By Vanessa Gillis
Snakes and ladders. Batman and Robin. Beer and football. Some things just naturally go together because they bring out the best in one another, and the same applies when it comes to food.
Your bacon and eggs aren’t the same without a tall, refreshing glass of OJ, but what if we told you there was a scientific reason behind your breakfast combo of choice? It’s no secret that different nutrients offer a whole bunch of health benefits, like the immune-boosting power of the vitamin C in your orange juice, but pairing certain ones together can really enhance the nutritional value of your meals, not to mention the flavour.
This process, called food synergy, works in a couple of different ways. Studies have shown that when certain foods are eaten together, they increase the nutritional value and disease-fighting properties of one another. In some cases, the nutrients from one food can also increase the nutrient absorption of the food it is paired with. Abby Langer, a Toronto-based registered dietitian and owner of Abby Langer Nutrition, suggests that most of us are already benefitting from these pairings without even knowing it. For instance, when you enjoy your eggs, which are high in iron, with a side of vitamin C-rich orange juice, you’re probably thinking more about the day ahead than you are about the extra iron-absorption your body is getting. “It’s about knowing which foods to consume together to get the maximum benefit from both,” Langer notes.
Here are some of the best pairings to give your body the nourishment it needs to power through whatever the day throws at you.
Water and Salt
It may seem strange to encourage the consumption of sodium, but if you are active you would be wise to follow this advice. “When you have sodium, you retain more fluid so that you can rehydrate yourself more quickly and urinate less,” explains registered dietitian and sports nutritionist Carrie Mullin Innes. “Also, the sodium increases your drive to drink,” she says, so after a workout it’s best to reach for a snack, like pickles, or meal with sodium. Just make sure you’re choosing whole foods rather than those that are processed and high in fat.
Expert Advice: “Sports drinks have sodium to replace the salt lost through sweat and to increase the retention of fluids,” reveals Mullin Innes.
Tomatoes and Fats
No, we’re not suggesting you should slather your tomato with butter. Instead, go for healthy fats, like those found in olive oil, which help your body absorb the disease-fighting lycopene found in tomatoes and other red produce. To make this pairing even better, Elaine Magee, registered dietitian and author of Food Synergy, recommends keeping the skin on the tomatoes — because this is where many of the phytochemicals and carotenoids are found — and cooking them along with the healthy fat. “Absorption of these key nutrients is much greater when the tomatoes are cooked,” she explains.
Expert Advice: “Pair lycopene-rich watermelon with feta cheese for an awesome salad,” Langer suggests.
Dairy and Vitamin D
Vitamin D allows our bodies to absorb more bone-strengthening calcium, but it can sometimes be difficult to get enough of this nutrient. For Canadians this is especially true, since one of the main sources of vitamin D comes from the sun’s UVB radiation, which is seriously lacking during our long, unforgiving winter months. Luckily, most dairy products, such as milk and cheese, are already fortified with vitamin D.
Expert Advice: Oily fish, such as trout or salmon, are great sources of vaitmin D and healthy fats, so pair them with a spinach or kale salad, both of which are high in calcium, to get the perfect nutrient-packed meal.
Spinach and Strawberries
Popeye had the right idea when it came to his food of choice. Spinach is very high in iron, which is essential for keeping your energy up, but most of us can’t eat as much as this pumped-up sailor. Instead, pair this leafy vegetable with fresh strawberries to help boost your iron reserves. As mentioned earlier, vitamin C increases the absorption of iron in your body, and strawberries are surprisingly high in this vitamin. When you’re throwing together your next salad, be sure to add some fruity goodness to get all the flavour and nutrition you need.
Expert Advice: Try a hearty homemade Bolognese sauce instead of a high-fat, cream-based one. “The vitamin C in the tomatoes really enhances the absorption of the iron in the meat, whether it’s ground turkey, beef, or chicken,” says Mullin Innes. It’s not only a much more nutritious choice, you’ll also be cutting down on the calories.
Garlic and Onions
Garlic, affectionately dubbed the “stinking rose,” is considered one of the healthiest foods and is known to prevent many ailments, from heart conditions to high blood pressure. When paired with onions, Magee says the powerful antioxidants in both foods work together to protect against heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers.
Expert Advice: Garlic and onions are incredibly easy to pair together, as they both add so much depth and flavour to many dishes. If you’re looking to intensify the taste, try crushing or grating your garlic and onion before cooking to release more aroma.