Many of the foods you eat are loaded with polyphenols: plant-based compounds that are anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-infection. Polyphenols are considered non-nutritional, meaning that they help prevent disease and keep you healthy in a different way than vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients like carbohydrates, fats, and protein.
David Nieman, DrPH, director of the Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC), explains that polyphenols are a type of phytochemical, the colorful chemicals in plants that confer a variety of health benefits. “In many fruits and vegetables, all the colors that you see are the polyphenols,” he says. “That’s what you want, a lot of color in your diet.”
Color is Key
As part of a study, Nieman compiled a list of the top 40 foods that are the richest sources of polyphenols. Not surprisingly, multiple types of berries make up the largest percentage of the list. This is largely due to polyphenols being in the skin or outer layer area of the fruit, where they provide color and natural protection from radiation, sun exposure, and pathogens.
What is surprising, though, is that beverages like beer, red wine and coffee make the cut as well. Whether it’s a bowl of blueberries or a glass of your favorite cabernet, Nieman’s list is an excellent resource for people interested in eating their way to good health.
Polyphenols in your favorite brew
In 2011, Nieman conducted a study with (nonalcoholic) beer given to healthy male runners in the weeks before and after they ran a marathon. Due to the strong antioxidant, anti-pathogenic, and anti-inflammatory properties of the polyphenols in beer, the runners showed reduced inflammation and incidence of respiratory tract illness, two conditions made worse by intense exercise. The message here is that beer along with other alcoholic drinks such as red wine can provide healthful levels of polyphenols that support a physically active lifestyle, but should always be consumed in moderation.
Coffee and wine, feeling fine
In a recent commentary in the journal Nutrients, Nieman described the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet, which includes red wine along with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and olive oil. In a brand new study with coffee and athletes, Nieman showed that with the right coffee (high-altitude coffee beans are the best), the right grind (fine), the right roasting level (light), and the right brewing method (Turkish is the best), this ubiquitous beverage contributed significant amounts of polyphenols while improving psychological mood state during the first 30 minutes of exercise.
Ultimately, Nieman suggests eating as many polyphenol rich foods as you can and talking a walk every day to increase the return of polyphenols from the colon (where most go after ingestion) back into the body. “Over time, consuming plant foods rich in polyphenols provide special advantages for physically active individuals while at the same time reducing risk for overall mortality, including cancer, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.”
He added, “The study of polyphenols and their benefits for human health is an emerging science and with the wealth of information that is now coming out, getting more polyphenols by eating fruits and vegetables and drinking the right beverages is one of the best things people can do for their health.”