Noshing on flavonoid foods like fruits and veggies not only boosts your fiber intake, but can also decrease your risk of Alzheimer's disease and other health conditions.

Woman eating berries in park
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A healthy diet is as good for your mind as it is for your body. And if yours contains plenty of berries, apples, and tea — all foods rich in something called flavonoids — you’re setting yourself up for an especially bright future.

Here's what you need to know about flavonoids, plus which flavonoid foods to stock up on, stat.

What Are Flavonoids?

Flavonoids are a type of polyphenol, a beneficial compound in plants that help to attract pollinating insects, combat environmental stresses (such as microbial infections), and regulate cell growth, according to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.

The Benefits of Flavonoids

Packed with antioxidants, flavonoids have been shown in research to help reduce inflammation in the body, which has been linked to diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.  Flavonoids have also been found to have anti-diabetic properties, such as improving insulin secretion, reducing hyperglycemia (aka high blood sugar), and improving glucose tolerance in animal with type 2 diabetes, per the Institute. Case in point: In a study of nearly 30,000 people, those who had the highest flavonoid intake had a 10 percent lower risk of diabetes than those who consumed the least.

Plus, flavonoids might be amazing for your brain. According to groundbreaking research recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, flavonoids from food can help protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. “There was an 80 percent reduction in risk in those who ate foods with the highest amounts of flavonoids,” says senior study author Paul Jacques, a nutritional epidemiologist at Tufts University. “It was a really striking result.”

The researchers studied people who were age 50 and up for 20 years, until the age when dementia typically starts to occur. But Jacques says everyone, no matter how old, may benefit. “Previous clinical studies of younger adults have found that a higher consumption of flavonoid-rich berries is associated with better cognitive function,” he says. “The message is that a healthy diet starting early in life — even starting at midlife — has the potential to help lower your risk of dementia.” (Related: How to Tweak Your Nutrition for Your Age)

How to Eat More Flavonoid Foods

You know flavonoids come with perks — but how do you get them? From flavonoid foods. There are six major subclasses of flavonoids, including three kinds analyzed in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study: anthocyanins in blueberries, strawberries, and red wine; flavonols in onions, apples, pears and blueberries; and flavonoid polymers in tea, apples, and pears.

While some of these flavonoids are available as supplements, getting them through your diet with the help of flavonoid foods may be a better choice. “Flavonoids are found in foods with many other nutrients and phytochemicals that may interact with them to provide the benefits we observed,” says Jacques. “That’s why diet is so important.”

Luckily, you don’t have to consume a ton of flavonoid foods to get the benefits. “Our study participants with the lowest Alzheimer’s disease risk consumed on average only seven to eight cups of blueberries or strawberries a month,” says Jacques. That works out to a small handful every few days. Just enjoying them at all is what seems to make the difference: People who ate the smallest amounts of these foods (virtually no berries) were two to four times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

It’s smart to make berries, especially blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries, a regular part of your healthy diet, along with apples and pears. And sip some green and black tea — those with the highest flavonoid intake in the study drank slightly less than a cup a day, says Jacques.

As for the fun stuff, “if you’re having wine, make it red, and if you’re eating a treat, dark chocolate, which contains a type of flavonoid, is not a bad way to go,” says Jacques, a chocolate lover himself. “They are the better options you can choose because there is a benefit to them.”

Shape Magazine, October 2020 issue