How many times have you poured yourself another glass whilst thinking, ‘it’s ok because red wine is good for me’? Or when was the last time you indulged with friends because ‘dark chocolate is actually healthy’? Sadly, it can’t be said that too many ‘treat yo’ self’ moments are the advisable way forward, but science is actually on our side this time, as nature has a secret ingredient that makes some of our favourite foods all the more likeable…. Polyphenols.
Polyphenols are a group of natural chemicals found in certain plant-based foods ranging across fruits and vegetables to coffee and chocolate. In addition to giving these foods their vibrant colours, polyphenols are also associated with many health benefits for humans and can be divided into the following four different categories;
- Flavanoids (found mainly in citrus fruits, berries, various vegetables, and spices)
- Stilbenes (‘resveratrol’ is the most well-known and is present in red wine)
- Lignans (found in flaxseeds, legumes, and algae)
- Phenolic Acids (of which hydroxycinnamic is found in cinnamon and coffee)
Possibly the most talked about selling point of these plant pigments is known to be their antioxidant properties. This essentially means they have the ability to combat any negative effects from ‘free radical’ molecules in our bodies which are responsible for stress-related cell damage and premature aging; justifying a hamper of coffee, chocolate and wine as your next mother’s day gift?!
Following the antioxidant boosts, research has also shown polyphenols play a part in gene expression and modulate the activity of many enzymes and cell receptors; making significant contributions to improving conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. However, a big shout out has to go to the very special relationship between polyphenols and…you got it… our favourite little gutsy bugs, our microbes. Just like JayZ needs Beyonce to keep him in the spotlight for the right reasons, our microbes need polyphenols to keep them in check and realize their full potential. Microbes will first release polyphenols from foods during digestion, and then the polyphenols will actively encourage the more beneficial bugs to flourish whilst keeping the less helpful ones in check. Lactobacilli is an example of a particularly helpful bacteria that is fortified by polyphenols and thus can help to clear more fat particles from the blood.
Polyphenols also fuel our helpful microbes to produce short chain fatty acids (SCFA)- which are total diamonds in terms of promoting gut health. SCFA not only provide our colonic cells with energy and help with muscular contractions to keep things moving through, but they also have an undeniably positive impact on our immune system.
It’s all good and well talking about the multiple ways in which polyphenols can do us good, but it is worth noting that these health effects depend on not only on the amount consumed but how well the body can actually absorb them, where the actual food has been grown and how it has been prepared. For example, it has been proven that polyphenol substances are fat soluble and therefore best consumed alongside healthy fats (and as close to their natural state as possible) to increase nutrient absorption.
With so many contributing factors to how much we can benefit from polyphenols, and with The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition stating that ‘the polyphenols we most commonly eat in our diets are not necessarily the most well metabolized’, the safest bet is to go back to that old favourite mantra of eating a varied, mainly plant-based diet, and trying to ensure a good dose of fresh fruit and veg at every meal time in order to give the body a constant supply. Simply said, just take a bit of inspiration from the trusty Mediterranean diet as, if you take a look at the food sources below, those chilled out, tanned folk really do have the whole polyphenol thing sorted….
Some Top Polyphenol Food Sources; Olive Oil, Apples, Berries, Cherries, Citrus Fruits, Cloves, Grapes, Onions, Tea, Coffee, Red Wine, Dark Chocolate, Almonds, Herbs and Spices.
Polyphenols Menu Planning
So now you could answer any pub quiz question on the delights of these natural chemical wonders, here are some simple menu suggestions for how to boost your daily intake and ensure a steady flow of nutrients to keep your microbes happy….
Breakfast: Oats with yogurt and mixed berries and cup of coffee
Lunch: Turmeric and cayenne spiced eggs on sourdough with asparagus and spinach
Snack: Orange polenta olive oil cake and cup of tea
Dinner: Herby chicken risotto with fresh greens followed by some dark chocolate & red wine
Note- Consuming the majority of your polyphenols from fresh and vibrant plant-based sources is by far the most advisable, as heavy doses of red wine and chocolate do of course come with a few drawbacks… but as always it’s ‘everything in moderation’ so maybe no need to feel too guilty about last night Friday night?!
Check out this Healthy Gut Tips video featuring Tim Spector (Professor of genetic epidemiology and director of the TwinsUK registry) at King’s College, London: