Food Synergy: Why Nutrients are Stronger Together

Nutrients, just like us humans, work better together. What does this mean exactly? It’s a little thing called: Food synergy — when nutrients complement one another and have a profoundly greater effect on our health and well-being. The more natural and unadulterated nutrients are, in the form of whole foods, is the key to a healthy diet.

Though nutrition scientists have been preaching about individual nutrients and their respective impact on preventing chronic disease, more recent observations are starting to show that when isolated, nutrients may not be as powerful as we originally thought. Isolated nutrients (think supplements) don’t appear to protect against disease as effectively as the whole foods they come from.

food synergy

Bioavailability, come again?

Bioavailability is the proportion of a nutrient that the human body can absorb and use. Just because we consume foods or supplements, doesn’t mean that we will absorb 100% of the nutrients. Food combinations, processing, and cooking all influence how well nutrients will be absorbed.

Nutrient absorption, use, and retention in the body can also vary according to our specific needs. For instance, a woman who is menstruating will absorb much more iron in comparison to a man. A child whose bones are growing will absorb much more calcium than an adult. This absorption rate can also vary according to age, sex, amount of nutrients in the body, current health, and digestive wellness. External factors such as medication or alcohol consumption, even level of stress, can impact how nutrients are ingested.

Eating food as close to their purest form as possible is our best bet when trying to improve health and prevent disease. So rather than getting your nutrients from supplements, aim to get them from whole foods. Learn which foods are a match made in health-heaven and which nutrients fight for their right to be absorbed.

food synergy

Love at first bite

The following power pairs work well together to make our bodies feel divine. Having them both in the same meal will boost their respective absorption.

Our families and distant ancestors instinctually knew a few things or two, as many regional foods and classic local recipes naturally contain synergistic food pairings. Reading through these food pairings, think about what cuisines come to mind. Hint: Mediterranean diet.

food synergy

Nonheme iron and vitamin C

Nonheme iron, which is the type that comes from plant foods, is not as readily absorbed as iron from animal sources. Iron is essential for the transport of oxygen to every cell in the body. Without enough of it, fatigue, low immune system, and shortness of breath can occur. Having plant-based iron and vitamin C together will help increase absorption.

  • Nonheme iron: Grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds
  • Vitamin C: Orange, lemon, bell pepper, tomato, leafy greens

Vitamin A or lycopene and fats

Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant that helps fight cell damage and supports eye, bone, and skin health. Lycopene is a potent antioxidant that can decrease our risk of cancer. As both are fat soluble, they require fat, to be absorbed by the body.

  • Vitamin A: Dairy, sweet potato, squash, kale, spinach, apricot, cantaloupe
  • Healthy fats: Avocado, olive, oil, nuts, seeds, fatty fish

Vitamin D and calcium

Calcium is known as the bone-building and strengthening nutrient, but is only truly effective with the help of vitamin D. Vitamin D aids calcium absorption.

  • Vitamin D: Eggs, mushrooms, fortified milk
  • Calcium: Dairy products, almonds, kidney beans, sardines, canned salmon and tofu

Vitamins B6, B12 and Folate

This family of B vitamins synergistically work together to reduce levels of homocysteine, an amino acid which, when high, significantly increases the risk of heart disease.

  • Vitamin B6: Rice, beans, lentils, poultry, seeds
  • Vitamin B12: Beef, fish and seafood, poultry, dairy, and nutritional yeast
  • Folate: Asparagus, avocado, broccoli, whole grains, nuts, and seeds

Too close for comfort

Sometimes some substances in foods interfere with the body’s uptake of vitamins and minerals. Oxalates and phytates, known as anti-nutrients compete, with iron and calcium. They don’t completely block them, but rather limit the amount that your body receives.

Oxalates, found in dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and beet greens can actually compete with iron and calcium. Phytates, which are found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils bind to minerals in the gut before they are absorbed. They can also slightly reduce the digestibility of starches, proteins, and fats. Soaking, fermenting, and sprouting can all decrease can all decrease these anti-nutrients.

Nerd alert!
Leavening bread helps counteract the blocking effect of phytates and increases bioavailability.

8fit recipes with synergistic effects

Chickpea & chard hash

food synergy

Calling all you legume lovers and plant-based eaters out there. These recipes contain non-heme iron in the chickpeas paired with vitamin C rich lemon juice for an iron-rich meal.

Sweet potato toast with avocado & tuna

food synergy

All nutrients on board this sweet potato toast ship. Sweet potato is rich in vitamin A and will find it’s smooth sailing when captain healthy fat in the form of avocado joins the crew.

Turmeric latte with pistachios

food synergy

Time to spice up your life. Adding even a pinch of black pepper can increase the bioavailability of turmeric by 2000%. This classic recipe is an anti-inflammatory home run.

Pasta Primavera

food synergy

Did you say pasta? Yes, please! The combination of tomato and broccoli can help boost the cancer-preventing properties of lycopene. Plus pasta, people — pasta!

Find these synergistically satisfying recipes on the 8fit app.