You’ve probably heard the saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” when referring to working in teams. But did you know it is also true of teaming up specific foods and nutrients? Yes, whole foods can work together to increase your health benefits!
Food synergy is the concept of combining foods for greater health benefits than if the individual foods were eaten on their own. When synergistic foods are eaten together their individual nutrients interact to increase their effect, like improving nutrient absorption, increasing satiety, and even decreasing the risk of illness and disease.
Studying the power of synergistic food pairings contrasts what’s commonly referred to as nutritionism, or the reductive understanding of nutrients as the key indicators of healthy foods. This narrow view of nutrition dominated nutrition science, dietary guidelines, and food marketing for decades. However, in recent years research on synergistic food and nutrient combinations has put more emphasis on the importance of looking at whole dietary patterns instead of individual nutrients when determining a healthy diet.
Want to synergize your health? Let’s look at six synergistic food and nutrient pairings that help increase the healthfulness of your meals.
Synergistic Food Combinations
Iron and vitamin C
Iron is an essential mineral for blood production for the body and is found in meat and seafood, and in plant-based sources such as lentils and black beans. However, iron-rich plant foods are not as well absorbed as animal sources of iron.
How can you increase iron absorption with food synergy? Vitamin C! When foods high in vitamin C are paired with iron-rich foods, studies suggest that 67% more iron is absorbed than if the iron-rich food was eaten alone. So go for power combinations such as strawberries on oatmeal, spinach with tomatoes, or kale with citrus for your best iron absorption.
Vitamin D and calcium
Calcium is a mineral that is vital for the health of your bones and teeth, but it relies heavily on vitamin D to increase your body’s ability to absorb the amounts you need. In fact, if you do not have enough vitamin D to help increase calcium your body will take it from your bones and teeth, increasing your risk of bone breaks and dental decay.
Next time you eat vitamin D rich foods such as salmon, tuna, or whole eggs, be sure to pair them with calcium-rich foods like yogurt, leafy greens, almonds, white beans, oranges, or even seaweed. Vitamin D can also be created by getting enough sunlight, so soak up some sun to kickstart vitamin D production (and in turn, calcium absorption)!
Turmeric and black pepper
Turmeric is a spice in the ginger family that is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Curcumin, the active antioxidant ingredient in turmeric, is poorly absorbed by the body when eaten on its own. But not when combined with black pepper!
Through the power of food synergy, research has shown that when turmeric is consumed with black pepper absorption rates of curcumin increase by up to 2000%. This is because black pepper contains a compound called piperine, which helps to increase how much curcumin your body can absorb. So, add a sprinkle of pepper to your next golden milk latte!
Carotenoids and healthy fats
Another great example of food synergy is the combination of carotenoids and healthy fats. Carotenoids are a group of nutrients found in fruits and vegetables that are known for their antioxidant properties, including carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, and peppers.
However, these nutrients are fat soluble meaning they are best absorbed by the body when combined with dietary fats. By combining carotenoids with healthy fats like olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds, you can optimize absorption and improve your health.
Grilled meats and herbs
Synergistic food pairings can also help protect your body in some cases. Cooking meat over high heat — like grilling or roasting — can cause the formation of hetocyclic amines, which are carcinogens (or cancer-causing agents).
However, if you love a cookout then there are ways to reduce your exposure to carcinogens through food synergy. Research has shown that marinating meats with sauces made with foods that have levels of the antioxidant polyphenols (like cilantro, rosemary, and oregano) could prevent the formation of carcinogens. Cooking over gas heat and not charring your meat are also ways to reduce cancer-causing compounds from eating meats cooked over high heat.
Fiber, protein, and healthy fats
Food synergy isn’t limited to only micronutrients, it also plays a role in combining macronutrients like complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats. Eating a combination of macronutrients (protein with healthy fats, etc.) will help to keep you feeling fuller and more satisfied after a meal than if you were to just eat single macronutrient foods.
How does it work? Protein and healthy fats are both known for their satiating effects, while fibers found in complex carbohydrates help to regulate digestion and keep you feeling full. By combining all three of these nutrients for meals and snacks, you can easily stay satisfied after a meal without overindulging.
So next time you’re planning a meal, be sure to think about the power of food synergy! By combining nutrients that work together, you can easily improve your health by simply pairing synergistic foods.