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Why do apples keep doctors away?

Do you recall the phrase, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away?”

It’s thought of as a proverb, “a short pithy saying in general use that states a truth or piece of advice.” I grew up hearing it a lot. Perhaps you did, as well.

But why are apples so good for us? Apparently, the phrase originated in Wales as, “Eat an apple before going to bed, and you will keep a doctor from earning his bread.” But again I ask, “Why?”

A quick response might be a statement like “maintaining regular healthful habits helps prevent illness.” But the more complete response, assuming you, as an aging person, have normal digestive responses and a healthy stomach function that does not overreact to high-fiber fruits and vegetables, apples are a particularly delicious, healthful food source.

The “why to eat them” question is answered by most food experts with reminders that a “nutrient-dense” apple contains Vitamin C, Vitamin A, loads of various B vitamins, phosphorus, potassium, a bit of calcium, iron and even a little protein. Most experts say to eat them unpeeled, because the skin and just underneath the flesh of the apple is where you find the most nutrients.

But this is what might be most important. Every apple has about 5 grams of fiber. It seems to me to be the core answer to my earlier “why” question. As we age, our digestive systems become sluggish and slower-moving. Eating fiber-filled foods moves food through more quickly. Most older adults get less than 15 grams of fiber a day. And we need, according to the Institutes of Medicine, a lot more (30 to 38 grams a day for men and 21 to 25 grams a day for women). Check out www.WebMD.com for details.

Once you really start to unpeel the reasons for eating an apple every day and bite into more information, you begin to find well documented studies about improved cardiovascular health and better management of diabetes, as well as lowered blood pressure. And if you really want to get to the bottom of answering the “apple a day” question, you might find information that suggests apple eaters have fewer problems with hemorrhoids.

During the past week, I realized I was thinking obsessively about apples and that we had several varieties in our refrigerator crisper. So I washed and sliced a large, shiny, Granny Smith apple and placed it on one of those colorful plastic cutting boards on the counter. I periodically enjoyed a slice when I passed by the display. My husband looked at the assortment quizzically at first but ate a few slices himself. If fact, it replaced the post-lunch cookie he typically eats. That would be the cookie, that unless I made it with beans and applesauce, which I have been known to do but not lately, is definitely not nutrient dense.

As far as I know, there is no definitive research that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but one fairly large observational study suggested it may keep the pharmacist away — daily apple eaters reportedly use fewer prescription medications.

OK, now you know. What’s in your refrigerator?

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.