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What is Açaí, and Why is it so Great?

Chelsey Feldman

March 3, 2009

MTV recently aired a documentary chronicling the lives of several adolescents trying to lose weight by attending a weight loss camp over the course of a summer. A recent headline in a well-known tabloid magazine targeted Jessica Simpson, a woman of healthy proportions, for gaining too much weight since her drastically thin Daisy Duke days. Cable channels are teeming with commercials about five-minute yoga and other fast solutions to miraculously drop those extra twenty pounds nobody can seem to lose. Why is our culture so focused on weight? Whether one is fixated on her own self-image or that of an infamous celebrity, or even if she is remarking about a friend or acquaintance’s recent weight change, it seems like many conversations involve the words “fat” or “obese.” Is weight really that important to our society, or is our day-to-day conversation merely a reflection of the augmented problem around us - obesity. Currently, about one third of American adults are classified as obese, and while the number has not risen over the last few years, it certainly has not dropped either. While obesity continues to be a growing problem, the açaí berry’s high content of filling monounsaturated fat, metabolism-boosting amino acids, and dietary fiber, açaí have been considered be a viable solution to curb this epidemic.

Obesity in America and Worldwide

As obesity rates in America remain high – a recent study by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) places adult obesity rates at approximately 33 percent for 2006 – Americans are continuing to unnecessarily jeopardize their health (http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/obesity/). Obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index (the relation of one’s height to his or her weight) at or above a 30; there are many more people that the aforementioned 30 percent that are not considered obese, yet may still be over their ideally healthy weights (http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/obesity/). This third of the American population is at an increased risk for a multitude of health problems, some of which include heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea and other respiratory problems, and osteoarthritis. Not only does obesity take a toll on one’s health, but it can also harm one’s bank accounts, as estimated expenditures for weight-related complications neared $100 billion in 2002 (http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/obesity).

However, while there are many contributing factors to obesity, such as genetics, the most basic cause of the problem is that one consumes more calories than one expends on an average daily basis. That means that the increasingly sedentary lifestyle of many American combined with easy access to high-calorie convenience foods is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, instead of looking to a healthy, low calorie diet and regular exercise, many Americans turn to QVC for the latest “quick fix” miracle solutions. With expensive portion-controlled diet plans like Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers and myriad pills backed by celebrity endorsements rather than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is hard to know what is worth the money and what is a waste or even a possible health threat. Based on a study done by the CDC, roughly fifteen percent of adults take dietary supplements intended for weight loss without the approval of their doctors (http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/obesity/). Few of these actually work safely and affect long tem results, but it seems that researchers may, or may not, have found the ultimate quick-fix solution to this problem in a little berry grown in the Amazon region of South America. Its name is açaí, and celebrities, advertisements, and infomercials regard it as a weight-loss miracle.

Açaí Berries: An Overview

            The açaí berry is a very delicate fruit resembling a large grape, and hails from Amazonian palm trees. While natives to the region have used the berry as a homeopathic remedy for some illnesses and consumed it as a dietary staple for hundreds of years, Americans are just now becoming familiarized with the berry (http://acaifacts.net/). However, Western researchers are beginning to discover the high antioxidant concentration and copious other nutrients in açaí berries, and açaí is now the newest fad among health-conscious individuals nation wide. Advertisements revere açaí for its monounsaturated fats (found in the form of Omega-9 or oleic acids) and fiber, deeming it the next greatest thing in the immediate gratification weight loss market. Between it’s appetite suppressing qualities and anti-inflammatory properties, it makes sense that this might be a viable solution to the difficulties of weight loss.

Therefore, it seems plausible that açaí appears to be gaining more media attention than the current war or the latest Britney Spears update. Even talk show extraordinaire, Oprah Winfrey, has named açaí as her “number one super food,” and while there are many who agree, there is also a great deal of debate as to whether any of her claims about the miraculous berry are true. According to Oprah, “studies have shown that this little berry is one of the most nutritious and powerful foods in the world” (http://www.oprah.com/article/health/nutrition/life_acai). Açaí clearly has a large hype to live up to, and it is undoubtedly healthy, but its seemingly miraculous weight-loss abilities are almost too good to be true. Contrarily, açaí’s high concentration of monounsaturated fats means that it is rather high in calories – approximately 247 calories per half cup serving – so it must be eaten in moderation or else one risks a caloric surplus (http://healthproductreview.org/calories-in-acai-berry/). Furthermore, while the berry may have incredibly healthy benefits, one thirty-day supply of supplements can cost up to fifty dollars (http://pureherbalextracts.com/wholesale-supplements/freeze-dried-organic-acai.html). The real question is whether the cost of this exotic, antioxidant-packed super-berry really lives up to its reputation, or if it is an overpriced scam that may have a minimal, if any, effect on weight loss.

