Synergistic Foods


If you haven’t already heard, supplements are helpful when you are trying to fix a deficiency, but getting nutrients from whole foods is almost always the better way to go. Research suggests that certain combinations of foods interact in a way that improves bioavailability (the extent to which a nutrient can be used by the body). Knowing how to pair synergistic foods will help you reap greater nutritional benefits. Here are 9 of my favorite pairings that deliver a powerhouse of nutrients:

  1. Brown Rice & Beans.I’m from Mexico, so loving rice and beans is in my blood. Both are great sources of fiber (therefore stable energy), vitamin Bs, iron and calcium. Eaten together, they are an awesome source of veggie protein. Since rice is missing the amino acid lysine and beans are missing methionine, they complement each other perfectly. How to cook: I usually cook brown rice with black beans, red onion, chile serrano and tomato. If you feel adventurous, make stuffed bell peppers (as pictured) by adding the mix to hollowed out bell peppers and baking for approximately one hour at 350F. As a finishing touch, serve with avocado and lime.
  2. Dark Greens with a Citrus Twist.Greens, like spinach, kale and arugula (my favorite) are loaded with vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A and C and iron. In order to better absorb iron from vegetarian sources, eat greens with vitamin C. This improves iron absorption in the intestines. I usually add a dash of citrus, either from lemon, lime or tangerine. Some other great sources of vitamin C are strawberries and beets.
  3. Mixed Berries with Greek Yogurt.Berries have one of the highest antioxidant levels of any fruit. When multiple varieties are mixed together (i.e. blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and cranberries), they’ve also shown increased cardiovascular protection. Mixed berries contain powerful phytochemicals: nutrients such as vitamin C, zinc, potassium and magnesium. These nutrients are high in fiber and low in sugar. When combined with low-fat Greek yogurt, they provide a great balance of protein, fat and carbs.
  4. Meat Cooked with Herbs.I love to grill. That said, you have to take certain precautions, especially when it comes to meat. When cooking meats (my go-to is free-range chicken), I always add herbs and spices. This is important, because when meat is cooked over high heat it creates a toxic compound called malondialdehyde, which has been linked to cancer, heart disease and other chronic conditions. By rubbing antioxidant-rich herbs on the meat, such as Herbes de Provence (usually a mix of rosemary, basil, thyme, marjoram, sage and fennel), you can reduce up to 70% of this nasty compound!
  5. Papaya and Pineapple Smoothie (especially after a high-protein meal).Papaya and pineapple are rich in the enzymes papain and bromelain, respectively, which aid in protein digestion. They also have anti-inflammatory benefits and support the immune system. For better taste, mix a little coconut water in with one part papaya and two parts pineapple.
  6. Tomato Salad with Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO).The healthy fat found in olive oil helps absorb the fat-soluble antioxidants and vitamins found in tomatoes (such as lycopene, carotenoids, and vitamin E). These help to improve the skin, eyes and heart. At least 4 grams (~1 tsp) of absorption-boosting monounsaturated fats will do the trick! If you want to change it up, add a little avocado or crushed pistachios for increased absorption. 
  7. Green Tea & Lemon.It’s no secret that green tea is jam-packed with antioxidants, namely epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Studies suggest that green tea can treat everything from cancers to weight loss (though still inconclusive). When you combine it with a little citrus, you can absorb up to 13 times more of the antioxidants than with green tea alone. I would say it’s a worthwhile twist.
  8. Almond Butter on Whole-Wheat Bread.The amino acid missing in whole-wheat bread (lysine) is abundant in almond butter. Spreading a light coat of almond butter on whole-wheat bread is the perfect match (and a perfect snack)! Add a little honey to satisfy your sweet tooth. 
  9. Turmeric & Black Pepper. Turmeric, the gold/orange spice typically used in Indian cuisine, purportedly protects against the development of diabetes, reduces the risk of certain cancers (including breast and leukemia), possesses anti-inflammatory properties and even aids with weight loss! To improve absorption of the dominant compound in turmeric, combine it with black pepper. So next time you eat curry, be sure to add a sprinkle of black pepper.

What’s your favorite food combo?

Written by Alanna Cabrero, MS, RD 

Originally posted on NYHRC Tumblr

Picture by Diana House. Available on Flickr.

Edited by TCabrarr.

Food synergy: an operational concept for understanding nutrition. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Food Synergy: 13 Anti-Aging Power Pairs. More.

Food Synergy: 8 Healthy Food Pairings That Are Even Better Together. Huffpost Healthy Living.