As spring comes to an end and summer draws near, a veritable cornucopia of tree-ripened fruits, berries and luscious vegetables await our hungry palates. These plant foods are full of unique and incredibly nutritious compounds.
One of the most important groups of nutrients in plant foods are polyphenols which are comprised of a large group of compounds that include flavonoids, isoflavones, catechins and others. We know that diets rich in fruits and vegetables reduce the risk of chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and several cancers. The polyphenols found in plants are thought to be primarily responsible for these health benefits.
However, as it turns out, it is not easy for our digestive systems to extract polyphenols from the foods that we eat. And, if we do manage to extract them, we need to absorb them from the intestines into the blood – also not easy. Once absorbed, polyphenols undergo all sorts of chemical reactions in our liver which further affect their ultimate bioavailability in our cells – where their health-promoting actions are most impactful. So, with all of this stacked against polyphenols, how can we increase our chances of getting the most polyphenol benefits from our food to our cells? Below are five strategies – all backed by clinical research – that will help you get the most from your fruits and vegetables.
1. Eat fermented foods such as olives, yogurt, miso, and sauerkraut
WHY: Thriver, eating fermented food helps you build your bugs. The commensal bacteria that live in our digestive tract are important to our health in many ways – and one is their role in helping us to digest plant polyphenols. It turns out that our gut bacteria perform a critical step in breaking down polyphenols into more bioactive and absorbable compounds. For instance, intestinal bacteria break down the soy isoflavone daidzein into the highly antioxidative compound equol. Resveratrol from foods such as wine and peanuts are broken down by gut bacteria into dihydroresveratrol, a much stronger compound.
2. Eat mostly organic foods, avoid –as much as possible- environmental toxin exposures, and make sure to eat garlic, onions, beets, and dark leafy greens
WHY: It’s important to show your liver some love by eating organic foods, minimizing environmental toxin exposure, and making sure to include garlic, onions, beets, and dark leafy greens in your diet. The liver is the master organ of detoxification and also makes a variety of important compounds. Polyphenols are broken down, or metabolized, in the liver, and in many cases, are metabolized into more active forms. Also, the liver manufacturers an important protein called albumin. Albumin floats in our blood stream and acts like a raft that transports many other important compounds throughout our body. Many polyphenols rely on albumin to get to the target organs. For example, over 99% of quercetin is bound to albumin as its method of distribution.
3. When possible, eat organic fruits and vegetables
WHY: Plants produce polyphenols in response to stress because the polyphenols exert protective actions in the plant. Organically grown plants encounter more stressors – primarily in the form of pests. As a result, organically grown plants have higher concentrations of polyphenols.
4. Say yes to fresh produce. Eat fruits and vegetables with minimal processing
WHY: Any process applied to plant foods such as drying, grinding, and heating will result in some loss of polyphenols. That is not to say that we won’t benefit from cooked vegetables – we do, as these foods still contain some intact polyphenols, vitamins and minerals, and, in some cases, are easier for our bodies to digest and absorb. However, fresh and unprocessed fruits and vegetables have the highest concentration of polyphenols so it is a good idea to include these as a part of our daily diet.
5. Supplement with polyphenols – together!
WHY: Polyphenols like each other! It turns out that when we take polyphenol supplements, for instance, curcumin, green tea catechins, and resveratrol, there is greater absorption of each one if we take them all together as opposed to taking each one alone. Furthermore, many polyphenols are best absorbed along with fat – so taking polyphenol supplements with a meal that contains fat (it doesn’t seem to matter what kind of fat) will result in maximal bioavailability.
Here’s to optimizing your health with polyphenols, and may you thrive into your colorful life!