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Flavonoids: Are you eating enough berries and onions for healthy aging?

Fresh cranberries are pumped out of the bog in Atoka in Saint-Louis-de Blandford, Quebec, October 13, 2013.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

If oranges, apples, berries and onions – foods rich in flavonoids – aren't part of your regular diet, consider adding them to your menu. According to researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, doing so will help you remain healthy, mentally sharp and physically active when you're older. For women, at least.

Flavonoids are bioactive compounds found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, tea, chocolate and red wine. The 4,000-plus different flavonoids found in foods can be divided into subclasses; those we most commonly consume include anthocyanins, flavonols, flavones and flavanones.

The many benefits attributed to a flavonoid-rich diet include a lower risk of stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and certain cancers as well as better cognitive performance.

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For the study, published last week in the online version of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers set out to determine if women who consumed plenty of flavonoids in their 50s maintained good health and well-being in their 70s. Among 13,818 women, those who consumed the most – versus the least – flavonoids at midlife had significantly greater odds of being a "healthy ager," even after accounting for diet quality, physical activity, smoking, education and family history.

Women were considered healthy agers if, at aged 70 or older, they were free of major chronic diseases (including cancer, heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, kidney failure, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis) and had no cognitive impairment, physical disabilities or mental-health problems. The remaining women were classified as "usual agers."

When it came to food sources of flavonoids, a regular intake of oranges and onions (at least five servings a week versus less than one per month) was linked to a greater likelihood of healthy aging. Eating berries at least twice a week compared with less than once was also protective.

As powerful antioxidants, flavonoids do their work in the body by preventing damage caused by free radicals, unstable molecules that can harm cells. Cumulative free radical damage is implicated in aging, memory decline, depression and many chronic diseases.

Flavonoids also decrease inflammation, relax blood vessels and help prevent blood clots that could lead to heart attack or stroke. As well, flavonoids have been shown to activate the brain's natural house-cleaning process, helping remove toxins and other compounds that can interfere with cognitive function.

A flavonoid-rich diet may help you live more healthily as you age, but other foods are important, too. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, the best sources of antioxidants, has consistently been tied to good health. While many fruits and vegetables deliver flavonoids, many are also excellent sources of other antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and beta-carotene.

Include 7 to 10 servings (combined) in your daily diet. One serving is equivalent to one medium-sized fruit, ½ cup chopped fruit or berries, ¼ cup dried fruit (unsweetened), ½ cup of cooked or raw vegetables, one cup of salad greens or ½ cup of 100-per-cent vegetable or fruit juice. (Limit intake of fruit juice to one serving a day.)

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Oily fish, flax and chia seeds, avocado, walnuts, pecans, cashews hazelnuts, olives and olive oil contain healthy fats that dampen inflammation, a major contributor to age-related disease.

Low-glycemic foods such as steel-cut oats, 100-per-cent bran cereal, stone-ground bread, brown rice, quinoa, pasta and sweet potatoes release their sugar gradually into the bloodstream and don't produce a rush in insulin. By preventing spikes in insulin, a low glycemic diet is thought to influence proteins in cells associated with longevity. Nuts, beans and lentils, milk, yogurt and most types of fruit also have low glycemic values.

Some foods, though, may hurt your chances of aging well. A steady intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, red meat, processed meats (e.g., sausage, bacon, pepperoni, cold cuts) and excess alcohol have been shown to speed up the shortening of telomeres, the parts of DNA that affect aging.

Telomere shortening – which happens every time a cell divides – has been linked to aging, cancer, stroke, dementia, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Obesity (e.g., having a BMI of 30 or greater) is also associated with shorter telomeres. Regular exercise, omega-3 fats, whole grains, fibre and vitamins C and D are thought to preserve telomere life.

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Use the following list to add a variety of different flavonoids to your "healthy aging" diet.

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Anthocyanins

Acai berries, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, plums, pomegranate seeds, prunes, strawberries, raspberries, red grapes,

Flavanols

tea (especially green and white tea), dark chocolate, berries, apples, apricots,

Flavanones

oranges, grapefruit, lemons,

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Flavonols

yellow onions, green onions, leeks, kale, broccoli

Flavones

parsley, thyme, celery, chili peppers

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to CTV News Channel.

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