How to Eat for Max Nutrition

Credit: Yagi Studio/Getty Images

RRice and beans, guacamole and salsa, olive oil and tomatoes: Traditional food pairings that date back thousands of years may seem like simple culinary staples, but to food researchers, they’re prime examples of food combinations that promote maximum nutrition.

“Modern science shows us some amazing things with food pairings,” says Wendy Bazilian, a dietitian and doctor of public health.

Eating certain foods together can enhance vitamin absorption, help the body get the nutrients it needs, and heal and rebuild muscle after exercise. Take the Italian staple of Caprese salad: The healthy fats in olive oil can increase how well the body absorbs the carotenoids — powerful plant nutrients — in tomatoes.

Learning how to pair food for the greatest nutritional punch is by no means a prerequisite to healthy eating. Much of the magic happens naturally through consuming a balanced, varied, nutrient-dense diet, says Bazilian.

That said, if you want to amp up the nutrition on your plate, these five food pairings have science behind them, delivering even more nutrients, vitamins, and minerals than if you broke them apart.

1. Dark leafy greens with olive oil or fish

Fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins that are best absorbed in the body if they are eaten with high-fat foods. These include vitamin A (found in kale, carrots, and spinach), vitamin D (found in fatty fish), vitamin E (sources include sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, and almonds), and vitamin K (like in kale and spinach).

If kale is eaten with an olive oil dressing or a piece of fatty salmon, the body will better absorb the nutrients in the kale — specifically vitamins A and K, says Rasa Troup, a dietitian who specializes in performance nutrition.

“There’s a synergy that happens where healthy fats like avocados or olive oil increase the absorption of carotenoids,” agrees Bazilian.

Some studies have found avocados, which are also high in fat, help the absorption of carotenoids in leafy greens by 400%, and research out of Purdue University found that a colorful, vegetable-rich salad with an egg on it increased absorption of carotenoids by three to eight times.

Some foods do all the work for you. Almonds, for example, naturally contain a fat-soluble vitamin (E) and healthy fats all in one nut.

Eating certain foods together can enhance vitamin absorption, help the body get the nutrients it needs, and heal and rebuild muscle after exercise.

2. Turkey with toast or an apple with peanut butter (after exercise)

Research shows that eating a snack that combines carbohydrates and protein after a workout helps replenish glycogen — the storage of carbohydrates in the liver — and repair and rebuild muscle post-exercise, says Bazilian.

Here’s why: Exercise creates a stress response in the body, taxing the muscles and breaking them down. Protein helps rebuild muscle. Exercise also depletes glycogen, which also helps muscles recover, and carbs help replace what’s lost, explains Troup.

Traditionally, it’s thought that protein is the key nutrient needed for muscle building and repair, but the two nutrients actually work synergistically, Bazilian says. Without enough carbs post-exercise, the body might divert protein to other bodily tasks, like energy production, rather than muscle building.

3. Fatty fish and cheese

Calcium might help your body build strong bones, but it can’t reach its full potential without vitamin D. Found in foods like salmon, vitamin D is what allows the body to absorb calcium, which is present in many dairy foods, including milk, yogurt, and cheese. Eating the two together leads to better absorption of calcium, and hopefully stronger bones in the future.

4. Spinach with citrus fruit

Iron is better absorbed in the body when it comes from animal sources (red meat, for example).

The reason for that is still not completely understood, says Bazilian.

Plant-based forms of iron, on the other hand, aren’t absorbed as well in the body, which is something to keep in mind for people who eat vegetarian or mostly plant-based. Compounds called polyphenols, present in many plant-based foods, can inhibit the absorption, and plant-based iron needs to be unbound from the plant, Bazilian explains. Fortunately, the vitamin C in foods such as kiwis, oranges, and mangos works to convert iron into a form that’s more easily absorbed by the body, Troup explains. People who avoid meat and still want to get enough iron may want to consider a fruit and vegetable salad.

5. Green tea with a slice of lemon

Vitamin C, which is found in citrus foods such as lemon and orange, can enhance the availability of health-promoting micronutrients called catechins in green tea. Long studied for their antioxidant-rich and disease-fighting properties, catechins have been shown to play a role in everything from metabolism to heart health and brain function. Quercetin, a compound found in fruits such as apples and berries, increased the absorption of green tea antioxidants, in one University of California, Los Angeles, study.

Cassie Shortsleeve is a Boston-based writer. Her work has been published in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Shape, + other publications. Follow her @cshortsleeve.

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