Flavonoids a flavorful way to boost heart, brain health

The chemical compounds found in food and drink items such as berries, red wine, apples and pears might influence gut bacteria in a way that lowers blood pressure, a study reported.

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Flavanoids are good for our health because they are filled with antioxidants and help fight inflammation.

Flavanoids are good for our health because they are filled with antioxidants and help fight inflammation.

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What do blueberries, spinach and dark chocolate have in common?

All are rich in flavonoids, the chemical compounds found in plants that give them color — and medicinal powers.

Research has found that flavonoids provide a health benefits that include helping to fight cancer, lowering the risk for heart disease and helping to preserve brain function. They’ve even been used to fight wrinkles.

“The key reason flavonoids are good for us is they have anti-inflammatory effects and are antioxidants,” says Kristina Petersen, an assistant professor in the department of nutritional sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Antioxidants help fight inflammation and aging. Flavonoids also have properties that could help prevent blood clots. A study published last year in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension suggested that flavonoids in foods such as berries, red wine, apples and pears might influence gut bacteria in a way that lowers blood pressure.

Because of this, flavonoids play a central role in the Mediterranean, DASH and MIND diets, often recommended by heart and brain health experts. All three place a heavy focus on flavonoid-rich fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans.

But most people in the United States aren’t getting enough flavonoids largely because they don’t eat the recommended daily allowance of fruits and vegetables. Federal dietary guidelines recommend that adults eat one and a half to two cups of fruit each day and three to four cups of vegetables. But only one in 10 adults in the United States eat that many vegetables, and only one in eight eats a sufficient amount of fruit, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Flavonoids are found in a wide range of fruits, vegetables and other foods, so it shouldn’t be hard to fit them into your diet, according to Petersen. They’re found in berries, cherries, apples, grapes, leeks and leafy green vegetables such as spinach, romaine lettuce and kale. Like garlic and onions? You’ll find them there as well. Soybeans have them, too.

Petersen recommends eating a wide range of flavonoid-rich foods.

“The goal is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables of different colors. Eat a rainbow,” she says.

If you’re not used to eating a lot of produce, you can build it into your diet slowly.

“Eat one more piece of fruit per day,” Petersen says. “Put one more vegetable on your plate at dinner time. Trying to overhaul your entire diet can be difficult, so start by making small changes.”

Eating fresh, whole foods is the best way to get the flavonoids you need, she says. But it’s not the only way.

If fresh fruits aren’t available, frozen berry mixes are a good alternative, Peterson says. Fruits and vegetables that are flash frozen retain high levels of nutrients, store easily and can add variety to the plate even when out of season.

You can also drink flavonoids. Beverages such as red wine and tea, especially black or green tea, are good sources. Fruits and vegetables can be squeezed into juices or smoothies as well, but Petersen says juicing is less than ideal because it removes a lot of beneficial fiber.

But she says, “If that’s the only way you can get them into your diet, then do it.”

There’s no need to force yourself to eat foods you don’t like to get your flavonoid fix. Dark chocolate, for instance, is a sweet way to get flavonoids.

“We never have success in telling people to eat things they don’t like,” Petersen says. “There are so many you can choose from,” so eat the ones you like. And don’t be afraid to try new ones.

Anyone already following the Mediterranean, DASH or MIND diets — or any high-quality plant-based diet — shouldn’t have to worry.

“The goal is to consume a healthy dietary pattern,” Petersen says. “And if we’re doing that, we’re going to be consuming enough flavonoids.”

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