woman eating orange

BWH research finds that eating citrus fruits reduces stroke risk.

Ask your doctor, nurse, nutritionist, or mother, and they’ll all agree: You must eat your fruits and vegetables, at least five servings a day (or “half your plate,” according to new USDA MyPlate guidelines). Of course, they’re right. But it’s also true that not all fruits and vegetables carry the same nutritional value – and some may help more than others in preventing certain diseases.

If this leaves you wondering which fruits and vegetables to include in your five-a-day (or more) mix, Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) research provides at least one suggestion: Eat your citrus fruits. According to a recent study, they might reduce your risk of stroke.

BWH and other researchers, led by Dr. Kathryn Rexrode, BWH Department of Medicine, reviewed data from 69,622 women who participated in the Nurses’ Health Study. Based on questionnaires participants completed during 14 years of follow-up, the researchers were able to track stroke incidence and calculate flavonoid intake. Flavonoids are a type of antioxidant found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, dark chocolate, and red wine.

But just as not all fruits and vegetables are created equal, it turns out that neither are all flavonoids. The researchers discovered that a particular sub-type of flavonoid called flavanone – which are abundant in citrus fruits – seemed to have a protective effect against stroke. Women in the study who consumed large amounts of citrus fruits and juices had a 19 percent reduced risk of ischemic stroke (a type of stroke that happens when blood flow to the brain is blocked).

Although the study participants’ main dietary sources of flavanones came from oranges and orange juice (82 percent), followed by grapefruit and grapefruit juice (14 percent), researchers don’t know yet which, if any, citrus fruits have the most beneficial effects.

Despite the study’s praise for citrus fruits, the researchers caution that more work is needed to confirm their findings and to explain why flavanones appear to discourage stroke. Researchers also have other lingering questions, including whether other components, such as vitamin C and potassium, in citrus may also play a role in reducing stroke risk.

“I would certainly not recommend that anyone take flavanone supplements based on this research,” notes Dr. Rexrode.

Nevertheless, whether for the nutrients or the hope of stroke prevention, it doesn’t hurt to include citrus fruits in your daily diet. However, people who take medications should be aware that some citrus fruits, specifically grapefruit, can dangerously interact with medicines.

The other piece of advice for now: Reach for an actual orange instead of a box of OJ, since commercial fruit juices tend to be higher in sugar. And if there’s one other point on which your doctor, nurse, nutritionist, and mother all agree, it’s that you really must hold back on the sugar.

– Linda W., MMQ

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