Polyphenol-Rich Foods: Why Scientists Want You to Eat More of Them

Teeming with antioxidants that support anti-aging, brain function and heart health, polyphenols are the latest micronutrient scientists are urging you to add to your diet. But what are they and where can you find them?

Dietary polyphenols appear in various natural foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lectin-free cereal grains like millet, tea and wine. They are not just responsible for giving fruit and vegetables their distinct colors and aromas—they also have numerous health benefits, including protecting our bodies from free radical damage and ultraviolet radiation, shielding our cardiovascular system, reducing inflammation and promoting brain health.

To figure out what foods have polyphenols, consider the four types of this micronutrient: flavonoids (includes fruits and legumes), stilbenes (such as in peanuts), lignans (from seeds, cereals and algae) and phenolic acids (found in cinnamon and tea).

Learn more about how polyphenols might enhance your health and start integrating polyphenol-rich foods and beverages into your diet. 

The Health Benefits of Polyphenols

Over the last decade, interest has grown in the potential health benefits of polyphenols as an antioxidant. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, confirms that long-term consumption of diets rich in plant polyphenols offer protection against the development of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative diseases. The structure of polyphenol compounds found in green tea is also linked to protecting skin from ultraviolet radiation and having anti-inflammatory properties. And in a study from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, scientists found that grape-derived polyphenols can even protect against depression. Women struggling with menopause symptoms also found relief when consuming polyphenols.

How to Find Foods High in Polyphenols (and Low in Lectins)

The top 10 polyphenol-rich foods according to Dr. Joel Kahn, a cardiologist and advocate of plant-based nutrition, are:

  • Cloves
  • Star anise
  • Cocoa Powder
  • Mexican oregano, dried
  • Celery seed
  • Black chokeberry
  • Dark chocolate
  • Flaxseed meal
  • Black elderberry
  • Chestnut

But don’t let this list limit you. According to Dr. Stephen Gundry, who has written extensively on the health benefits of polyphenols, there are numerous food sources we can look to for high polyphenol content like berries, vegetables, tea and wine. But we should steer clear of lectins, such as beans, peas, lentils, nuts, squash, nightshade vegetables (eggplant, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes), whole grains (especially whole wheat), dairy and eggs. He told Reader’s Digest, “Lectins bind to sugars on the walls of the intestines. In the gut, lectins flip a switch that creates a space between intestinal cells, allowing bacteria and lipopolysaccharides (LPS) to cross the gut wall.”

Fruits High in Polyphenols

According to Gundry, fruits with high polyphenol content include:

  • Dark berries
  • Black chokeberries
  • Black elderberries
  • Blueberries
  • Plums
  • Cherries
  • Black Currants
  • Blackberries
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Avocado

But Gundry advises that we exercise caution when eating fruit, always eating it in-season and not overdoing it. “Eating fruit in-season was a great thing for our ancestors because it allowed them to fatten up for the winter months,” he notes. “But now, we can get fruit any day of the year. So, we have to be sure to consume it in moderation.”

Vegetables High Contain Polyphenols

Vegetables with the most polyphenols are:

  • Black olives
  • Green olives
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Red chicory
  • Green chicory
  • Red onions
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Curly endive

What About Wine?

Red wine, which contains around 10 times more polyphenols than white, has been shown to significantly reduce the risks against diseases and some types of cancer as found by researchers at the University of Vienna. Drinking one glass of red wine a day slashed men's risk of prostate cancer by around 12 percent, the study reports. Gundry suggests, when it comes to polyphenol-rich wines, reach for:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Petite Syrah
  • Pinot Noir

Other Beverages High in Polyphenols

Different types of teas contain different types of polyphenols, but research has found that tea polyphenols account for about 30 percent of fresh leaf dry weight. The study also links green tea consumption to the prevention of many types of cancer, including lung, colon, stomach, mouth, small intestine, kidney, pancreas and mammary glands.

Signs You May Be Polyphenol Deficient

Think you may be polyphenol deficient? Gundry offers these signs of potential polyphenol deficiency: muscle fatigue, stiff joints, cloudy vision, nausea and shortness of breath. With sources as natural as berries, vegetables, nuts and tea, it shouldn’t be difficult to turn things around.

Erica Garza is an author and essayist. Her work has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, The Telegraph and VICE. She lives in Los Angeles.

Banner Image: Claudia Totir / GettyImages

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