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Sure, you think you know all about food synergy. Chocolate and strawberries. Pancakes and syrup. Bacon and eggs. They all go together like Thelma and Louise. But the best hookups don’t just taste great when working in unison—they also amplify each other’s nutritional benefits.
That’s real food synergy: when the benefits of two or more foods eaten together are greater than the sum of their parts. It’s one reason why research suggests that when nutrients like vitamin E and calcium are taken in isolation, they don’t have the same protective powers as when they’re consumed from a mixture of whole foods. Nutrients and antioxidants shouldn’t necessarily take a solo adventure to improve our health. Instead, they seem to perform better when set free to mingle.
While researchers haven’t even begun to untangle all the super combinations available, these good-chemistry eats and sips can pack outsized benefits through food synergy.
1. Kale + Avocado
Dark, leafy greens are already nutritional heavy hitters, but if you really want to reap their rewards, make sure to fatten them up. Research in the Journal of Nutrition demonstrates that consuming foods that are good sources of beta-carotene (think kale, tomatoes, carrots, and sweet potatoes) with a dietary source of fat such as avocado can boost how much beta-carotene our bodies can absorb and convert into vitamin A. Since beta-carotene is a fat-soluble compound, it makes sense that pairing it with some fatty acids would help us soak more up—and that means higher levels of vitamin A for better immune and eye health.
Other studies have found that fats from everything from peanut butter to egg to soybean oil can bolster absorption rates of a range of veg-sourced carotenoids including alpha-carotene, lutein, and lycopene. These potent antioxidants help combat cell-damaging free radicals for healthier aging, so any dietary measure we can take to soak up more is worth striving for.
The upshot is that whenever you have colorful veggies on your plate, create some beneficial food synergy by fattening them up with partners such as olive oil, avocado, nuts, or seeds. One study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that essentially no carotenoid antioxidants were absorbed from salads dressed with fat-free dressing.
2. Chickpeas + Rice
Going more plant-based these days? Well, if legumes such as chickpeas could speak, they would say to whole grains, “You complete me.” As reported in the Journal of Nutrition, the quality of protein in a plant-based meal increases when chickpeas are consumed in the presence of rice as opposed to consuming the plant protein by itself. Why? You guessed it. Food synergy.
Legumes are naturally low in the essential amino acid methionine, and anti-nutritional factors in chickpeas can also impact methionine bioavailability in the body. On the flipside, rice contains higher amounts of methionine that is more bioavailable. So when the two are teamed up, the result is a meal with higher protein quality. Other pulse-grain combos such as kidney beans and quinoa or lentils and millet should perform together equally well.
3. Salmon + Potato
Sure, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But if you exercise regularly, there’s another feast deserving of front-page news—the one you eat post-workout. Science has shown that consuming carbohydrates and protein shortly after a hard workout speeds recovery, reduces soreness, and can even prevent a drop in immunity. This synergistic effect is attributed to setting up an environment of higher insulin levels circulating in your blood, which allows your muscles to bring in more precious repair items.
You want about 30 grams of protein and 60–90 grams of carbs in your post-workout repast, which can come from combos such as salmon and roasted potatoes, pasta with meat sauce, or chicken and rice.
4. Turmeric + Black Pepper
From cinnamon to cumin to cloves, spices are increasingly being lauded for their health-boosting powers. But science shows that spices can work even harder for us if they don’t fly solo. For instance, while turmeric is being studied for its anti-inflammatory prowess, we don’t absorb its main bioactive compound, curcumin, very well. The good news is that a chemical found in black pepper called piperine can greatly bolster our ability to take up curcumin, creating a dynamic food synergy duo.
More proof two heads are better than one: pairing capsaicin (the phytochemical that gives chili powder and cayenne their fiery kick) with gingerol (found in ginger) may have some cancer-fighting properties that are greater than when either is consumed on their own. So when you’re making dishes like soups, chili, stews, and oatmeal, remember to reach for more than one spice jar.
5. Yogurt + Pumpkin Seeds
From lowering the risk for heart disease to bolstering brain function to even improving survival rates from Covid-19, vitamin D does it all. But you can’t get the most out of this nutrient if you’re not getting enough magnesium from whole-food sources such as pumpkin seeds, whole grains, nuts, cacao, and legumes. We now have evidence that one of the functions of magnesium is to regulate vitamin D in our bodies by playing a role in vitamin D synthesis and its metabolic pathways. So even if you eat plenty of vitamin D from yogurt, fatty fish, eggs, and UV-exposed mushrooms—or take a daily supplement—you won’t get the full health benefits without a synergistic dose of magnesium. So, indeed, a bowl of yogurt (make sure it’s vitamin D-fortified) sprinkled with crunchy pumpkin seeds makes a super food synergy snack.
6. Green Tea + Lemon
Packed with health-boosting antioxidants, green tea is one of the healthiest drinks you can sip on. And it turns out you can make green tea even more of an antioxidant powerhouse by adding a squirt of lemon. Research conducted at Purdue University shows that citrus juice can increase the amount of the antioxidants in the ancient beverage that are available for the body to absorb by up to fivefold. The abundance of vitamin C in lemon and other sun-kissed citrus might be the key to this perk.
7. Beans + Bell Pepper
Vital to transporting oxygen throughout the body, iron is one of the most important minerals in our diets. Of course, a hunk of steak is a stellar source, but you can also get iron from plant-based foods such as beans, lentils, tofu, fortified cereals, spinach, and some whole grains. But there’s a catch: only 2 percent to 20 percent of the iron found in plant foods, called non-heme iron, makes its way from your digestive tract into your blood. But Mother Nature has provided an assist in the form of food synergy.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) converts plant-based iron into a form that is more readily absorbed. That’s why a study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that women who ate iron-fortified cereal with kiwi fruit, which is especially rich in vitamin C, were able to raise their iron levels. Other vitamin C-rich foods include bell peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, citrus fruits, and berries. That makes it a good idea to load up a pot of chili with chopped peppers and toss some tomatoes, or even sweet berries, into lentil salads.
Not all foods and drinks are a dream team. Time to divorce these couples that don’t play nice together.
Tea and Milk
A study in the European Heart Journal suggests that you shouldn’t follow the lead of the Brits and spike your tea with milk. Scientists discovered that adding moo juice to tea blunted its cardiovascular benefits. Casein protein in milk may bind up antioxidants in tea, rendering them less available for absorption. Milk may also inhibit tea’s ability to activate a special gene in the body that helps to open blood vessels.
Coffee and Oats
You may not want to chase a bowl of oatmeal with a cup of Joe. Certain polyphenol compounds in coffee can hamper the body’s ability to absorb iron from plant sources such as grains and legumes. Ditto for black tea. Ideally, you want to wait at least one hour after consuming plant-based iron before drinking coffee or tea. The same inhibitory effect doesn’t apply to iron in animal-based foods such as beef.
White Bread and Jam
If you’re going to include refined grains and sugary foods in your diet, it’s best to separate them. That’s because when you combine two or more foods that each have a high glycemic index, your blood sugar will likely soar. What often follows is a sudden sugar drop that can leave you feeling tired and moody. And over time, these spikes in blood sugar brought on by eating too many poor carbs can lead to metabolic conditions such as diabetes.