Plant-based foods offer many potential health benefits, which is one of many reasons a plant-based diet has been recommended to promote health and reduce disease risk.
But what is it about plant-based foods that make them so healthy?
Plants contain unique compounds that animal products lack, such as fiber and antioxidants.
One such source of antioxidants is polyphenols, a compound unique to plant foods.
In this article, we’ll explain what polyphenols are, how they might benefit your health, and what types of foods and drinks are good sources of them.
What are polyphenols?
Polyphenols are compounds found in many plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Polyphenols are considered to be incredibly healthy because they contain antioxidants, which are substances that can help fight cell damage and inflammation.
Reducing cell damage and inflammation can slow the aging process, prevent certain types of cancers, and can reduce your overall disease risk.
There are thousands of different types of polyphenols, but some of the ones you might have already heard of include flavonoids, phenolic acids, and lignans.
Resveratrol in red grapes and wine and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) in green tea are both examples of polyphenols.
What do polyphenols do for your body?
Inflammation and cell damage are some of the root causes of many of today’s most prevalent chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.
Cell damage can occur through environmental, genetic, and lifestyle factors. For instance, smoking damages the cells in your lungs and causes inflammation, which can lead to lung cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions.
In other instances, you might inherit a gene that puts you at risk of developing cancer, regardless of environmental or lifestyle factors.
Studies on polyphenols suggest that they can improve your health in many different and important ways.
According to a 2022 review, some of the benefits polyphenols may provide include:
Improved heart health
Heart disease is the leading cause of death among adults worldwide. Your heart health is influenced by many factors, including your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and heart function.
Polyphenols can promote healthy blood pressure levels, reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, and improve your cholesterol (lipid) levels.
Reduced risk of diabetes
Insulin resistance is the root cause of type 2 diabetes. Polyphenols can improve insulin resistance, which is when your body doesn’t use the hormone insulin effectively. In addition, polyphenols have been shown to reduce diabetes risk, such as the flavonols in cocoa beans.
May help with weight loss
Polyphenols like curcumin, catechins, and resveratrol are associated with anti-obesogenic properties, which means they might help promote weight loss and prevent obesity.
Some of the ways polyphenols can help fight obesity are by reducing the formation of new fat and increasing energy expenditure (calories burned), which can help promote weight loss and weight maintenance.
Might reduce neurodegenerative disease risk
Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are caused by the damage of nerve cells in your brain.
9 foods and drinks high in polyphenols
Blueberries, elderberries, blackcurrants, blackberries, and strawberries are among the berries with the highest polyphenol content.
Berries are particularly high in polyphenols like anthocyanins, flavonols, and phenolic acids.
Anthocyanins are an antioxidant that gives berries their dark blue color. Anthocyanins, in particular, are associated with antidiabetic, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and anti-obesity properties, and they can also help with the prevention of cardiovascular disease.
Like berries, cherries are rich in anthocyanins. According to studies, cherries reduce the markers of oxidative stress and inflammation, reduce post-exercise muscle soreness, improve blood pressure and sleep quality, and reduce arthritis symptoms. Both tart and sweet cherries appear to have benefits.
The main type of polyphenols in green tea is catechins. The polyphenols in green tea make up around 30% of its dry weight, which means it’s very rich in polyphenols, given the serving size!
Green tea is also rich in glutathione, a type of antioxidant. Glutathione deficiency can lead to oxidative stress and is linked with diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, among other chronic diseases.
Dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids is a great source of flavonols, a type of polyphenol.
Milk chocolate and white chocolate don’t have the same benefits, so be sure you’re getting dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids.
Studies show dark chocolate polyphenols help reduce blood pressure by boosting nitric oxide production, improving insulin sensitivity, and helping reduce levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol, among other benefits.
Cocoa powder also offers some of these benefits and can easily be added to your home-baked goods to enhance the chocolate flavor while maintaining some of the benefits of cocoa.
Flax seeds are rich in lignans, a type of polyphenol. Flaxseeds are also a great plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids, which offer powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
In addition, flax seeds are a great source of fiber, a nutrient that can benefit your digestive health and promote the growth of probiotics, beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract.
Having healthy levels of probiotics can improve digestion and even support your immune system.
One of the more popular sources of polyphenols is red wine due to its resveratrol content.
Resveratrol is also present in the skins of red grapes and other fruit, but red wine is usually the better-known source.
Studies show resveratrol can help promote healthy cholesterol levels and may help fight the growth of cancerous tumors.
However, you shouldn’t start drinking red wine (or increase the amount of red wine you drink) just for the potential benefits of resveratrol because alcohol consumption also comes with health risks, such as increasing your risk of certain cancers.
Artichokes are among the vegetables with the highest polyphenol content by weight. They are not only rich in polyphenols but are also a source of antioxidants like vitamin C, folate, and vitamin K.
The best way to prepare artichokes is by boiling or steaming them. From there, try dipping their leaves in some melted butter or another sauce and pulling the pulpy portions off the petals with your teeth.
Artichoke hearts also make a great topping for pizza or an addition to salads.
Hazelnuts and pecans are among the best sources of polyphenols in the nut category.
Not only are hazelnuts and pecans a good source of polyphenols, but nuts are a good source of fiber, healthy fats, and plant-based protein.
In addition to reducing oxidative stress, studies show that hazelnuts can reduce plaque formation in your arteries, which can cause narrowing and blockages of arteries carrying blood to vital organs like your heart and brain.
Hazelnuts are also an excellent source of monounsaturated fat, which along with polyunsaturated fats, are considered “heart-healthy.”
Herbs and spices
Using herbs and spices to flavor your food not only provides unique flavors and boosts palatability, but many herbs and spices are chock full of polyphenols.
Star anise, cloves, and peppermint are some of the best sources of polyphenols. In addition, the active ingredient in turmeric (curcumin) is a polyphenol, as well as cinnamon and cumin.
Since turmeric has gained a lot of popularity in particular, let’s look at some of its potential benefits:
- According to a small study of 45 patients with rheumatoid arthritis (a type of autoimmune disease), curcumin was more effective at reducing symptoms such as painful joints and swelling when compared to a prescription painkiller.
- According to a review of studies, curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) might help reduce post-exercise soreness, reduce anxiety, improve hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol and blood fat), and aid in managing certain inflammatory conditions.
Some easy ways to include these herbs and spices into your diet is by making simple teas – simply add ½-1 teaspoon of ground herbs or spices per cup of hot water and add additional flavors or sweeteners as desired.
Polyphenols are a compound found in many plant-based foods. Polyphenols are beneficial for their antioxidant properties and their ability to help reduce inflammation, which is a key driver of many chronic diseases and inflammatory conditions.
Some of the best sources of polyphenols include berries, cherries, green tea, dark chocolate (cocoa), flaxseeds, red wine, artichokes, nuts, herbs, and spices.