People often ask me if there are certain foods that they should – or shouldn’t – eat at the same time. Some people have heard, for example, that “if you don’t eat proteins and carbs at the same meal, you’ll lose weight” – but a study published about ten years ago1 debunked that idea. On the other hand, there is another concept around ‘food combining’– sometimes called food synergy – which recognizes that certain foods offer bit more nutritional benefit when eaten together than if you eat them separately. Think of it as a nutritional ‘one and one makes three’.
- Colorful veggies with a little fat. Many fruits and vegetables contain compounds called carotenoids – natural pigments that give foods like tomatoes, carrots and spinach their beautiful hues – from the pigments lycopene, beta-carotene and lutein, respectively. Carotenoids function as antioxidants in the body, which is one reason why fruits and vegetables are such an important part of a healthy diet. But if you eat your veggies with a little bit of fat, your body is able to take up more carotenoids. So adding some healthy fat from avocado or olive oil to your salad will help you absorb the lutein from the romaine lettuce, the beta-carotene from the carrots, and the lycopene from the tomatoes.
- Vitamin C with iron-containing veggies and grains. Iron comes in two different forms in foods. One form – called ‘heme’ iron – is found in fish, meat and poultry and is more easily absorbed by the body than the so-called ‘non-heme’ iron found in certain veggies and grains. But when you take in some vitamin C along with a source of non-heme iron, your body will absorb the iron better. And it doesn’t take much – the amount of vitamin C in one orange or one tomato can nearly triple iron absorption. So, tomatoes in your chili will help you absorb the iron in the beans; strawberries will help you take up the iron in your cereal; and the iron in spinach will be better absorbed if you toss some orange or grapefruit wedges into your spinach salad.
- Lemon and green tea. Green tea naturally contains some unique beneficial phytonutrients called catechins, which act as antioxidants in the body, and help protect the body’s cells and tissues from oxidative damage. When you add lemon to your green tea, the vitamin C helps your body absorb these beneficial compounds. If you don’t like lemon in your tea, have a vitamin-C rich fruit along with your brew, like a bowl of berries or a sliced orange*.
- Fish and leafy greens. When you drink milk that’s fortified with Vitamin D – as is nearly all the milk sold in the US – the vitamin D helps your body absorb the calcium in the milk. But there’s another great way to pair these two nutrients – fish and veggies. Fatty fish, like salmon and mackerel, provide vitamin D, and leafy greens like turnip greens, mustard greens and kale, provide calcium. Pairing the two will help your body take up the calcium in the veggies.
- Mixtures of plant foods. Plant foods – including fruits, veggies and beans – are some of the best sources of antioxidants around. But the antioxidant benefit is enhanced when you eat mixtures of foods, rather than eating them by themselves. A mixture of oranges, apples, grapes and blueberries has been shown to have a higher antioxidant capacity than an equivalent amount of each fruit eaten individually, and one study3 has shown that to boost antioxidant effectiveness, the best food pairings are beans with fruits, followed by vegetables with fruits.
* Herbalife markets tea products containing green tea ingredients, including Herbal Tea Concentrate, which claim antioxidant benefit. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.