Has a loved one in your family suffered a stroke? If so, you know what devastation reduced blood flow to the brain can do. Stroke is the third leading cause of death among Americans — but even survivors can experience severe damage to mental and motor skill functions. Fortunately, science keeps uncovering ways in which diet can reduce stroke risk. The latest: High levels of lycopene (found in watermelon, tomatoes, red grapefruit, red guava and red papaya) might offer significant protection.

A study published in Neurology recently followed 1,031 Finnish men (average age 55) for twelve years, assessing levels of lycopene against incidence, and also severity, of stroke occurrence. Those with the highest lycopene intake had 59% fewer serious strokes compared to those with lowest intakes. In other words, only 11 “high lycopene” men had strokes, compared to 25 men with lower levels. Why might this be? One possibility: Lycopene’s antioxidant properties might inhibit inflammation and other factors affecting brain blood flow. Regardless, lycopene has many other potential benefits, including lower risk of osteoporosis, lower risk of prostate cancer, and even sunburn protection! Up your lycopene content with our featured recipe Turkey Meatballs with Spinach-Tomato Sauce.

While reaching for the red fruit — don’t neglect white produce: While we’re told to “eat our colors,” high intakes of white fruit and veggies like bananas, pears, apples, mushrooms and cauliflower were linked to a 52% lower risk. What to avoid? Fast food — the more drive thrus you see in your environs, the higher your risk. Also,  heavy drinking: Men who consume three or more alcoholic beverages a day were 43% more likely to suffer a stroke.

Published January 1, 2013