Could a handful of nutrient-rich dried plums each day help keep the doctor away by actually reversing bone loss in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis or osteoarthritis? - A unique clinical study under way in the Florida State University College of Human Sciences means to find out.
FSU Professor Bahram H. Arjmandi is the principal investigator and a nationally recognized expert on the effects of "functional foods" (dietary components that may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition) on chronic diseases. His previous studies found that dried plums -- better known as prunes -- restored lost bone in animal models of osteoporosis, and improved biomarkers linked to bone formation in postmenopausal women.
Why prunes? "While drug therapies are available for the treatment of osteoporosis, they can be prohibitively expensive and are not without side effects; hence long-term adherence to these therapies is low," Arjmandi said. "Furthermore, many women prefer to modify their lifestyle and dietary practices in order to prevent fracture due to osteoporosis."
Chair of FSU's nutrition, food and exercise sciences department since joining the faculty last summer, Arjmandi has spearheaded the current research with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
And in a highly unusual twist, no one in this sweet study gets a placebo. "Our FSU research is unique in that all participants, women between two and 10 years postmenopausal, can hope to potentially benefit in some manner," Arjmandi said.
"During this 12-month investigation, half the women will supplement their daily diets with nine to ten dried plums, totaling 100 grams. The other half will consume a comparable portion of dried apples, which also have known health benefits. For instance, several studies indicate that a daily helping of pectin-rich apples can help lower triglycerides and cholesterol levels," he said.
Participants in both treatment groups will be required to take 500 milligrams of calcium and 200 units of vitamin D daily; undergo blood and urine testing every three months; and have their bone mineral density measured at the beginning and end of the study using dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, or "iDXA" (eye-DEX-uh), the latest in whole-body scanning technology.
Meanwhile, hopes are high for those plums. In a 2004 study he led while at Oklahoma State University, Arjmandi found that a diet supplemented with dried plums produced significant restoration of bone mass in female rats whose ovaries had been surgically removed.
"I've never seen results that were more consistent," he said. "If the findings from FSU's human study are similarly positive and reproducible, they could help researchers isolate the compounds responsible. From there, it may be possible to create a safe, low-cost alternative or adjunct to prescription medications for osteoporosis."
While eating the fruit itself is the best way to benefit from potent, concentrated plant-based chemicals such as polyphenols, supplemental forms are useful when fruit isn't consistently available or consumed in sufficient amounts, Arjmandi said. And when it comes to plums and apples, only a few varieties provide optimal health benefits in dried form.
Joining Arjmandi as a co-investigator is Dr. Kenneth Brummel-Smith, chair of geriatrics at the FSU College of Medicine. Members of the nutrition, food and exercise sciences department research team include post-doctoral fellow Latha Devareddy; doctoral student Shirin Hooshmand, the study coordinator; and master's degree students Raz Saadat and Kellie Adkins.
"Given its rapidly growing and aging population, the state of Florida has been an ideal location for this research," said Arjmandi. Further studies are in the works. "Currently, my colleagues and I are preparing a major proposal for the National Institutes of Health that exceeds $1.5 million, which would enable a longer, more extensive dried plum investigation in both male and female animal models of osteoporosis."
During the past year, the FSU College of Human Sciences and its nutrition, food and exercise sciences department have markedly expanded clinical research into the effects of specific nutrients on key markers of postmenopausal health.
In addition to Arjmandi's study, FSU Professor Jasminka Ilich is leading the largest, longest study to-date on the efficacy of calcium -- through dairy products, supplements or both -- for weight reduction and bone preservation in overweight or obese postmenopausal Caucasian women.