Ask The Dr.

Six ways polyphenols will supercharge your health.
Cold summer beverages infused with lemon are a refreshing way to boost polyphenol levels. Photograph: Brooke Lark

By Dr. Frank Lipman

By now, everybody knows that eating veggies and low-sugar fruits is a health no-brainer for many reasons. But you may not appreciate one of the most important—getting your daily dose of mission-critical polyphenols. These extra-special compounds can supercharge just about every aspect of your health, and missing out on them can have serious consequences. And while I always recommend eating the good stuff—as in whole, unprocessed, organic or farmers market versions—as we begin a new summer season, I encourage everyone to redouble their efforts to fill up on foods, particularly those rich in polyphenols, to fortify and protect your body at every meal. What can polyphenols do for you? Here’s the polyphenol 411:

So what are polyphenols, anyway?

Polyphenols just happen to be the largest and most health-boosting family of compounds found in the plants we eat. They’re in our fruits and veggies, sure, but they’re also in tea (especially green tea) and coffee, dark chocolate, red wine and many spices. And no matter what form they come in, they’re all packed with a ton of antioxidant power. And that’s a good thing.

Why do we need them?

It so happens that the basic acts of eating and breathing generate molecules called “free radicals.” The right level of them in our system helps drive our immune system. But when our bodies accumulate too many of them, they drive inflammation and damage the DNA in our cells. The result, all too often, are the inflammation-driven diseases of aging: heart disease, dementia and cancer. The good news? The antioxidants we eat in our food bolster our bodies’ antioxidant enzymes, which neutralize the excess free radicals and help keep us healthy over the long haul.

Why are plants doing us so many favors?

Actually, plants evolved with all these great chemicals to save their own skins. After all, they can’t run away from danger; they are stuck in the ground. And, plants, like us, are vulnerable to being damaged by the basic elements of life, like oxygen, sunlight and predators, and over the eons they ramped up their internal chemical factories to produce the polyphenolic compounds to protect them. And not just that: Some of the chemicals that the vegetables produce have a sharp, bitter taste that keeps animals and insects away who would otherwise feast on them. And some of the chemicals give fruits their vibrant colors for the opposite reason—so that animals will eat them! That way, the seeds get distributed as they pass through the animals’ digestive systems. Luckily for us, most of these “phytochemicals” (a fancy word for plant chemicals) work for us. We appreciate the bright color and pungent taste of a raspberry, or the mouth-puckering bitterness of a high-grade extra-virgin olive oil. We’re just beginning to unravel health benefits associated with, for instance, the eyesight-protecting lutein in orange bell peppers or the anti-cancer properties of lycopene in tomatoes.

Diversity, Diversity, Diversity

The secret of polyphenols’ success in keeping our bodies on track is their sheer variety. We’ve identified more than 8,000 compounds, roughly spread across four major families. You may have heard of the flavonoids, which are found in everything from fruits to herbs to legumes like lentils. Or the anthocyanins, which give plants their distinctive color. You’ve probably heard the wise advice when it comes to produce, to “eat the rainbow.” If you wanted to sound a little more scientific, you could say “eat the polyphenol palette”!

The point is, all that diversity works to our advantage. Each one of those 8,000 polyphenol compounds has a slightly different chemical structure than its neighbor, which means it interacts with the human body in a slightly different way. The cumulative effect is breathtaking! When you’re consuming as many different kinds of veggies and fruits (and tea and spices and all the rest) as you can, you’re covering as many health bases as possible. One of the major drags on our health is that modern industrial agriculture has made us such unadventurous eaters compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. When you consider that roughly two-thirds of the calories that Americans eat come from four crops—wheat, corn soybeans and rice—it’s no surprise that we’ve got some major nutritional gaps that leave us vulnerable to the so-called “diseases of aging.” Let the solution be on the plate!

When it comes to the “Polyphenol Health Report Card,” we’re talking straight A’S!

Polyphenols do so much for your health, I can’t help but sing their praises—and I hope these benefits are one more way to inspire your food choices. Eating is, after all, one of life’s great pleasures, so with every plate of plants you tuck into, remember, that when done right, ideally with fresh organic and/or farmers market options, seeking out all those polyphenols pays off big-time, in the following ways:

Whole-body health

Polyphenols can work their anti-inflammatory magic throughout the body. Researchers from the University of Ottawa have found that polyphenols are associated with tamping down the activity of cytokine molecules, which can drive out-of-control inflammation. One of the best studied, and most powerful, polyphenolic compounds is curcumin, the active ingredient in the spice turmeric. It’s been looked at as a helper therapy for everything from joint pain to heart disease to cancer.

Heart health

Polyphenol consumption has been linked with lower LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and higher HDL (the “good” kind). Research suggests it may lower blood pressure by promoting the body’s production of nitric oxide, which relaxes the blood vessels.

Metabolic health

Evidence suggests that polyphenol-rich diets may lower blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity, thereby reducing the risk of diabetes.

Gut health

Exciting new research is looking at polyphenols as a supercharged prebiotic, feeding the good bacteria in the gut. One study showed that microbiomes with plenty of polyphenol from green tea and cocoa produced more butyrate, which builds up the gut wall and guards against leaky gut.

Cancer protection

We know that a plant-rich diet is powerful insurance against cancer. Some researchers believe polyphenols may be responsible for much of the benefit.

Brain health

There’s been interesting preliminary research showing that both grape juice and cocoa polyphenols can boost memory performance.

Get your piece of the polyphenol pie

What’s cool about polyphenols is that so many of them are delicious—and if you’re paying attention to eating right, you’re likely eating a few of them already. My advice: Go wide! Expand your repertoire and don’t get stuck eating the same five things and expect a giant payoff. Though eating some of them is certainly better than none, branch out to get the widest variety of polys on your plate. Here are a few of my favorites, in addition to the good-for-you staples, including extra-virgin olive oil (stored in dark-glass bottles, wine and dark chocolate (75% or more cacao versions):

Fruits: Tart Granny Smith apples are lower in sugar than most others; berries: think raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and strawberries; pomegranates; citrus, like grapefruit and lemons

Vegetables: Artichokes; asparagus; broccoli; olives; scallions; shallots; spinach; endive

Nuts and Seeds: Almonds (raw are best); pecans; walnuts; flaxseed (ground flaxseeds are great to sprinkle on everything)

Beans: Black beans; white beans

Seasonings and Spices: Ginger; cinnamon; turmeric; basil; parsley; peppermint; rosemary; thyme

Beverages: Coffee; tea (especially green tea)

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