Flavonoids, found in a wide range of brightly colored fruits and vegetables — blueberries, plums, apples, cherries, oranges, strawberries, spinach — help to protect the body's cells from damage that may contribute to cancer and a host of other maladies. Flavonoids are abundant not only in these foods, but also in dark chocolate, nuts, red wine, soy products and tea.
Researchers analyzed the dietary habits of more than 98,000 men and women, average age 70, the Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort. All of them completed questionnaires on diet, lifestyle and medical history regularly over the next several years.
After seven years, the researchers divided the participants into five groups based on how much flavonoid-rich food they ate. The group who ate the most averaged about 20 servings of fruit and 24 servings of vegetables a week. The group who ate the least averaged 11 servings of fruit and 18 servings of vegetables a week.
Lead author Marjorie L. McCullough and her colleagues found that those who ate the most flavonoid-rich foods were nearly 20 percent less ikely to die of heart attack or stroke than those who ate the least, even taking into account factors such as weight, smoking and exercise.
But even men and women whose flavonoid intake fell somewhere between the highest and lowest groups had a reduced risk, so eating an additional one or two servings a day could be make a difference. "That's as simple as adding an apple and a cup of green tea," says McCullough, a nutritional epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta.
To get a range of flavonoids, don't get stuck in a food rut, advises McCullough, because different types of the nutrients are found in different foods. "Try to eat a variety of plant foods," she says. If you always reach for apples, treat yourself to some strawberries instead. If peanuts are your chosen snack, give walnuts a chance.
It's hard to tell if flavonoids themselves deserve all the credit. "We don't know if the benefits are from flavonoids alone or from the complex mix of nutrients in plant foods and certain beverages," says Lawrence Appel, M.D., the director of Johns Hopkins University's Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research. Appel was not involved in the study.
The study was reported in the February issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Also of interest: 7 simple steps for heart health.
Nissa Simon, who lives in New Haven, Conn., writes about nutrition and medical issues.