Count strawberries among the best foods for diabetics. Eating 37 of the red berries a day may help people with diabetes avoid major complications of the metabolic disease such as vision, nerve and kidney problems, according to a new study from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
The beneficial compound is fisetin, a rare, naturally occurring flavonoid (or plant pigment compound that acts as an antioxidant) found in strawberries and other fruits, like tomatoes and apples. It reduced kidney and memory problems in diabetic Akita mice, researchers reported in the June 27 issue of PLoS ONE, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The rodents had high blood-sugar levels – typical of type 1 diabetes – and the same diabetic complications as humans.
While fisetin didn’t reduce blood sugar levels, it lowered hypertrophy, or enlargement, of the kidneys, according to the study. High urine protein levels, a typical sign of kidney disease, also fell. Diabetic retinopathy (damage to the retina caused by diabetes) and neuropathy (pain or loss of feeling in the toes, feet and hands, among other symptoms) also diminished.
Why precisely 37 strawberries a day? Researchers based the amount on the assumption that the fruit’s fisetin is metabolized by humans as easily as the lab version fed to mice.
“This is an exciting discovery,” says Donna Weihofen, R.D., M.S., senior nutritionist at the University of Wisconsin Hospital & Clinics. “Those 37 strawberries a day won’t change how we treat [people with diabetes], but the study may point us in the direction of growing healthier strawberries with this flavonoid. Or in concentrated form, it might lead to a pill that helps diabetes complications.”
There are hundreds of flavonoids, some found in red wine and blueberries, Weihofen adds. “We’re starting to identify many of them, learn what they are and what they do.”
Salk Institute researchers reported that fisetin also lowered mice’s anxiety levels and reversed their sedentary ways.
Anxious mice typically don’t move around, says Pam Maher, Ph.D., a senior staff scientist in Salk’s Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory and one of the study’s authors. Fisetin helped restore their activity level, she says.
Because of the difficulty in getting natural products to clinical trials – patents are hard to protect – it may be some time before fisetin is tested on people with diabetes, researchers say.
In the meantime, consider strawberries a delicious, healthy snack. But it’s best to buy organic berries, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The non-profit consumer organization puts the fruit third on its “Dirty Dozen” list – behind apples and celery – because of high pesticide contamination levels.
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