Don’t forget to tell your patients to eat more flavanols—they could help with memory

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published June 6, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Not eating enough flavanols could increase the risks of age-related memory loss.

  • Increasing flavanol intake—and helping patients do the same—can require adding more variety and awareness to your diet.

When it comes to eating a healthy diet, don’t forget about flavanols. These key nutrients are found in certain fruits and vegetables and may help memory.[]

Not eating enough flavanols could put people at risk for age-related memory loss, according to a new study. Study authors say that their findings shed light on the importance of supplementing people’s diets with flavanols, and focusing more research on nutrition for older adults.[]

“‘The identification of nutrients critical for the proper development of an infant’s nervous system was a crowning achievement of 20th-century nutrition science,’” said the study's senior author, Scott Small, MD, in a press release.[] “‘In this century, as we are living longer research is starting to reveal that different nutrients are needed to fortify our aging minds.’”[]

Flavanols are found in certain fruits and vegetables, including kale, broccoli, grapes, onions, and peaches. They are one of six members of the Flavonoid family, a group of antioxidant compounds that contain various physical and mental health benefits. 

“Flavonoids are a hot topic and, when we look at the research, they’re associated with a lot of good health outcomes—a decline in memory loss is one of them,” says Andy De Santis, RD, MPH, a dietitian and nutrition coach based in Toronto. “It's definitely a topic I've brought up with clients in the past and recently because there [are] more and more studies like this coming out.”

Six flavonoid families[]

  1. Flavonols: Examples include kale, lettuce, grapes, broccoli, and peaches.

  2. Flavan-3-ols: Examples include apples, blueberries, dark chocolate, and green tea.

  3. Flavones: Examples include parsley and chamomile.

  4. Flavanones: Examples include citrus fruits like lemons, limes, and oranges.

  5. Isoflavones: Examples include soy products.

  6. Anthocyanins: Examples include blueberries and strawberries.

Fighting inflammation with flavanols

Flavanols in particular have a wide array of health benefits and have been found to reduce inflammation in the brain. This property can be particularly prudent for older adults, as neuroinflammation can increase with age—a health consequence sometimes referred to as inflammageing.[][]

Inflammageing “accelerates the aging process,” says De Santis. According to research in the journal Nature Reviews Cardiology, inflammageing is defined as “an age-related increase in the levels of pro-inflammatory markers in blood and tissues,” and “is a strong risk factor for multiple diseases that are highly prevalent and frequent causes of disability in elderly individuals but are pathophysiologically uncorrelated.”

Battling cognitive decline is no small feat, but fighting it off through food could be a huge win.

“The reality is the functioning of the brain is a reflection of the functioning of the body and the totality of one's diet,” says De Santis.

De Santis often encourages his clients to incorporate foods with flavonoids into their diets. He likes to explain these nutrient connections to memory most explicitly if his client is older and expresses that they are dealing with memory issues. For others, he may or may not explicitly stress this connection while he recommends certain foods, he adds.

“If you're giving sound nutrition advice and encouraging variety in dietary intake, you’re already encouraging the consumption of these key foods,” De Santis says.

He adds, however, that despite the abundance of these foods, some people may lack awareness of what they are eating or have misconceptions about food groups—like thinking that soy is unhealthy, which he says is not true—thereby deterring them from adding these nutrients to their plates. To get around this, it can be helpful to educate patients about the importance of variety in their diets, and correct misconceptions where possible. If this topic isn’t in your expertise as a provider, you may want to suggest that the patient see a dietitian, or someone else well-versed in the field, that the patient will trust.

With that in mind, when it comes to increasing flavonoid intake, it can be most important to encourage patients to increase diet diversity, adds De Santis. When in doubt, have a patient think about what whole foods they are not eating, because chances are, those are things they will need to eat more of.

“If you eat plenty of fruit, you're gonna get the flavonoids that are rich in fruit. But if you don't eat leafy green vegetables, you're gonna miss out on those,” he explains. “It just comes back to the baseline desire for variety in our intake—because if we have variety in our intake, the rest will take care of itself.”

What this means for you

Eating a diet rich in flavanols could fight off age-related memory loss. For older patients experiencing cognitive decline, talk to them about their diet and, if necessary, suggest that they see a dietitian.

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