Besides lowering cholesterol and reducing inflammation, the study found that a cherry-enriched diet lowered body weight and fat - major risk factors for heart disease.
In the study, at-risk, obese rats that were fed a cherry-enriched diet saw significant decreases in body weight and fat while maintaining lean muscle mass.
After twelve weeks, the cherry-fed rats had 14 percent lower body fat compared to the other rats who did not consume cherries.
The researchers suggested cherry consumption could have an effect on important fat genes and genetic expression.
The animals were fed a "Western diet," characterized by high fat and moderate carbohydrate, in line with the typical American diet, with or without added whole tart cherry powder, as 1 percent of the diet.
"We know excess body fat increases the risk for heart disease. This research gives us one more support point suggesting that diet changes, such as including cherries, could potentially lower heart disease risk," said study co-author Dr. Steven F. Bolling, a cardiac surgeon at the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center who also heads the U-M Cardioprotection Research Laboratory, where the study was performed.
Cherry-enriched diets in the study also reduced total cholesterol levels by about 11 percent and two known markers of inflammation, commonly produced by abdominal fat and linked to increased risk for heart disease.
Inflammation marker TNF-alpha was reduced by 40 percent and interleukin 6 (IL-6) was lowered by 31 percent.
In their genetic analysis, the researchers found that the cherry-enriched diets reduced the genes for these two inflammation compounds, suggesting a direct anti-inflammation effect.
While inflammation is a normal process the body uses to fight off infection or injury, according to recent science, a chronic state of inflammation could increase the risk for diseases and may be especially common for those who are overweight or obese, at least in part because of excess weight around the middle.
Researchers say the animal study is encouraging and will lead to further clinical studies in humans to explore the link between diet, weight, inflammation and lowering heart disease risk.
The study is being presented at next week's American Dietetic Association annual meeting.