Have you had your polyphenols today?
We know we are supposed to “eat the rainbow”. No, I’m not talking about Skittles. I mean fruits and vegetables, along with some other color-rich whole foods. But why? What’s the deal with edible color, anyway?
It’s not just about the vitamins and minerals; it’s one way we can get our daily dose of a variety of polyphenols. These are chemical compounds in plant foods that serve a purpose for the plant: they can be slightly bitter and they protect the plant food from becoming dinner for bugs. Think of them as nature’s built-in pesticides. They serve a purpose for us, too, in that they are protective against a number of chronic and inflammatory diseases. There is strong scientific evidence for their ability to affect gene expression, meaning that they can help us keep our genes wired for undesirable health conditions from being activated or switched on. They’ve been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve blood lipids, and reduce stroke risk. They can help with blood sugar regulation, reduce loss of bone density, reduce cancer risk, and can be an important factor in weight loss due to their ability to increase metabolic rate. Polyphenols are considered anti-aging compounds, in that they can slow down the adverse effects of aging on the brain. Think of them as powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant agents. Most chronic degenerative diseases are inflammatory in nature, so when you boost your polyphenol intake, you are boosting your body’s defenses against developing these diseases. What’s not to love about that?
There are literally hundreds of polyphenols in our foods. Some we are very familiar with, such as resveratrol in red wine and quercetin abundant in onions, but we have hardly scratched the surface in terms of the sheer number of them and the mechanisms of how they work. But we know enough to appreciate that they are a big part of what makes whole foods so good for us. While we can look at how our bodies are designed to heal when we give them what they need and we remove the stressors that hinder that process, we can similarly appreciate the characteristics of the food we are meant to eat in the same way. Nature's pharmacy. God's provision.
So how do we get more of these jewels in our diets? Eat the produce rainbow. Shoot for five colors or more a day. For example, have some berries with breakfast, a salad full of colorful veggies as part of your lunch, and some broccoli and sweet potato with dinner. Or have some melon with breakfast, some soup made with sweet potato and red pepper or tomato with lunch, and some sautéed greens and butternut squash with dinner. Nuts are polyphenol-rich, so have a small handful with some apple slices, celery and carrot sticks, or grapes for a snack. Sip a cup of green or black tea, have a morning cup of coffee, drizzle olive oil on your salad, and have an occasional glass of red wine. Go for a square of dark chocolate now and then (the darker, the better). Throw some parsley on your veggies and salads. Use a variety of spices liberally as they are colorful and rich in polyphenols as well.
If you want to get even deeper into the nerdy science of polyphenols (and who doesn’t?), here are some studies to satisfy your curiosity:
Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease
Evidence for a protective effect of polyphenols-containing foods on cardiovascular health: an update for clinicians