If every day you woke up and ate exactly what you should eat, to be your healthiest, lose weight, lower your cholesterol and keep your blood sugar steady, you might suspect that would be a boring diet of oatmeal and kale. But what if we told you that the number one thing to pop like candy, morning noon and night, were... blueberries?

Everyone is looking for the "magic pill" that burns belly fat, helps you lose weight, and keeps your energy up. It may just be sitting in your fridge, freezer, or easily bought at your local grocery store. Yes, it turns out that this basic little berry does a bounty of good for your body.

The latest research on the nutritional benefits of blueberries reinforces the fact that this little pebble-sized fruit packs a major, powerful punch of antioxidants, fiber, and phytochemicals that helps to improve your circulation, strengthen your immunity and keep you full, all while sending your blood sugar into a healthy steady-state and prompting your body to cart off fat?  Because this little berry is so fiber full (with nearly 4 grams a cup), you don't feel hunger pangs shortly after eating them (unlike sugary treats). This is one reason eating blueberries regularly is associated with aiding in losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight.

One study found that lab rats that were plumped up and then consumed blueberries for 90 days lost more belly fat than those same rats that didn't eat blueberries, and scientists believe this is related to the way the antioxidants in blueberries influence how fat and glucose are metabolized. So even if you eat an imperfect diet, adding blueberries appears to help burn off belly fat by lowering insulin sensitivity. Another later study found similar results.

Blueberries are also known to help athletes recover faster when eaten before a tough workout, due to the fact that they help fight inflammation. Endurance athletes who consume blueberries before a major race or long training session have experienced less oxidative stress, meaning they feel less pain and go further, faster, on this natural fuel. (Perhaps this is one reason most sports smoothies start with blueberries and a type of protein powder.)

The phytochemicals in blueberries are powerful health boosters

According to one recent study: "Blueberries contain a large number of phytochemicals," the most notable is anthocyanin pigments, a powerful flavonoid that gives the berry its sapphire blue color. Of their various phytochemicals, anthocyanins probably make the greatest impact on blueberry health functionality and how they work their wonders in your body.

"Epidemiology studies associate regular, moderate intake of blueberries and/or anthocyanins with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, death, and type 2 diabetes, and with improved weight maintenance and neuroprotection."

Along with helping improve weight loss and brain function, blueberries are powerhouses when it comes to fighting the effects of heart disease, especially on the circulatory system.

"Blueberry anthocyanins exert protection against cardiovascular complications by acting on multiple targets in the vascular system," another study found. "These include activating endothelial nitric oxide... reducing oxidative stress, improving inflammatory pathways," as well a lowering the amount of fat, or lipids in the blood that lead to high cholesterol.

For more on the mighty blueberry and how to eat more of the best foods to fight off infection, keep blood pressure low, and your heart healthy for years to come, we met with Maya Feller, RD, and the founder of Maya Feller Nutrition, a nutrition private practice specializing in nutrition for chronic disease prevention.

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The Beet: It’s February, Heart Health month!  What should we be eating for a heart-healthy diet?

Maya Feller: Find the healthy habits that are sustainable for you. The answer is different for everyone, but the best way to be healthy is to find easy, sustainable habits that are heart-healthy. Usually, when I work with patients, the first thing I say is: Let’s reframe the conversation and think about the modifications and changes that you can make that are sustainable over time.

So instead of thinking that you are going to create this huge overhaul of your pattern of eating and your physical activity, we ask: what are the small steps that you can do? What are the things that you can add in on a day to day basis?

The Beet: So that's why you're so high on blueberries. Because we can eat them daily?

Maya Feller: Of course, we are always looking for foods in their whole and minimally processed form with limited added sugar, salts, and fats.

When I am working with my patients, I say: What does that look like for you? Because it’s going to look different for everyone. For me, this morning, it happened to be a small bowl of blueberries. It's really, really easy. I always have blueberries in my house, fresh or frozen.

The Beet: It makes it so easy when you include frozen blueberries. Those are as good?

Maya Feller: Yes. Blueberries are an excellent source of vitamin C, K, Manganese, they also are high in fiber. And we love all of those vitamins and minerals and nutrients because there so much good research being protective in terms of our cardiovascular health.

