You may not realise, but much of what you eat actually synergises when you’re combining foods. This is known as ‘food synergy’, and that means that combining foods can maximise their health and nutritional benefits. There is a lot of research that shows that certain pairs of combining foods can help you absorb or better use the nutrition found in those foods, but there is plenty we don’t know yet about nutrition. Which is why there are no hard and fast rules, but more a matter of making sure you have a varied diet combining foods that are nutritious and wholesome.
Here are some that you could consider next time you want to pack a punch to your meal. Combining foods certainly is not the most important aspect of your health (in the grand scheme of things, making sure you eat adequate portions of healthy foods is most fundamental), but if you want to make the most of what you’re eating, it doesn’t hurt to combine some of these powerful pairings together.
Pairing beans with wholegrains as complementary proteins.
This is mainly if you are a vegetarian. However we now know that eating complementary proteins throughout the whole day is what is important for protein metabolism; not necessarily in the same meal!).
2. Combining foods high in vitamin C with iron-rich foods
Normally our bodies absorb 1/3 less of the non-haem iron found in plant foods, compared with haem iron in red meat. But combining foods rich in vitamin C (like tomato, orange vinaigrette, capsicum or lemon juice) can help you absorb significantly more iron in non-haem iron like those found in nuts, beans, green leafy vegetables, tofu and wholegrains.
Foods rich in vitamin C (like tomato, orange vinaigrette, capsicum or lemon juice) to help you absorb iron in non-haem iron like those found in nuts, green leafy vegetables, tofu and wholegrains.
Including a small amount of healthy fat (like nuts, olive oil, egg yolk, or avocado) in your meal to facilitate absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (like carotenoids in carrots/pumpkin) and phytochemicals.
4. Garlic and onions with wholegrains and chicken
Adding garlic and onions to your meal can increase the bioavailability of zinc and iron in your wholegrains or chicken.
5. Green leafy vegetables and egg or fish
If you aren’t taking much dairy in your diet, getting as much calcium as you can from green leafy vegetables (like kale), broccoli and tofu is good. Having vitamin D in your meal (e.g. from cheese, egg yolk, or fatty fish) is a good way to help you absorb more calcium.
6. Black pepper and turmeric
You could have curry-flavoured protein with a grind of black pepper to top off your meal. Black pepper helps increase the antioxidant properties of turmeric.
7. Herbs, fruits, acidic marinades and grilled meats
If you love barbecued foods, take note that grilling meat over 190°C produces carcinogens. But when you add antioxidant-rich herbs and spices like chilli, rosemary, thyme, garlic and ginger (especially rosemary), or make the marinade acidic by adding lemon juice or vinegar, it reduces the carcinogenic chemicals produced by 74%. A study also found that adding cherry juice to meat helped to reduce carcinogenic chemicals too. So go on, other than tenderising the meat and adding chockful of flavour, it’s good for you too!
8. Tomatoes and avocados or olive oil
Go ahead, enjoy that bruschetta with an extra drizzle of olive oil! The carotenoid (a fat-soluble vitamin) and lycopene found in tomatoes are better absorbed when combined with a healthy fat. A study found that people who ate salsa with avocado absorbed 4 times the amount of lycopene than when they ate salsa alone. This could also be true for other lycopene-rich foods like watermelon (which tastes awesome with yoghurt by the way! We can choose low-fat instead of skim for this purpose of facilitating the absorption of lycopene).
9. Tomato and broccoli
Another feature of this red superfood! Somehow this pairing helps prevent prostate cancer. One study was able to shrink a large prostate tumour growing on a lab rat by feeding them this Christmas-coloured concoction. The researchers postulate this combo could have cancer-fighting effects beyond just the prostate. Although I might be called out for being weird, I have always loved broccoli added to spag bol!
10. Protein and carbs
This sounds like general healthy balanced meal advice, but there’s a metabolic reason for it too. Combining foods with protein and carbs helps reduce the breakdown and absorption of the carbs. This reduces our blood sugar spike and regulating our insulin levels (which we know can cause diabetes if imbalanced). Yay to having some egg on your sandwich!
11. Have a fruit salad!
Although a research study found that cranberries have the highest antioxidant potential of 11 fruits studied, it was found that there was much higher phytochemical activity when fruits were combined (e.g. apples with cranberries).
12. Chocolate and apples
Sounds delicious already!! When you eat dark chocolate and apple together, it can help boost heart health. Apple skin contains quercetin, and cocoa in dark chocolate is rich in catechins. When combined, they can actually help break up blood clots. Try dipping apples in a dark chocolate fondue: but make sure you leave the skin on the apple, and get a dark chocolate with higher cocoa content and lower sugar!
13. Milk and bananas
Studies have shown that combining foods rich in calcium with high in a type of soluble fibre (inulin), found in bananas, onions and oats, can increase the absorption of this bone-building mineral. Time to power up your blender for a banana smoothie (but leave it chunky to lower the GI)!
14. Oats and berries
Time to super-charge your oats!!! Add a burst of colour and tang to your oats, as a study found that vitamin C added to oat phytochemicals helped amplify their cholesterol-lowering and artery-declogging effects. Although this study was done on hamsters, there’s no reason to refrain from adding these healthy goodies to your grains for their blood sugar-lowering effects too.
Combining Foods is the Way to Go! A Rainbow a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
These are really not hard and fast rules to go by; as there are so many other synergistic combinations of food that can help with your health. That’s why a variety of foods is important, and there is no need to purposely combine foods together as long as you have an appropriate proportion of the food groups. Reap the most benefits with the magic of these synergies.