or two glasses a day. The juice is pretty high in sugar.
Bake with applesauce. Substitute it for oil in a 1 to 1 ratio in recipes for cakes, muffins, and quick breads and you’ll dramatically cut the fat content.
Use apples as kitchen aids. Add one to a bag of potatoes to keep them from sprouting; toss an apple into your cookie jar to keep cookies moist; or drop it into a paper bag along with any green bananas or hard peaches you want to ripen. (Apples produce a lot of ethylene, a fruit-ripening gas, and the paper bag traps the gas.)
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By Amy Paturel, Natural Solutions magazine