Another study and one more excited headline. I love strawberries and am lucky enough to live where strawberries are grown locally most of the year, but I am still shaking my head. Yesterday a press release titled “Strawberries Lower Cholesterol” was released and Stone Hearth News dutifully repeated the words in it’s own newsletter. Already the news has flashed around the world.
Published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, this study involves feeding a team of 23 healthy volunteers one half kilo (a bit over a pound) of strawberries every day for a month. The researchers measured blood values of total cholesterol, LDL and HDL cholesterol, as well as triglycerides before and after the study.*
MORE “SOUND BITE” NUTRITION
The problem remains that a press release mostly poses as an advertisement for research findings, without the usual explanation of methods and discussion seen in a scientific paper. This particular press release perfectly illustrates how we have devolved into a world inundated with “sound bite” nutrition advice. Now add strawberries to the growing and often disparate lists of foods you are supposed to eat in order to reduce cholesterol. (Never mind that cholesterol is a lousy marker for heart disease. About 75% of people suffering a heart attack don’t have elevated cholesterol in the first place)
SURVEYING THE NUTRITION SCENERY
Just how crazy is it out there? A quick Google search for foods that lower cholesterol yielded 7 posts in the first two screens—after the paid advertisers. Mayo Clinic offers their top five, while Harvard Health weighs in with eleven (except they can’t count–it’s actually 15).
Web MD lists five of the heavy hitters, and Joy Bauer weighs in with 6. I can’t quite figure out why Joy only mentions pistachio nuts (as opposed to all nuts), only sardines (why not all omega three rich fatty fish?), and only oranges (no other fruits and vegetables?) And why does the title of the post specifically list cooking spray? Is there more to this story? More shaking of head.
AARP highlights 8 different foods along with an advertisement for travel on slide three (How many readers started feeling hopeful that maybe a cruise could help decrease their cholesterol?)
Health.com takes a different tack and offers 10 foods to substitute to help lower cholesterol. This post illustrates the problem with internet information–it lives on forever. As with most of the other posts, it is written before we realized fat isn’t so much the problem.
Everyday Health offers 11 (no 12–they can’t count either) tips, and are just one of three posts pushing for margarine with plant sterols over butter. I start to get a little jaded here, wondering if any of the blogs have financial ties to manufacturers of margarines made with plant sterols. Hmmm.
Now that strawberries are getting their day in the sun, it could be a good time to look a little closer at the research. A quick survey of the press release leaves a lot of questions on the table: Did the researchers assess they rest of the diet? What else changed? Were the strawberries in addition to what they usually eat or instead of? Close to a pound of strawberries takes up a considerable amount of volume and contributes energy.
Without these details, the public jumps on one more bandwagon. I can already hear a future client trying to explain how hard they are trying to reduce their cholesterol, “But I eat strawberries every day!”
WHAT ELSE IS NOT ADDRESSED?
Because the press release doesn’t address the rest of the diet, I don’t know if the scientists did either. In this study total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides all dropped close to 10-20 percent. While the numbers are significant, I am left to wonder, “Is it strawberries or something else?” I don’t know what time of year the study participants were followed. Were strawberries in season? Does that mean so was asparagus, artichokes, and arugula? Maybe everyone’s lipid values improve when more fresh fruits and vegetables are available.
How about other variables, like activity, sleep and stress? Was there a control group? Lastly, who paid for the research? Reports like this sensationalize the benefits on one food without much perspective. We already live in a world inundated with “sound bite” nutrition, and I’m concerned that this report mostly adds to the confused frenzy. What about you?
*The researchers also note that markers of general plasma lipid profile, antioxidant bio-markers (such as vitamin C or oxygen radical absorbance capacity), anti-hemolytic defenses and platelet function all returned to previous levels 15 days after the participants stopped eating strawberries. There is no explanation to clarify how “general lipid profile” compares to the reported cholesterol and triglyceride scores.