Perfect Pairings: Food Combinations with a Nutritional Boost

by Katelyn Castro

Pooh and Piglet, Batman and Robin, Nemo and Dory. These classic duos bring out the best in one another. They’re good characters on their own, but they’re just naturally better together, complementing each other’s personalities.

Surprisingly, the same holds true for some food pairs. Combining certain foods may not only taste better, but it may also provide greater nutritional benefits than when eaten separately. Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients in foods can interact synergistically to enhance their absorption and utilization in the body, allowing you to get the most health benefits from your food.

The concept of food synergy has been studied for several years, but researchers continue to uncover nutrient combinations that work together to impact health and risk of disease. Here are five pairs of nutrients proven to have synergistic effects, providing the greatest health benefits when eaten together:

  1. Iron + Vitamin C = More Energy

While iron has many functions in the body, one of its most essential roles is the synthesis of hemoglobin, which helps deliver oxygen to muscles and other tissues in our body. When we don’t get enough iron from food, the first signs of deficiency can leave you feeling tired and weak. No one wants to feel this way!

But, meeting your iron needs isn’t as simple as reading a food label because iron is absorbed and utilized in the body differently depending on the food source. Approximately 16% of iron is absorbed from animal sources (heme iron: oysters, liver, chicken), only about 8% of iron is absorbed from plant sources (non-heme iron: grains, beans, leafy greens), according to research. The differences in iron absorption can be of concern to vegetarians, who may need up to two times the recommended iron.

Enter Vitamin C: Studies have found that when Vitamin C is combined with non-heme iron, a compound forms that makes iron more easily absorbed in the body. If you’re a vegetarian or eat mostly plant-based foods, adding as little as 25 milligrams of vitamin C to your meals could double the amount of iron absorbed in your body.

Food Pairings to Try:

  1. Calcium + Vitamin D = Strong Bones and Teeth

Calcium is known for its bone-strengthening benefits but without enough Vitamin D, calcium cannot be absorbed or used efficiently in the body. Unfortunately, over 40% of adults in the U.S. are Vitamin D deficient, according to research from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

While 10 minutes of direct sunlight each day is all you need in the summer to get enough Vitamin D, the sun’s rays are not strong enough to meet your Vitamin D needs during the winter months. Instead, incorporate Vitamin D-rich foods into your meals and with calcium-rich foods so that calcium can be absorbed and utilized adequately in the body. While some calcium-rich foods are already fortified with Vitamin D (milk, orange juice, yogurt), other calcium-rich foods need to be combined with Vitamin D sources to enhance calcium absorption.

Food Pairings to Try:

  1. Fat Soluble Vitamins (A, D, E, K) + Unsaturated Fat = Healthy Heart, Skin, and Eyes

One of the reasons we need healthy, unsaturated fat in our diet is to enhance absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K). Vitamin A supports healthy skin maintenance; Vitamin D aids in calcium absorption and hormone synthesis; Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant and promotes eye and heart health; and Vitamin K improves bone and heart health.

Eating foods rich in Vitamin A (carrots, broccoli, peppers, tomatoes), Vitamin D (fish, yogurt, milk), Vitamin E (nuts, seeds, avocadoes, leafy greens) and Vitamin K (leafy greens, Brussels sprouts) with unsaturated fats (nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado) can significantly enhance the absorption of the vitamins and their health benefits.

Food Pairings to Try:

  1. Herb and Wine Marinades + Meat = Cancer Protection

When meats are cooked at high temperatures during grilling, broiling, or frying, the amino acids and creatine in meats can react to form heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Since HCAs and PAHs have been linked to cancer growth and damage DNA in laboratory studies, preparations methods that reduce these potentially harmful substances from being produced are recommended.

According to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, marinating meats in wine for two hours prior to cooking could significantly reduce HCAs. In addition, a study from Kansas State University found that rubbing rosemary onto meats before grilling might reduce HCA levels by up to 100%. Other herbs such as garlic, basil, mint, sage, and oregano could offer similar benefits, according to researchers. The protective benefit of adding herbs and wine to meat marinades is likely attributed to their high antioxidant content, which can block HCAs from forming during heating.

Food Pairings to Try:

  1. Prebiotics + Probiotics = Healthy Digestion and Immunity

Prebiotics are natural, non-digestible food components that promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. Bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, soybeans, and whole-wheat foods are some of the top sources of prebiotics.

In contrast, probiotics are the healthy bacteria or live cultures that help to change the intestinal bacteria and balance gut flora. Sources of probiotics range from dairy foods such as yogurt and kefir to sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and soy beverages.

Research is beginning to identify the important synergistic relationship between prebiotics and probiotics in which prebiotics feed the probiotics. A recent study suggests that combining prebiotic and probiotic foods in the diet may boost immunity and gastro-intestinal health by increasing the production of antibodies and other immune-fighting cells and promoting mucous production and intestinal integrity.

Food Pairings to Try:

Katelyn Castro is a first-year student in the DI/MS Nutrition Program at the Friedman School. She is a food science geek who loves experimenting with new food combinations in the kitchen.

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