The Beet: Would you say that a plant-based diet is good for heart health?

Other than staying away from processed foods, what are the broad strokes people should think about?

Maya Feller: The broad strokes are: Eat foods in their whole and minimally processed form. That means if you eat animal proteins and you eat chicken, then you are looking for a piece of chicken that has been minimally processed. The moment it goes through a factory, that’s your processing.

Other heart-healthy foods include nuts, like almonds, which are high in fiber, and ancient grains, like couscous, and if for Omega-3s, flax seeds and leafy greens, like dandelion greens, Brussel sprouts, bok choy, and cabbage.

The Beet: We help people eat as plant-based as they can. But that still includes chips!

The Beet is all about helping people to go as plant-based as possible. So for me, my problem with that I can be plant-based and still love potato chips. Potato chips are processed but they are plant-based, technically. One of the things that I think is important to convince me and others to consider is that if it comes out of a bag, it might not be a good idea, healthwise. How do you feel about potato chips?

Maya Feller:  I recognize that there really is no one size that fits all diet. There are foods, yes, that we know that if you eat them on a regular and consistent basis--things that have lots of additives–added sugars, salts, and fats–packaged foods that are ultra-processed. Those tend to be the ones that are linked with poor health outcomes, We know that to be true, right?

Nutrition is a question of what you do the majority of the time, not the stand-alone moment. If you have a potato chip from time to time, okay. My question is always how are you eating it? Are you enjoying it? Is it causing you a lot of stress? Hopefully not. What’s your condition of health? What’s your current health? If you have a non-communicable condition that you are trying to manage, then you need to think about food through a prescriptive lens... because that’s kind of just the reality of what you are dealing with.

So  I think that if I were to survey my patients, they would probably say “You know, Maya works with me, to find the pattern of eating that I can sustain over time and the one that helps me to have the best outcome.”

The Beet: So a little bit of chips is not going to kill me?

Maya Feller: Exactly.

The Beet: So long as I am consistently choosing healthy food. That's the key, right?

Back to the idea of blueberries, which I love. I rarely don't have them in the house, and then that's a reason for me to go to the store. One of the things I would always say to people--because I was the editor of SELF for a long time and people would ask me: Is such-and-such healthy? And I would say “compared to what?” Is popcorn healthy? Sure compared to greasy corn chips. Is yogurt healthy? Compared to ice cream. But nothing is as healthy as a whole piece of fruit. Or a handful of blueberries.

M: Exactly! Exactly!  If you are going to snack on anything and you want a sweet, a blueberry is like the perfect snack.

The Beet: I love to say that blueberries are nature’s candy. I love it.

But if you are having a dark chocolate moment and you really can’t live without that, fine, but I always say "Try to eat the healthiest thing you can at any given moment." And what that generally means is like if you are in a food court in the airport, maybe it’s a salad. If you are home maybe you keep almonds and blueberries around, and that’s your snack.

Basically, try to eat the healthiest thing you can at any given moment. That’s going to push you away from the wrong thing and towards the right thing. So if people can keep things around that are healthy, then they are going to have that as an option. So that means when you try to eat the healthiest thing at any given moment, if you have blueberries in your house, that’s the healthiest thing that you can eat, pretty much all day long.

Maya Feller: Right. I like to put the caveat, especially given that we are in this moment that none of us have ever lived through. People have varying degrees of availability for fresh fruits and vegetables. So, when we are talking about health we need to also be thinking about access, and it's not just financial access, it’s also what can you get to during the pandemic.

You need to buy the healthy things that you can engage in overtime and that you can replicate. If it’s like getting fresh or frozen blueberries, that fantastic. Then you can replicate that behavior and be consistent. So being healthy over time is all about creating this framework that’s supportive of what it is that you want. If you need to keep a bag of frozen berries or peas or mixed vegetables in the freezer, then that is what you will be able to sustain.

The Beet: That’s a great point. To be consistent, think of sustaining healthy habits.

Thank you, Maya. I want to have you back to The Beet. You are an amazing, helpful guide to what is healthy and how we can all think about being healthier today and for years to come.

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