Açaí and its Weight-loss Properties

            Monounsaturated Fat

While typical fruits are composed of up to 90 percent water and do not sufficiently satisfy hunger for long periods of time, açaí contains a high level of monounsaturated fats, which can help one feel fuller for a longer period of time than by eating water-dense foods like strawberries or watermelon (http://www.thefruitpages.com/contents.shtml). While other fruits eventually leave people feeling lethargic and hungry after the spike in blood sugar, açaí advertisements claim that the fatty acids in açaí help to regulate the metabolism because they are more filling and take longer to digest. Granted, one could probably eat a significant amount of water-dense fruits before he even nears the caloric intake one would receive from a serving of açaí, so the fats in açaí would only truly be effective with a dieter on a very limited eating regimen. Furthermore, WebMD doctors actually recommend consuming foods less dense in calories over richer foods, as studies show “that when you allow people to eat as much as they want of foods that are high in volume yet low in density (calories), they eat less at the meal or during the day" (http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/foods-that-curb-hunger).

On the other hand, a study by Brock (2007) analyzing the effects of various mutations of saturated and unsaturated fats on the body shows that monounsaturated fatty acids are crucial to the regulation of lipid (fat) stores. When consumed in moderation, monounsaturated fats, such as oleic acids, aid in maintaining homeostasis among lipid cells and partitioning such fats. Additionally, Riggs (2007) studied the effects on one’s metabolism of a high fat meal versus a low fat meal, when consumed with protein. Her studies found that, “ingestion of a HPHF (high protein, high fat) meal significantly increases MR (metabolic rate) (69.3 kcal/3.5 hr) versus consumption of a HPLF (high protein, low fat) meal and provides a short-term metabolic advantage” in subjects with a normal Body Mass Index (BMI) (Riggs, 2007). Granted, one could also obtain an equivalent metabolic boost while feeling just as satiated by eating a piece of salmon or another food with a large amount of protein or healthy fats. Salmon or other lean meats, or even legumes, would stimulate the metabolism just as much as, if not more than, açaí berries. A 150-pound person could instead take a forty-five minute nap to burn the same amount of calories in a fraction of the time (http://www.hsc.edu/fitness/calculators/calories.html).

Conversely, there has yet to be a scientific study proving any advantage to increased fat consumption among under or overweight individuals. Furthermore, most nutritionists would actually oppose these results, claiming that a high fat diet is, in fact, detrimental to one’s weight loss efforts, though it is essential to eat some amount of unsaturated fat for their other nutritional benefits, like lower cholesterol. In 2002, the FDA reported that although high fat, low carbohydrate diets may work quickly in the short term, the most successful long-term dieters eat a low calorie, low fat diet (http://www.fda.gov/fdac/features/2002/102_fat.html). Conclusively, the high concentration of monounsaturated fats in açaí berries contributes little, if at all, to a weight loss diet.

Amino Acids

As an açaí berry promotional website claims, “The açaí berry contains a healthy dose of amino acids. And [sic] since amino acids are the building blocks of protein, it aids in building muscles. The more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns at rest and the higher your Basal Metabolic Rate” (http://acaiberrysite.com/weight-loss/). This seems to be quite a connection drawn here based off of loosely related facts. Students are frequently taught from a young age that amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and fitness gimmicks repeat how building more muscle burns more fat.

In reality, a study by Jentjens and Van Loon (2001) reveals that the addition of amino aids and protein to one’s diet has little to no significant increase in muscle glycogen synthesis, or the amount of stored energy one burns. Even if amino acids did help build more muscle, consuming açaí alone would not alter one’s body composition in any way; therefore the açaí would have to be consumed in conjunction with a moderate to rigorous exercise plan, including weight training, to notice a drastic difference in body composition and resting metabolic rate, if any (Jentjens, 2001). Unless one is already an avid exerciser or is planning to regularly weight train, the amino acid complex in açaí will have little to no effect on one’s weight loss progression. As with the case of the monounsaturated fats, one could easily get all the necessary amino acids in other, less expensive, and more effective sources than açaí berries.

