By Rachel Neifeld, RD, CDN
You may know that yogurt, wheat germ, and bananas are all part of a healthy diet, but not many people know that for the probiotics (beneficial bacteria) in yogurt to work, they need inulin- a nondigestible carbohydrate found in foods such as wheat germ and bananas, to help them thrive and multiply. Without these inulin-containing prebiotics, the probiotics in yogurt that keep our immune and digestive systems strong would not work as effectively.
Food synergy is the term that is used to explain this health-boosting interaction that takes place in certain foods and beverages to enhance another’s health benefits. An example of this is found in spinach. Although an extremely nutrient-rich food, much of the bone and muscle-building minerals it contains (iron and calcium) are absorbed quite poorly by our bodies. In order to achieve spinach’s mineral benefits, this dark green leafy must be paired with vitamin C, found in most fruits and vegetables including oranges and tomatoes. By pairing a specific food with another- for example a glass of OJ with your spinach casserole, not only may nutrient absorption be enhanced, but perfectly good nutrients won’t go to waste either.
Many other foods make perfect pairs that go together like peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread. In fact, pb & j itself was meant to be a nutrition duo as the grains in the bread compliment the protein in the peanuts, making this favorite comfort snack an excellent source of protein- just as good as meat! Below are more matches made in food heaven…
Fatten Up Your Salad: By tossing your salad with a couple tablespoons of “good fats” found in foods such as avocado, olive oil, or almonds you can boost your absorption of nutrients such as beta-carotene found in carrots by almost 14 times.
Give your Beans a Squeeze: Flavoring your bean salad with a good source of vitamin C, such as lemon or lime juice, is especially helpful for vegetarians who don’t eat the easily absorbable form of iron (heme iron) found in meat. Vitamin C will help your body to absorb the bean’s less available non-heme iron by up to 2 to 3 times, so toss your beans with some tomato sauce or throw in some broccoli (also high in iron plus vitamin C) to increase absorption. On the other hand, avoid coffee, tea, and wine when striving for iron absorption from plant based sources as compounds called tannins found in these foods interfere with iron absorption.
Make Your Broccoli (Tomato) Saucy: Lycopene, a cancer-fighting substance found in high amounts in cooked tomato products such as ketchup and tomato sauce, has been found to decrease the risk of developing prostate cancer in men. But in a recent study, when paired with broccoli, prostate tumors were found to grow even less. Eating either food alone is great for anyone’s health, but pairing the two together makes a great cancer-fighting team so be sure to combine broccoli and tomatoes in your next stir fry.
Eat a Bulb with a Cluster: The phytochemicals, quercetin, found in onions, and catechin, found in purple grapes, have been shown to work together to help stop platelet clumping which lead to blood clots and subsequent heart attacks. Other food pairs that have the same effect are onions or berries (sources of quercetin) paired with green tea, or grape juice (sources of catechin). An apple is the complete package as it is a good source of both quercetin and catechin but when there’s no apple within reach, combining grapes and berries in a fruit salad will do the anti-clumping trick.
Bone-Up on D: The calcium found in foods such as yogurt, cheese, and sesame seeds won’t strengthen your bones without its nutrition partner, vitamin D. Not only will this combo prevent bone disease but it has been found to also reduce insulin secretion, which may offer protection from type 2 diabetes. Pair foods high in calcium such as sesame seeds and yogurt with vitamin D-rich low mercury fish such as salmon or sardines. To get the recommended daily 2,000 IU of D get 10 minutes of sunlight a day or you may need to take an additional supplement.
A Citrusy Sip: You may know that green tea is an antioxidant superstar containing health-promoting catechins which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. But did you know that you could get an even bigger nutrition bang for your buck by adding just a splash of citrus such as lemon, orange or lime juice? The vitamin C in citrus juice helps to stabilize green tea’s catechins in the gut and increase their absorption into the bloodstream. To pump its’ nutrition benefits to the max, sip a cup with a meal containing onions, berries, or an apple to reduce platelet clumping (as discussed above).
A Sweet Pair: Sweeten up your yogurt with fresh fruit for a faster muscle recovery after a workout. Pairing protein (i.e. yogurt, meat, tofu) with a carbohydrate source, preferably complex carbs such as whole grains or fruits as opposed to simple carbs like white bread, will help the bodies’ blood insulin response, supplying muscles with higher doses of glucose and amino acids to decrease soreness and fatigue. Even better, throw in a banana or wheat germ to enhance yogurt’s probiotic activity while helping to heal your muscles at the same time. Try adding some brown rice to your grilled chicken or tofu and meat sauce to your pasta to be revitalized for your next workout.