Two apples a day may keep heart disease away

A five pound basket of freshly picked cortland apples at a farmer's market.
Apples are rich in antioxidants and fibre, but only if eaten whole, not juiced. [Photo: Getty]

Two apples a day could keep heart disease away, research suggests.

The popular fruit is rich in fibre and antioxidants. Long known to boost cardiovascular health, it was unclear how many apples we should eat to reap the benefits.

READ MORE: Why is Your Cholesterol High?

To learn more, scientists from the University of Reading looked at 40 volunteers, 22 of which were asked to consume two apples a day for eight weeks.

Munching on the fruit-bowl staple lowered the participants’ “bad” cholesterol by just under 4% more than the controls’.

Experts stress, however, the reduction was not large enough to replace statins in at-risk people, with the controversial drugs potentially cutting cholesterol levels in half.

Apples are popular the world over, making up 12.5% of all fruits consumed, the scientists wrote in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Antioxidants, called polyphenols, in the go-to snack have been shown to prevent blood clots, raise “good” cholesterol and ward off inflammation.

Good cholesterol helps remove the bad kind from the bloodstream, according to the Mayo Clinic.

High levels of bad cholesterol can build up in blood vessels, narrowing them. Clots can also form and get stuck, triggering a heart attack or stroke.

Apple’s fibre, namely pectin, may also affect the break down of fat and sugar.

READ MORE: 4 signs of a heart attack and healthy ways to lower your risk

Studies into the fruit’s benefits have been muddled and largely conducted in animals, the scientists wrote.

They therefore looked at adults with “mildly raised cholesterol”, defined as more than 5.2mmol/L. The NHS recommends levels be 5mmol/L or below.

After two weeks of abstaining from apples entirely, 22 were asked to eat two of the Renetta Canada variety for the experiment.

The remaining 18 were given an “apple juice squash” made of 50% concentrate with added sugar.

After eight weeks, those in the “apple group” saw their bad cholesterol go down to an average of 3.72mmol/L. This is compared to 3.86mmol/L in those drinking the juice.

Healthy levels are typically 3mmol/L or less, according to the NHS.

The participants who ate the whole apples ended up with a total cholesterol level of 5.89mmol/L, compared to 6.11mmol/L in the squash group. The NHS recommends levels be no more than 5mmol/L.

The apples and juice were matched to contain equal amounts of sugar and calories. The whole fruit was, however, significantly higher in fibre - 8.5g versus less than 0.5g - and polyphenols - 990mg compared to 2.5mg.

“It seems the old adage of an apple day was nearly right,” study author Professor Julie Lovegrove said.

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Although those eating the apples fared better, experts warn the fruit should not replace statins.

These drugs may be recommended to those with heart disease or a family history of the condition that puts them at risk over the next decade.

They have, however, been linked to everything from hair loss and insomnia to joint pain and diarrhoea.

When it comes to their effectiveness, Heart UK reports the medication can reduce your cholesterol levels by 30%, or even 50% at a high dose.

“The effect on cholesterol was very small compared with drug therapy with statins” Professor Tim Chico, from the University of Sheffield, said.

“So, can people who need to take statins swap them for apples? No, not on the evidence of this study.

“Should all people, whether on statins or not, eat more vegetables and fruit if they want to reduce their risk of heart disease?

“Emphatically yes, alongside taking more regular physical activity, not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight.”

Another expert agreed, adding longer, larger studies are required. Nonetheless, eating more fresh produce should be encouraged, he added.

“Irrespective of any benefit on cholesterol, anything that encourages people to eat one or two more pieces of fruit per day is to be welcomed”, Professor Naveed Sattar, from the University of Glasgow, said.

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