Popping blueberries like candy this summer – especially right now, when the berry is at its peak – may be the most natural thing in the world. Moms, dads and everyone else should also be aware of the fabulously healthy benefits for our brains and our bodies when we eat this vivid, delicious, dark blue superfood, along with other berries packed with vitamins.

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Studies have linked bright, colorful berries to a long list of health improvements – “including increased brain power, cancer prevention and reduced blood pressure,” says New York-based health and wellness expert Randi Luckman.

When compared with 40 other fresh fruits and vegetables, blueberries also ranked first in antioxidant benefits, according to studies done at the USDA’s Human Nutrition Center.

Berries contain powerful antioxidants, which protect the body’s cells from damaging oxygen molecules known as free radicals.

“Free radicals can trigger changes in the structure of normally healthy cells,” says Luckman. “The damage is thought to be an underlying cause of many chronic diseases – but the antioxidants in berries and other foods neutralize the free radicals.”

The antioxidant believed most responsible for this big health benefit, anthocyanin, is also found in other berries including blackberries, black raspberries, black currants and red grapes. That antioxidant considerably lowers the risk of heart attack in women who eat more than three servings of blueberries and strawberries a week.

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In addition, blueberries may reduce the build up of so-called “bad” cholesterol that contributes to cardiovascular disease and stroke, scientists at the University of California at Davis have found. The active component is once again the antioxidants.

As just one more benefit, blueberries are also low in calories. A full cup of berries contains less than 100 calories.

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Luckman and other health experts stress the importance of eating a well-balanced diet that includes a full range of superfoods – not just berries but tomatoes, avocados, leafy green vegetables and nuts. “While power foods may help promote wellness, they can’t make up for poor eating habits,” says Luckman. “You need to eat a balanced and varied diet.”

Add two half-cup servings of blueberries to your daily diet to help keep your blood pressure in check, recommends the Dole Nutrition Center. Snack just on plain fresh blueberries – or add them to cereal, yogurt, smoothies or even salads.

Here are tips for making the most of your summer berries:

  • When you buy fresh blueberries, look for berries that are firm, dry, plump and smooth-skinned, with a silvery surface bloom and no leaves or stems. Size isn’t an indicator of maturity but color is – blueberries should be deep purple-blue to blue-black, advises the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.
  • Refrigerate fresh blueberries once you get them home, either in their original plastic clamshell or in a covered container. Rinse fresh blueberries immediately before you use them.
  • Freeze only fresh blueberries that are completely dry when you put them in the freezer. Simply place them (still in their original containers) in resealable plastic bags and store them on your freezer shelf.
  • The super-versatile blueberry pairs well with any number of savory and sweet dishes. Lemon and mint are common flavor pairings; others are rosemary, coconut, balsamic and banana.

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