         Fiber

         Studies have proven that there is an inverse correlation between fiber consumption and BMI; that is, the more fiber one consumes, the less one is likely to weigh. The açaí berry contains approximately 17 grams of fiber – over half of the daily recommendation – per serving (http://healthproductreview.org/calories-in-acai-berry/). Although high-fiber diets usually coincide with those low in fat, there is a proven correlation between dietary fiber consumption and the ability to remain full longer. This is because dietary fiber is comprised of various molecules that the body does not have the ability to digest and is instead, expelled as waste before the entire digestive process can occur. Based on observational studies by Lairon (2006), weight gain with a high fiber diet seemed unrelated to one another, while the correlation between weight loss and fiber were statistically significant at a probability of .0001.

In addition to the increased feeling of satiety after eating foods rich in dietary fiber, certain viscous fibers can slow the digestive process, causing the small intestine to absorb fewer nutrients, including calories (Lairon, 2006). Through this slowed digestion, fiber can reduce lipid storage in tissue, thus reducing body fat, and increase insulin sensitivity to regulate weight and prevent metabolic complications (Lairon, 2006).

While fiber is surely not the sole factor in weight loss, it plays an important role in regulating metabolism and therefore body weight. The minimum fiber recommendation is 25 grams per day for an average-sized woman, so with such a high daily recommendation for fiber intake, a food with as much fiber as açaí is undoubtedly beneficial to one’s health (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/fiber/NU00033). There are, however, many other foods with which one could consume just as much dietary fiber and with a lower caloric (and financial) consequence.

Conclusion: Do not believe the hype. Açaí seems to be a Berry Big Rip Off

            In conclusion, while açaí may have various properties that can theoretically aid one in weight loss, it is no more helpful than other foods containing such nutrients as monounsaturated acids and fiber. Açaí can be a beneficial addition to one’s diet if consumed in moderation, however, açaí’s high calorie content poses a risk for one to gain, rather than lose, weight, if it is consumed in excess. The berry, rich in antioxidants, is undoubtedly healthy, but these nutrients can be found in other antioxidant-rich foods, like blueberries or pomegranates; additionally, the monounsaturated fats are identical to the oleic acid found in olive oil, and consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables can provide comparable amounts of fiber. Furthermore, while açaí may provide essential amino acids, these can be consumed in higher quantities by eating less expensive, lower calorie foods, such as eggs, soy, chicken, or fish. Although açaí provides a convenient medium to consume valuable nutrients, its high fat content does not regulate one’s appetite to the extent the website advertisements may lead one to believe, and it does not seem to have a significant enough impact on weight loss to justify its high cost. Furthermore, the value of these nutrients as a weight-loss stimulant in açaí has yet to been sufficiently researched; though websites back their claims through supposed studies, they are not cited and no true scientific evidence can be found about açaí’s immediate impact on weight loss – one website even cites Wikipedia as its only “credible” source of information (http://acai.org/). The various components of the berry are undoubtedly healthy, and the plentiful fiber may help one lose excessive weight or maintain a healthy size, but the açaí berry itself has not undergone enough research to confirm claims that the berry itself is a weight loss tool. Weight loss is still a matter of consuming fewer calories than one expends, and this “fad diet” is decidedly not vital in this equation, despite what advertisements and claims may state.

Literature Cited

Brock, Trisha J., Browse, John, and Watts, Jennifer L. (2007). Fatty Acid Desaturation and the Regulation of Adiposity in Caenorhabditis elegans. Genetics 176(2): 865–875.

Lairon, Denis. (2006). Dietary Fiber and control of Body Weight. Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases 17(1); 1-5.

Jentjens, Roy L. P. G., Van Loon, Luc J. C., et. al. (2001). Addition of protein and amino acids to carbohydrates does not enhance postexercise muscle glycogen synthesis. Journal of Applied Physiology; 839-846.

Riggs, Amy Jo, White, Barry D., and Gropper, Sareen S. (2007). Changes in energy expenditure associated with ingestion of high protein, high fat versus high protein, low fat meals among underweight, normal weight, and overweight females. Nutrition Journal (6); 40.

 

 

 

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