Written by: Natalie Faella, MS, RDN, LDN | March 1, 2022
Food synergies are super interesting to me. And while I might be biased with how cool nutrition is, I think you will find these interesting, too. (If not, I’m sorry for the 5-minutes of your life you will not get back from reading this).
What are food synergies?
They are defined as the interactions between nutrients, their absorption, and bioavailability (amount that the body is able to use) and they're more recently gaining attention in research. Single nutrients, for example, Vitamin D, are often studied to gain more information about their effects on our health, but it may be more fruitful to study how the nutrients in whole foods and combinations of foods interact and impact our health.
When certain foods are eaten together, it can actually increase the absorption and bioavailability of specific nutrients, more so than if the foods were eaten separately. This in turn can help increase the positive effects of these nutrients, for example, like their ability to fight diseases.
Seriously, how cool is nutrition?! Food is truly amazing. It’s unfortunate that we’re often made to think of it purely in terms of calories or how it will affect our weight and physique, when it does so much more for us. In honor of National Nutrition Month, I wanted to review this topic in hopes shifting our food views into a more positive light. Even if it's just for 5 minutes, I hope this is a helpful reminder that food is our friend.
Let’s take a look at some food synergies...
First, another cool thing - a lot of these food combinations actually taste great together or complement one another. Just goes to show the healing powers of nature; it’s like we’re meant to eat these foods together to reap the extra benefits.
Guacamole and Salsa.
These two are nutritious on their own but when combined, the fats in guacamole help to significantly increase the absorption of the carotenoids in tomatoes. Carotenoids are a type of phytonutrient (a naturally occurring compound in plants). Phytonutrients give plants their color and provide health benefits like antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients help boost our immune system and prevent diseases like diabetes, heart disease, brain disease, certain cancers, and arthritis.
Perhaps this is why guac is extra?
Egg yolks have also been shown to increase absorption of carotenoids, too. Eating hard-boiled eggs with raw vegetables, like in a salad (or wrap) that includes tomatoes, carrots, and leafy greens, was shown to increase the absorption of carotenoids by 3-9 fold.
Broccoli and Tomatoes
Lycopene is a type of carotenoid found in tomatoes (and is responsible for their red color). Lycopene has been shown to have anti-tumorigenic properties, which can help lower the growth of cancer cells. When eaten together, broccoli and tomatoes have been shown to help reduce the rate of prostate cancer tumor growth.
Walnuts and Tart Cherries
Walnuts are a great source of omega-3s, which have anti-inflammatory properties. When eaten with tart cherries or raspberries, greater anti-inflammatory effects are seen than when these foods are eaten separately.
Dark Chocolate and Raspberries
There is something seriously delicious about dark chocolate and berries. When eaten together, this duo has been shown to significantly increase the antioxidant power of cocoa. Dark chocolate and apples have been linked to improved heart health and skin health (collagen production) as well.
I don't know about you, but the moral of this story for me is to eat more dark chocolate.
Apples and Their Skin
Another food that makes you think wow, mother nature is looking out for us. When whole apples are eaten, the combination of nutrients in the skin and the inside of the apple have been shown to help reduce cancer cell proliferation.
Green Tea and Lemon
Citrus has been shown to enhance absorption of the catechin (another type of phytonutrient) EGCG in green tea. EGCG has anti-inflammatory properties and has been linked to a number of health benefits including heart and brain disease prevention.
Turmeric and Black Pepper
Curcumin is a phytonutrient in turmeric that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Black pepper helps to make the curcumin in turmeric more bioavailable, so the body can utilize it and reap its benefits. Fats, like avocados, olive oil, nuts, etc., also help to increase the bioavailability of curcumin. So if you’re cooking with turmeric, don’t forget your olive oil and black pepper!
Black Beans and Rice
Both beans and rice contain amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). There are 20 amino acids total and 9 of these are essential, meaning we have to get them through food because our body can’t make them on its own. Complete proteins are foods that contain all 9-essential amino acids. Animal proteins, along with some plant foods like quinoa and soy, are complete proteins. The combination of black beans and rice provides all 9 essential amino acids, making this combo a complete protein meal.
Garlic and Honey
I don’t think these two get the credit they deserve. I’ve heard of so many “superfoods” over the years and yet these two never seem to come up. When eaten together (think: homemade marinades, salad dressings, stir-fry sauces) they possess antibacterial effects. In fact, garlic is one of the oldest medicinal foods. When crushed, it releases a phytonutrient called allicin, which is considered a natural antibiotic. Honey is sometimes used in DIY facials due to its antibacterial and antimicrobial effects, too (think: acne-fighting).
But that’s not all these two do - they also help us absorb iron and are helpful for our heart health by reducing LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and triglyceride levels.
Some other food combos that help reduce risk for cardiovascular disease:
Garlic and Fish. This combination helps to improve cardiovascular health in part by reducing triglycerides. Together they help to boost immunity, too.
Tomatoes and Olive Oil. These two help to improve both triglyceride and cholesterol levels, especially when the tomatoes are cooked. (This one makes me think of my Italian grandmother and wonder if all of that homemade sauce helped her live to 101).
Onions and Grapes. Together, these two help to prevent blood clots and boost heart health. (Trying to think of a way to eat these together… grapes in a salad or on the side of sandwich that has onions in it? This grape and caramelized onion focaccia bread looks delicious, too).
Apples and Green Leafy Vegetables
More apples! Maybe this is where the one a day keeps the doctor away saying comes from... Together, apples and leafy greens help increase nitric oxide levels, which can improve blood pressure, cognitive functioning, and mood. (Beets also help increase nitric oxide). So throw some apples (with the skin!) in your salads, veggie wraps, or smoothies with spinach.
Fats and Fat-Soluble Vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, K)
Speaking of salads, fats help us to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, which is one of the reasons why you should get dressing on your salad. Some of the places we find these vitamins in a salad: A in our carrots, peppers, and tomatoes, D in our mushrooms, E in our nuts, seeds and asparagus, and K in our leafy greens.
Other ways to combine fats and fat-soluble vitamins: putting cheese, mayo, or dressing in your sandwich (with lettuce and tomatoes), dipping vegetables in hummus, guac, or ranch, sautéing vegetables in olive oil, and one of my favorites: Mexican night! Tacos with guac, cheese, sautéed peppers, cabbage and carrot slaw, etc. are all great combos.
Vitamin C and Iron
Vitamin C helps increase the absorption of iron, so when you pair things like spinach (iron source) with strawberries (vitamin c source), or red peppers (C) and steak (iron), or a glass of OJ with your iron supplement, your body is absorbing more iron than it would if having one of those foods or drinks alone. Citrus marinades for meat are another great way to combine these two.
Interesting, right? No need to worry if some of these foods aren't your favorite or if you would prefer not to pair them together. As a general rule of thumb, when our diet includes a variety of foods and colors, we receive a wide variety of phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
And if you're not sold yet that nutrition is an incredible science and food is truly amazing, subscribe here so you can keep hearing more from me :)