Polyphenols: The Overlooked Plant Chemical
For a long time, dietitians told us we needed 4 to 6 servings of fruits and vegetables a day to stay healthy. Then, a couple of years later, they changed that number to 10 colon-busting servings a day. Now, some of those dietitians are telling us to have just 4 servings a day. It can get confusing. But perhaps what they should've been saying all along is simply this: Focus mostly on polyphenols.
At the risk of pissing you off further, there might be a better way to eat healthy. Maybe counting servings of fruits and vegetables shouldn't matter as much.
Concentrating on portions of fruits and vegetables in general may actually be nutritionally limiting. Doing so may address vitamins and mineral intake, but it doesn't give the substances known as polyphenols as much attention as they deserve.
Polyphenols are chemicals found in plants that are often collectively called phytochemicals. Depending on what source you believe, there are between 500 and 8,000 of them and they have, individually and probably collectively, amazing effects on the animals that eat them.
You know when someone says this fruit, vegetable, or plant is anti-inflammatory? Or that it prevents or fights cancer? Or that it stabilizes blood sugar, improves fat metabolism, treats cardiovascular disease, prevents Alzheimer's, or improves the efficiency of the bacteria in your digestive system?
It's all because of polyphenols. And yes, fruits and vegetables contain lots of them, but they aren't the only food groups that contain them, and therein lies the problem and the solution.
There are four broad types of polyphenols:
- Stilbenes: Resveratrol is a stilbene. It and its cousins are commonly found in red wines and peanuts, among other foods.
- Phenolic Acid: This type is found in coffee, teas, cherries, blueberries, and a bunch of other fruit drinks.
- Flavonoids: This is the biggest class of polyphenols. They're found in green tea, red wine, legumes, and all sorts of fruits and vegetables.
- Lignans: These are found in flax seeds, algae, cereals, legumes, various grains, and various fruits and vegetables.
For optimum health, you want to ingest representatives of all of these polyphenol groups. In fact, you want to wallow in them. But different foods have different polyphenols in different concentrations. There probably isn't one food that has optimum amounts of all of them. That's why we need to diversify.
We need to put less focus on counting servings of fruits and vegetables and put more focus on counting food groupings that contain different kinds of polyphenols.
Here are the "polyphenolic" food groupings, along with some high-phenol representatives of that food group:
- Vegetables: Artichokes, potatoes, rhubarb, yellow onions, red cabbage, cherry tomatoes, leeks, broccoli, celery.
- Fruits: Berries, apples, apricots, plums, pears, grapes, cherries (the darker the fruit, the higher the polyphenol content).
- Whole Grains: Buckwheat, rye, oats, barley, corn, wheat, rice.
- Nuts, Seeds, Legumes: Black beans, white beans, pecans, almonds, walnuts, flaxseed, chestnuts, hazelnuts.
- Fats: Virgin olive oil, sesame seed oil, dark chocolate.
- Beverages: Coffee, tea, red wine, cocoa.
- Spices: Oregano, rosemary, soy sauce, cloves, peppermint, anise, celery seed, saffron, spearmint, thyme, basil, curry powder, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, garlic.
Maybe stop wringing your hands about eating a specific number of fruit and vegetable servings and instead try to eat something from each of the polyphenol food groupings every day.
Alternately, or as a polyphenol supplement, use Superfood, a blend of high polyphenol fruits, berries, and vegetables. That way, you increase the likelihood that you're getting a wide spectrum of polyphenols.
Besides, eating something from each of these groupings brings us back to the foundations of good nutrition, which were based on eating a variety of food stuffs. Granted, those recommendations were made before we even knew what polyphenols were, but now we know why they made such good sense.