6 Healthy Food Combos to Supercharge (and Synergize!) Your Nutrition
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6 Healthy Food Combos to Supercharge (and Synergize!) Your Nutrition

Don't individualize -- synergize! These super-combos, all examples of food synergy, can help you fight cancer, absorb iron, boost your cardiovascular system, and more.

Synergize Your Diet

Dynamic duos have always been a part of our history. Think Batman and Robin. Simon and Garfunkel. Thelma and Louise. Sure, you can watch Batman before Robin dropped into the scene or listen to Paul Simon singing solo, but it's the collaboration that makes each individual truly shine. Its synergy -- the sum of the two is much greater than their individual contributions.

From Superheroes to Superfoods

Food science has taken this two-heads-are-better-than-one idea a step further. "Food synergy" is one of the newest buzzwords in nutrition. It consists of a cast of known healthy foods and the sidekicks that, if eaten together, create an even bigger nutritional bang. Some suggestions -- like combining a high-fat dressing with the healthy greens and veggies in your salad -- might surprise you.

Ready to supercharge your diet? These six food combos will take your kitchen staples to the next level.

Sandwiches, Soy, and Super-Absorbable Iron

The Superfood: Peanut Butter
The Sidekick: Whole Wheat Bread

Synergize! The sandwich you loved as a kid should definitely not be dropped from your adult menu -- it's packed with nutrition. The vitamin E-rich peanuts cram in about seven grams of healthy protein in two tablespoons, the perfect amount to cover a slice of bread. The two already seem made for one another, so it makes sense that they're nutritional complements. Wheat and peanuts both contain essential amino acids, used by the body to make protein. The animo acids wheat lacks, peanuts contain -- and vice versa. So eating wheat and peanuts together makes a so-called "whole food," allowing the body to create complex proteins. Another perfect amino acid combo? The Mexican staple of tortillas and beans.

Make It Healthier: Look for peanut butter with no trans-fat, partially-hydrogenated oil, or added sugar and salt, suggests Steven Pratt, MD, author of Superfoods HealthStyle (HarperCollins, 2006). And don't overlook other nut butters that also make a delicious (and synergistic!) sandwich: try almond, cashew, and soy.

The Superfood: Soybeans
The Sidekick: Orange Juice

Synergize! Soybeans, alongside soy-based products like tofu or miso, are among the highest plant-based sources of iron available. If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, plant-based iron sources are your main source of iron, an essential part of your diet. But in order for your body to actually absorb the wealth of iron found in sources like soy, you need acids to be present in your digestive system. Easy-to-find orange juice fills this role well. "Choosing an acidic food is the best way to enhance non-heme [the iron found in plant sources] absorption," said nutritionist Alice Lindeman, PhD, RD, of Indiana University. "Try juice, tomatoes, or wine, too."

But one beverage to never pair with iron-rich soybeans? Tea. "Anything labeled 'tea leaf' can inhibit iron absorption due to the tannins found in tea -- the brown scum you see in your cup after you've finished drinking," said Lindeman.

Make It Healthier: Don't like soy or soy-based products? Try pumpkin seeds, kidney beans, or black-eyed peas instead. And getting a little more iron into your diet is as easy as choosing the pan you cook in, says Lindeman. "Try cooking spaghetti sauce in an iron skillet -- a little iron from the pan will leak into the sauce," she says. The acidic Vitamin-C rich tomatoes combined with iron from the skillet makes supper perfectly synergized.

Synergized Salads and Cancer-Fighting Veggies

The Superfood: Spinach, Tomatoes, or Carrots
The Sidekick: Extra-Virgin Olive Oil or Canola Oil

Synergize! Each of these superfoods are great on their own, but without a little "good fat," like the monounsaturated fatty acids found in extra-virgin olive oil, your body can't absorb the full nutrient cocktail they offer. The solution? Create a salad -- and don't skimp on the dressing. During a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, volunteers ate a salad combining spinach, romaine lettuce, carrots, and tomatoes topped with Italian dressing containing 0, 6, or 28 grams of canola oil. Blood tests revealed that the highest-fat dressing offered the most absorption of beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and lycopene, all heart-protective, antioxidant-rich carotenoids.

Make It Healthier: Pratt suggests creating your own homemade dressing in order to get the fat component you need without overloading on sodium. He combines extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, ground pepper, Vegit or another salt substitute, and any other herbs or spices for flavor. But don't go overboard, he notes. "Use the dressing sparingly: Don't drench the greens."

The Superfood: Broccoli
The Sidekick: Tomatoes

Synergize! These two crisper drawer favorites are both perfectly nutritious on their own -- but they might be even better eaten together. Nutrient-dense broccoli is a great source of vitamin C, vitamin K, and fiber, while tomatoes pack in vitamin C and lycopene. Broccoli's glucosinolates and the antioxidant lycopene in tomatoes make these foods both known cancer-fighters, too. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Nutrition furthered these foods' cancer-fighting properties, showing that eating a broccoli-tomato combination significantly suppresses prostate tumor growth.

Make It Healthier: Lead researcher John Erdman believes the food synergy he observed isn't limited to tomatoes and broccoli. "This interactivity is likely taking place in any diet high in a variety of plant foods -- fruit, vegetables, and whole grains," Erdman said. So follow his advice! Try multi-combos of foods, like tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, and carrots in a salad drizzled with dressing -- you'll get the cancer-fighting benefits of tomatoes and broccoli, plus extra carotenoid absorption from all the veggies with the help of the dressing.

Tea Time, Snack Time Combos

The Superfood: Green Tea
The Sidekick: Black Pepper

Synergize! Green tea alone has been hailed as a superfood for years, due to its rich array of health-boosting properties and zero-calorie cost. A cup of tea goes well with just about anything -- but paired with black pepper? They're an unlikely match, but here's the catch: Green tea is particularly rich in immunity-boosting flavonoids, especially epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a powerful cancer-fighter. And a 2004 study published in the Journal of Nutrition suggests that eating black pepper at the same time as drinking green tea can increase the amount of EGCG absorbed by your body. The researchers say the synergistic ingredient is the component piperine, which increases the bioavailability (or availability to the body) of the EGCG.

Make It Healthier: So maybe mixing black pepper into your tea doesn't sound too tasty, but try adding a pinch to a meal you're eating with tea, or say 'yes' to the waiter holding a pepper shaker over your salad. It could significantly amp up your health benefits.

The Superfood: Apples
The Sidekick: Grapes

Synergize! Remember the catch-phrase "an apple a day keeps the doctor away"? Try adding a handful of grapes to your crunchy treat, and you may just keep heart disease away. Studies show that these two fruits eaten together make your blood platelets less sticky, making them much less likely to clump together and clog your arteries. Apples contain the quercetin, while grapes contain catechin, both flavonoids, and mixing the two causes a slight anticoagulant effect. This can really help your cardiovascular system, says New York City-based clinical dietician and avid marathoner Jennifer Vimbor.

Make It Healthier: Try another delicious quercetin and catechin-rich food combination: raspberries and red wine. Yum!

Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, February 2006.