An Apple a Day Keeps Cholesterol at Bay?

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Lending credence to the old adage about eating an apple a day, a new study finds that women who ate the fruit daily saw improvements in cholesterol levels and markers of inflammation — suggesting a lower risk of heart disease — in a year’s time.

The study, conducted by researchers at Florida State University, involved 160 women who were randomly assigned to eat about 2.7 ounces (75 g) of dried apples or prunes (dried plums) daily. Researchers did blood tests at the three-, six- and 12-month marks to measure heart-risk factors. (More on TIME.com: The Updated Egg: Less Cholesterol, But Is It a ‘Healthy’ Food?)

After a year, the women who ate dried apples had lowered their total cholesterol by 14%; their levels of LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol had fallen by 23%, and their levels of HDL (or good) cholesterol had increased by about 4%. Participants also experienced a 32% decline in C-reactive protein, an indicator of inflammation in the body and a risk factor for heart disease.

The women who ate prunes saw also slight reductions in these risk factors, but not to the same extent as those who ate apples, said study author and professor of nutrition Bahram H. Arjmandi.

As an extra benefit, the women in apple group lost about 3.3 lbs. on average — even though the dried fruit added an extra 240 calories to their diets. (More on TIME.com: System Failure: Countries Too Slow to Identify and Treat High Cholesterol)

Researchers chose to study apples in human volunteers, because previous data from animal studies had suggested health benefits. Reported WebMD:

Apples are rich in pectin, a soluble fiber, which blocks cholesterol absorption in the gut and encourages the body to use, rather than store, the waxy stuff. Apple peels are also packed with polyphenols — antioxidants that prevent cellular damage from free radicals.

Though the study used dried apples for convenience, Arjmandi says fresh are likely to be even better. And it doesn’t matter if they’re green, red, or golden. “Any varieties of apples are good,” he says.

Another key, [University of California, Davis, nutritionist Dianne] Hyson says, is eating the whole fruit, rather than looking for individual components in supplements. “Most of the time, in many studies, the whole is better than the sum of its parts,” she says.

(More on TIME.com: Even After a Morning Gym Session, a Day at the Desk Could Hurt Your Heart)

The next step is to take the preliminary study nationwide, according to a press release. The current findings, which were partially funded by the USDA, were presented at the Experimental Biology 2011 conference in Washington, D.C.

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