How to Pair Superfoods for Super Health
By MAGGIE MOON
Do you want to get the most out of what you eat and make every calorie count? Do you believe whole, natural foods offer more than isolated nutrients in supplements? Consider that we've identified hundreds of biologically active phytonutrients in just the past two decades and your answer should be "yes."
We're learning that certain foods work better together to unlock and boost health benefits. This concept is called "food synergy," or the idea that the many nutrients in whole foods interact in ways that can improve health more than any given nutrient or food alone. To be fair, supplements work well in the face of a deficiency. For everything else, food synergy suggests that a "food first" approach is best. At the very least it makes excess intake of nutrients unlikely, and at its best it maximizes health benefits from foods.
It makes sense when considering how we naturally eat foods in combination. For example, adding strawberries to a spinach salad unlocks more of the iron from the greens, and adding an olive-oil vinaigrette to the mix helps the body absorb more of its vitamins K and A. On a larger scale, think about the landmark PREDIMED study that linked a Mediterranean diet pattern to preventing cardiovascular disease.
The idea of food synergy is not new, and some of the concepts are fundamental in nutrition science. However, the research in this area is dynamic and actively teaching us new things with each passing year. Here are a 10 basic and experimental food pairings to unlock more nutrition from your plate.
Basic Food Pairings
Carrots + hummus = more vitamin A
The olive oil in hummus helps unlock the vitamin A in carrots. The basic concept is that fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K) like to be combined with fats to boost how much of the vitamin is absorbed by the body. Salmon is an example of a food that provides healthy fats (omega-3s) and vitamin D in one food. You can also use this concept for combining kale (high in vitamin K) and nuts (healthy fats) in a wilted-greens salad.
Pistachios + goat cheese = lower cholesterol
As far as cheeses go, goat cheese is already low on the cholesterol scale, but the phytosterols in pistachios help block cholesterol absorption further. Phytosterols, aka plant sterols, are only in plants and chemically look a lot like cholesterol -- so much so that they compete with cholesterol for absorption in the body. More plant sterols mean less opportunity for cholesterol to be absorbed. Other plant sterol foods include Brussels sprouts, sunflower seeds and vegetable oils.
Broccoli + lentils = better iron from plants
Lentils are a strong vegetarian source of iron, but it's in a form that the body doesn't absorb as well as the iron from animal foods. The antioxidant vitamin C in broccoli transforms plant iron (iron-3) into a form the body prefers (iron-2). The strawberry and spinach example from earlier is based on this premise. Adding fish, or any animal protein, into the mix also boosts absorption of plant iron.
Red grapefruit + hot grill = more cancer-fighting lycopene
Lycopene is the cancer-fighting antioxidant that makes foods like red grapefruit red, and heat makes it more readily absorbed. Tomatoes, red peppers and watermelon are also healthy lycopene foods. Try broiled red grapefruit for a simple dessert or grill a veggie kabob that includes tomatoes and red peppers.
Spinach + eggs + tomatoes = strong bones
Everyone knows calcium is key to strong bones, and vitamins C and D boost absorption. Spinach is a healthy source of calcium, egg yolks are an easy, everyday source of vitamin D and tomatoes add vitamin C. Add flakes of cooked salmon to your omelet for even more vitamin D.
Corn tortillas + black beans = complete protein
Plant-based protein foods have a lot to offer for good health, but they don't always provide all the amino acids needed for efficient protein synthesis. Eating a variety of vegetarian proteins over the course of the day likely suffices, but if you're looking for all your amino acids in one dish, try a black-bean taco topped with guacamole and pico de gallo. The vitamin C in the pico de gallo will also help unlock some of the plant protein.
Experimental Food Pairings
Apple + apple skin = cancer-fighting
Eat the whole apple, skin and all. Cancer studies found that apple flesh and its skin are more effective in slowing cancer-cell growth and breast tumors than apple flesh alone. Always wash apples before eating and choose organic to further cut down on pesticide residue. But even non-organic apples are also a good choice -- a conventionally grown apple is still a healthier choice than a bag of chips.
Turmeric + black pepper = reduced osteoarthritis pain
Enjoy Indian curry for dinner or ask for turmeric in a freshly pressed juice. Here's why: Curcumin, a major component of the spice turmeric (it looks like ginger, but is orange) and widely used in curries, has been shown to reduce pain related to osteoarthritis and is being studied for its benefits for everything from inflammation to cancers. Curcumin is not easily absorbed and utilized by the body, but when combined with a compound in black pepper (piperine), it's 2,000 times more accessible to the body.
Almond with skin + broccoli = anti-inflammatory
These are two foods you know are good for you and now there's good reason to enjoy them together. Research from Tufts University suggests compounds in almond skin work with vitamin C (e.g., from citrus, bell peppers, broccoli, etc.) and vitamin E (already in almonds) together to reduce the inflammation caused by LDL cholesterol. Try a simple stir-fry with broccoli, almond slices and orange segments.
Oatmeal + berries = anti-inflammatory
We know oats are good for heart health, but an animal study from Tufts University shows that vitamin C can boost the anti-inflammatory benefits of oats even more. Adding vitamin C protected LDL cholesterol from oxidation and its resulting inflammation. Try adding vitamin C in the form of mixed berries to oatmeal for maximum heart-health benefits.
Foods That DON'T Mix
What we call "anti-nutrients" are part of a plant food's defense system. The name is a bit of a misnomer because they aren't all bad, and we're still learning about them. Case in point: Back in the 19th century, dietary fiber was considered an anti-nutrient. They show up in small amounts in many plant foods, such as grains and beans, and can make nutrients less available to humans.
For example, phytates, which are in whole grains, beans and nuts, can interfere with calcium and some other minerals' absorption. The answer is not to avoid these very healthful foods. In fact, low levels of phytates may reduce the risk of chronic diseases and some cancers. However, if reducing phytates is the goal, it can be done through cooking, soaking, sprouting, fermentation or combining with a food high in vitamin C (e.g., citrus, broccoli, bell peppers).
Another example is how the tannins in coffee and tea make it more challenging to absorb iron. Most Americans get enough iron through food, but if it's a concern, you can up the iron of larger meals and enjoy coffee and tea just at breakfast and snack times.
Worry less about these compounds and focus more on the total mix of foods and pairing foods for synergistic effects more often than not.
The fundamental message is that the best nutrition will come from food, not supplements, and that there are food combinations that will make your calories work harder for you.
Readers -- Did you know that you can get more nutrients out of food by pairing them? What combination of foods have you tried? Did you know that there are foods that you shouldn't eat together? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Maggie Moon, M.S., RD, is a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian. She authored a book on food sensitivities, The Elimination Diet Workbook, and continues to provide nutrition counseling and contribute to healthy-living media as a writer and an expert source. Previously, she led health-and-wellness initiatives for online grocer FreshDirect.com.
Maggie was an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Health and Nutrition Sciences at Brooklyn College in New York in both undergraduate and graduate programs. She also developed and implemented nutrition curricula for NYC public schools. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from UC Berkeley and a Master of Science in Nutrition and Education from Columbia University. She completed her clinical training at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital of Columbia and Cornell.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
The New England Journal of Medicine
Shoba, 1998. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9619120