As it turns out, a plant nutrient used by nature to attract pollinating birds and bees, is also attracting the attention of scientists and people interested in preventative health. Studies over the last decade continue to show that flavonoids, which are found in most plants, have a part to play in reducing many health risks, obesity, and even mortality.
What Are Flavonoids?
Flavonoids are a diverse family of phytonutrients that, along with carotenoids, give fruits and vegetables their rich and vibrant colors. These phytonutrients are the most plentiful in nature, clocking in with more than 6,000 types.
According to the Linus Pauling Institute, there are six subclasses that are the most widespread in the human diet. For the lovers of all things category and list, they are: anthocyanidins, flavan-3-ols, flavonols, flavanones, flavones, and isoflavones.
Flavonoids Are Found in Brightly Colored Foods
Flavonoids are natural compounds that help create the vivid colors in plants in order to attract bees, butterflies and birds. According to a 2016 overview in the Journal of Nutritional Science, dietary flavonoids are abundant in foods and beverages of plant origin, such as fruits, vegetables, tea, cocoa, and wine (nice!).
Think blueberries, plums, apples, cherries, oranges, strawberries, grapes, pears, prunes, onions, spinach, parsley. … But also think, dark chocolate, green tea, nuts, red wine, soy, and even cannabis.
The subgroups listed above have unique major natural sources. For example, berries, grapes, and, subsequently, red wine are major sources of anthocyanidins. Onions and tea are major dietary sources of flavones and flavonals. Soybeans and legumes have a high concentration of isoflavones.
The Therapeutic Effects of Flavonoids
So what’s the payoff to having a diet rich in flavonoids? According to many animal model studies and human observational studies, in which people self-report their dietary intake, flavonoids can reduce the risk of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, and cardiovascular disease. They can also help with weight loss.
This broad spectrum of health-promoting effects is due to their antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, anti-mutagenic, and anti-carcinogenic properties and their immune system benefits.
Read on in the list below for a peek at which flavonoids (and some of their sources) scientist associate with which disease prevention.
- Anthocyanidins: Associated with heart health, antioxidant effects, weight loss, and diabetes prevention. Find them in: cranberries, black currants, grapes, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries.
- Flavonols and Flavon-3-ols: Associated with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits, which can lead to chronic disease prevention. Find them in: apples, bananas, blueberries, peaches, and pears.
- Flavanones: Associated with relaxation, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, blood lipid-lowering and cholesterol-lowering activity. Find them in: citrus fruits, as they give the juice and peel their bitter taste.
- Flavones: Associated with overall antioxidant activity. Find them in: Celery, parsley, red peppers, chamomile, mint, and ginkgo biloba, as well as cannabis where they help create the flavonoids that are exclusive to the cannabis plant: cannaflavins.
- Isoflavones: Associated with prevention of hormonal cancers, such as breast, endometrial, and prostate, but more studies are needed. May also help with symptoms of menopause. Find them in: Soybeans, soy products, and legumes.
What the Studies Have to Say About Flavonoids
Diet of the Danes
In August of 2019, researchers form Edith Cowan University’s School of Medical and Health Sciences published a study analyzing data from the Danish Diet, Cancer and Health cohort that assessed the diets of 53,048 Danes over 23 years.
The results show that flavonoids are associated with cardiovascular disease-related and cancer-related mortality. Moreover, researchers found that the protective effects of a high flavonoid diet were stronger for smokers and drinkers. Researchers caution, however, that flavonoid intake does not replace the health effects of quitting smoking or drinking.
According to the data, the optimum amount of flavonoids per day was 500 mg for the lowest risk of heart disease or cancer. That’s the equivalent of a cup of tea, one apple, one orange, 100 g of blueberries, and 100 g of broccoli.
Flavonoids as Your Weight Loss Secret
According to a 2015 study in the journal BMJ, foods rich in certain flavonoids, like flavonols, flavan-3-ols, anthocyanins, and flavonoid polymers, may help maintain healthy weight in adulthood and help prevent obesity and its potential consequences.
Researchers analyzed the diet, exercise, and lifestyles of over 124,000 adults middle-aged and older over a period of 24 years. They found that people who had a flavonoid-rich diet maintained weight better than those who didn’t.
The flavonoids that seemed to work best were found in food sources such as strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cherries, black currants, grapes, radishes, onions, peppers, and tea.
Flavonoids and Older Adults
This 2012 AARP article discusses a study of more than 98,000 men and women with an average age of 70. Researchers divided them into groups according to their dietary flavonoid intake.
Results showed that those who ate the most flavonoid-rich foods were nearly 20 percent less likely to die of heart attack or stroke than those who ate the least, even taking into account factors such as weight, smoking, and exercise.
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