Cheers to flavonoids: These health foods mostly benefit smokers, drinkers

An apple a day might keep cancer away, as long as you also eat blueberries, drink tea, and peel an orange.

An apple a day might keep cancer away, as long as you also eat blueberries, drink tea, and peel an orange. Photo: TND

If you’re a smoker and a committed drinker, obviously you’ve got your hands full – and it’s possibly this reason why you’re killing yourselves.

Because you’re unable to reach for a piece of fruit.

Put down your poison down for half a minute and eat an apple or drink a cup of tea – foods that contain flavonoids, compounds that apparently help people live longer, especially people hooked on tobacco and booze.

No kidding. A moderate habitual intake of flavonoids – up to 500 grams a day – is associated with a reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and cancer, conditions that are otherwise known to haunt smokers and heavy drinkers.

But in this instance, it’s the tobacco and alcohol enthusiasts who get the most benefit.

How on earth can this be?

Researchers from Edith Cowan University’s School of Medical and Health Sciences analysed data from the Danish Diet, Cancer and Health cohort that assessed the diets of 53,048 Danes over 23 years.

Of the 52,492 participants without cardiovascular disease at baseline (beginning of the study), 4065 died of cardiovascular disease.

Of the 55,801 participants without cancer at baseline, 6299 died of cancer.

beer spill

Hey buddy, why not swap one of those beers for a blanched stem of broccoli or even a glass of red wine? Photo: Getty

Compared to participants in the lowest quintile (fifth) of total flavonoid intake, those in the highest quintile tended to have a lower BMI and be more physically active, and were less likely to be current smokers and more likely to be female, have a higher level of education, and a higher income.

They also tended to have a lower prevalence of heart failure, ischemic heart disease, stroke, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Participants with higher flavonoid intake consumed more dietary fibre and less red meat and processed meat.

They found that people who habitually consumed moderate to high amounts of foods rich in flavonoids – compounds found in plant-based foods and drinks – were less likely to die from cancer or heart disease.

To achieve a wide range of flavonoid compounds a day, totalling 500 grams: One cup of tea, one apple, one orange, 100 grams of blueberries and 100 grams of broccoli.

So what about drinking, smoking?

Lead researcher Dr Nicola Bondonno, in a prepared statement, said while the study found a lower risk of death in those who ate flavonoid-rich foods, the protective effect appeared to be strongest for those at high risk of chronic diseases due to cigarette smoking and those who drank more than two standard alcoholic drinks a day – but the exact nature of the protective effect was unclear and likely to be multifaceted.

“Alcohol consumption and smoking both increase inflammation and damage blood vessels, which can increase the risk of a range of diseases,” she said.

“Flavonoids have been shown to be anti-inflammatory and improve blood vessel function, which may explain why they are associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease and cancer.”

Specifically, flavonoids may protect against some of the detrimental effects that smoking and drinking have on nitric oxide bioavailability, endothelial function, blood pressure, inflammation, blood lipids, platelet function and thrombosis.

Nitric oxide expands the blood vessels, increasing blood flow and decreasing plaque growth and blood clotting.

Smoking is thought to interfere with nitric oxide metabolism. Flavonoids seem to counter this interference.

You’d be better off quitting the cigarettes entirely. In the mean time, eat more apples and dark chocolate. Photo: TND

The endothelium is a thin membrane that lines the inside of the heart and blood vessels.

Endothelial cells release substances that control vascular relaxation and contraction as well as enzymes that control blood clotting, immune function and platelet adhesion.

It has been hypothesised that endothelial cell damage from inhaled cigarette smoke contributes to vascular injury and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Flavonoids may protect against some of this damage.

“It’s also important to note that flavonoid consumption does not counteract all of the increased risk of death caused by smoking and high alcohol consumption,” said Dr Bondonno.

“By far the best thing to do for your health is to quit smoking and cut down on alcohol.”

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