There are nutrients in food that we know all about—protein, fat, carbs, certain vitamins and minerals, and so on. We mostly know how much of those things we need to be healthy, and we know what foods we have to eat to get enough.
But increasingly, we're hearing about other, less-quantifiable nutrients. For a long time, the best-known example has been antioxidants—we know they're there, and that they're good for us. But it's not like we have a certain recommended daily amount we're supposed to hit.
And now there's a new superstar substance in the news: polyphenols. "Polyphenols are plant compounds, often found in the fruit and leaves, that are believed to protect the plant or its fruits from sun damage," explains Steven R. Gundry, M.D., the medical director and founder of the Centers for Restorative Medicine in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara, CA. "When you eat polyphenols, your gut transforms them into active antioxidants." These gut-made antioxidants might be even more powerful than the kind you get from antioxidant-rich foods.
Gundry says polyphenols can slow the cellular aging process and improve heart health by making your blood vessels more flexible and their lining less sticky. The heart perks may, in turn, translate into better gym performance, adds Gundry. In fact, in a recent review of 14 studies, researchers found that polyphenol supplementation boosted athletic performance by up to 3 percent.
So how can you increase your intake of powerhouse polyphenols? The nutrients are found in dark fruits, berries, olive oil, dark chocolate, coffee, and tea, Gundry says. But the following strategies can ensure you tap into their full benefits.
Drink your tea black. "Milk binds to polyphenols and makes them inactive," Gundry cautions. (Try one of these amazing nut milks instead.) He suggests swapping in coconut milk for regular milk in your coffee or tea. Also smart: choosing dark chocolate over milk chocolate.
Go wild. Gundry suggests picking up wild berries whenever possible. They're high in polyphenols without being high in sugar, which can't always be said of other berries you see on store shelves. "Modern fruits and berries have been bred for sugar content," Gundry says. Many grocery stores sell frozen wild berries, but if you can't find any near you, Gundry recommends trying a supplement like grape seed extract or pine bark extract to get a dose of extra-strength polyphenols. (Don't cut out those regular berries, if that's all you have access to. There's some back and forth, but moderate amounts of fruit sugars probably aren't all that bad for you, or at least your waistline.)
Lose the filter. Most olive oil is filtered, but that may mean you're losing a good portion of the polyphenols. "The benefit of olive oil doesn't stem from the oil itself, but from the polyphenols like hydroxytyrosol suspended in the oil. That's why unfiltered or nuovo olive oil is your best bet," says Gundry.