Citrus: Great Fruits for Heart Health

February is American Heart Month. It’s also National Grapefruit Month in the U.S. This confluence wasn’t lost on us, and it got us thinking: What role does citrus play in heart health?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for American men and women—responsible for one in every four deaths. Many factors affect heart disease risk. The most important of them include high blood pressure, high LDL or “bad” cholesterol (yes, there is a “good” kind of cholesterol, HDL) and smoking. Adjusting your lifestyle to reduce or eliminate these risk factors will improve the health of your heart.

With diet being an important component of lifestyle, it’s comes as no surprise that heart health can be improved through what you eat. Even making small changes can have an impact. Case in point: the beneficial effect of including healthy fats from nuts and oils found in The Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet (PREDIMED) study.

But what about citrus? Citrus has long been touted for its curative properties dating back to the 18th century when it was utilized to treat scurvy, which allowed for accelerated global exploration by sea.

Not until the 1930s (thanks to Albert Szent-Györgyi) was it discovered that ascorbic acid, better known as vitamin C, was the chemical component in citrus that is responsible for preventing scurvy. This landmark discovery earned Dr. Szent-Györgyi a Nobel Prize in 1937. This chain of historic events also may have helped spawn a variety of fad diets purporting some citrus fruits as "superfoods" that “cleanse” or “detoxify.”

Nutrition professionals encourage citrus for nutrient density (i.e., its nutrition value per calorie), not cleansing or curative powers. In addition to vitamin C, citrus fruit and its juices also contribute vital nutrients that support a healthy heart (e.g., potassium, fiber, folate, and B vitamins). Potassium and fiber have been identified by The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, as under-consumed nutrients associated with health concerns. In fact, intake of fruit (including juice) is below recommended servings for almost all age groups in the U.S., with children under 8 being the only group currently meeting their goal. Any fruit or 100 percent fruit juice counts as a serving of fruit.

Research (1,2) has illustrated the benefit of including citrus fruits and juices in a healthy eating style. Grapefruit has been studied extensively, perhaps in part due to the once popular “Grapefruit Diet,” which boasts of unsubstantiated fat-melting miracles. A recent systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials in overweight an obese subjects found no significant role of grapefruit in weight loss, but it did find a significant decrease in systolic blood pressure. Systolic pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) denotes the force that blood exerts on the arteries as the heart muscle contracts, and is typically the number doctors are more concerned with.

In an ironic twist, while consuming grapefruit and its juice can be part of a heathy diet that helps to reduce high blood pressure, those on blood pressure-lowering medication (calcium channel blockers) are advised not to consume grapefruit or grapefruit juice. That medical advice isn’t a referendum on the healthfulness of grapefruit or its juice; rather it’s a direct result of potential drug interactions with naturally occurring chemicals in grapefruits. If you take prescription medications, be sure to talk with your doctor about possible drug/nutrient interactions associated with your diet and lifestyle.

This Heart Month, aim to get the right amount of fruit in your diet. MyPlate has a variety of resources available if you’re looking for tips to help increase your intake. Your heart will thank you for it.