One of the best things you can do for better gut health is to eat a diverse diet full of high polyphenol foods.
If you’re a pretty healthy eater and consume lots of plant matter, you might be surprised to learn that you’re already eating quite a bit of high polyphenol foods. Even so, you can always strategically increase your polyphenol intake for even more health benefits.
In this article, we’ll discuss the high polyphenol diet: what it is, how to implement it, and the massive benefits you can expect once you implement this easy, delicious diet.
Let’s jump in!
What are Polyphenols?
Polyphenols, a type of antioxidant, are naturally-occurring compounds found in plants that benefit the human body in a myriad of ways. (1) Polyphenols include things like the flavanols in chocolate, anthocyanins elderberry and currants, stillbenes in wine, and lignans in flaxseed.
Polyphenols may improve microbial balance in the gut microbiome, regulate blood sugar, and improve your heart health, among other benefits.
You’ve probably heard the term “antioxidant” before, but perhaps not “polyphenol.” While polyphenols are an important sub-category of antioxidants, they haven’t received the attention that antioxidants have gotten in the last few years in the health sphere.
Newer research now shows that polyphenols do something quite incredible: they act as a prebiotic (a substance that fuels beneficial bacteria in your gut) for the microbiome. In return, your gut bacteria transform polyphenols into health-promoting metabolites that you’re then able to absorb into the body.
Polyphenols contribute the wide array of colors you see in your food: the red in the skin of your apple, the blue in your blueberries, and the green in your matcha. These beautiful colors indicate the presence of polyphenols in your food — therefore, the more color you can include in your diet, the more polyphenols you’ll get!
Eating foods high in polyphenols and a diet with a wide array of different polyphenols (i.e. different colors) helps the bacteria in your gut become more diverse. It is thought that microbial diversity in the gut microbiome is very important, as lower diversity is seen in health conditions such as IBD, metabolic syndrome, and allergic disease, among others. (2, 3, 4)
So how exactly do polyphenols benefit your body?
Polyphenols make it through the entire digestive process mostly intact, making it down to the large intestine. Here, polyphenols serve as “food” for the healthy flora in your microbiome, while your bacteria “process” the polyphenols and transform them into beneficial metabolites that you can then absorb into the bloodstream. (5) Because of this, polyphenols classify as prebiotics.
Here’s what the research has to say about the benefits of polyphenols:
- Increases counts of Akkermansia muciniphila, a beneficial species of bacteria. (6) Akkermansia spp. counts have been found to be low in people with health conditions like diabetes, metabolic syndrome, IBD, autism, and more. (7) This bacteria is crucial for the integrity of the gut barrier (i.e. is important in preventing “leaky gut”). (8)
- May help to prevent age-related cognitive decline. (9) This particular study looked specifically at the impact of berry polyphenols. Berry polyphenols also seem to protect against neurodegenerative disorders, as well. (10)
- May have anti-cancer effects. A number of polyphenols have been shown to have anti-cancer effects. (11) Tea polyphenols, in particular, can do a lot to help prevent UVB-induced skin cancer. (12)
- May delay or prevent the development of metabolic syndrome. Intakes of polyphenols have been inversely associated with metabolic syndrome (meaning, the more polyphenols you consume, the less likely you are to have metabolic syndrome). (13) In addition to this, consuming polyphenols has been shown to delay or prevent the development of metabolic syndrome and improve markers such as body weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, and lipid metabolism. (14) It is thought that these beneficial effects may be due in part to the proliferation of Akkermansia spp. in relation to polyphenol intake.
Because polyphenols act as prebiotics, they help to prevent imbalanced gut bacteria or dysbiosis.
Foods High in Polyphenols
Given the benefits of polyphenols, you’ll want to incorporate as many high polyphenol foods as possible into your diet.
Luckily, researchers have analyzed many of the foods we have access to in order to determine which foods have the highest concentration of polyphenols per serving. (15)
Below are the top 100 high polyphenol foods, separated by category, and in order of polyphenols per serving within each category.
High Polyphenol Fruits:
|Fruit:||Serving Size (g):||Polyphenol Content Per Serving (mg):|
|Pure apple juice||248||168|
|Pure pomegranate juice||150||99|
|Pure grapefruit juice||150||79|
|Pure blood orange juice||154||71|
|Pure pummelo juice||154||27|
|Pure lemon juice||15||6.3|
High Polyphenol Vegetables:
|Vegetable:||Serving Size (g):||Polyphenol Content Per Serving (mg):|
|Globe artichoke heads||168||436|
|Extra virgin olive oil||16||10|
|Sweet green pepper||20||0.9|
Nuts, Seeds, Grains, and Legumes High in Polyphenols:
|Food:||Serving Size (g):||Polyphenol Content Per Serving (mg):|
|Whole grain rye bread||120||146|
|Whole grain rye flour||20||29|
|Whole grain wheat flour||20||14|
|Peanuts, roasted dehulled||40||2.6|
|Refined oat flour||20||1.6|
|Refined wheat flour||20||1.2|
Other Foods High in Polyphenols:
|Food:||Serving Size (g):||Polyphenol Content Per Serving (mg):|
|Chocolate beverage with milk||187||39|
How to Eat a High Polyphenol Diet
For the most diverse, healthy microbiome, your diet should be as high in polyphenols as possible.
Here’s how to easily eat a high polyphenol diet.
Eat More High Polyphenol Foods
One of the easiest ways to get more polyphenols in your diet, of course, is to incorporate more of the high polyphenol foods on the lists above into your eating habits.
For example, if you normally eat two eggs and a smoothie for breakfast, you could choose particularly high polyphenol fruits and vegetables to add to your smoothie (and maybe even some flaxseed meal, too!) and spice up your eggs with some herbs. Drink a cup of tea or coffee on top of that and you’ve got a nice high polyphenol meal!
Instead of having some ice cream for dessert after dinner, you could instead choose a few pieces of dark chocolate to amp up your polyphenol intake.
Wherever you can, choose high polyphenol foods to incorporate into your diet and you’re bound to eat more polyphenols than you were before.
Eat at Least 40 Different Plant Foods Each Week
Gut researcher and educator Jason Hawrelak of ProbioticAdvisor.com recommends trying to eat at least 40 different plant foods each week, and I tend to agree with this advice.
When doing this, note that a purple carrot counts as a different food than an orange carrot when counting your plant foods each week. Your different herbs and spices count separately, too!
So instead of eating white potatoes each night for dinner, you’re better off eating white potatoes some nights, but also incorporating sweet potatoes, japanese potatoes, purple potatoes, etc to help you more easily reach your 40 different plant foods each week.
The easy rule of thumb to remember is: the more diverse the colors (polyphenols) in your food, the more diverse your microbiome!
Change Up Your 40 Plant Foods Each Week for Maximum Diversity
If you want to go above and beyond and really maximize your microbial diversity, you can change up your 40 plant foods each week as much as possible.
While it would be great to have an entirely different set of 40 plant foods each week, for most people that will be quite difficult. Instead, just try to change as many foods as you can from week to week!
By doing this, you help to encourage microbial diversity in your gut. This is because each different polyphenol helps to encourage the growth of different beneficial bacteria in the gut.
The Bottom Line
Polyphenols give the wide array of colors we see in our food and act as prebiotics in the gut to feed your beneficial bacteria. The more high polyphenol foods you can incorporate into your diet, the more diverse your microbiome becomes. Microbial diversity in the gut is associated with better health outcomes.