Nutrient Synergy: optimizing nutrition

how do we receive most of our nutrition?

Today, it is particularly common to find processed foods enriched (contains greater amounts of a nutrient than it does naturally) or fortified (contains a nutrient that it doesn't naturally) with nutrients. Fulfilling a good intention, this initiative has been hugely helpful in improving the nutrient profile most people receive daily. However, the biology of our bodies prompts several contingencies for nutrient absorption, lessening the impact of these actions.

The body is tricky

It would be convenient if every molecule comprising the food we eat was brought to our tissues with ease, but this is not so. Take calcium, the reason your mother told you to drink milk to keep your bones strong. This is sage advice, but it's important to know that calcium needs vitamin D (produced in the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight) in order to be absorbed. Moreover, vitamin D needs fat in order to be absorbed. Suddenly, your fat free milk isn't doing a great service for all of your efforts. This is an excellent example of nutrient synergy-the phenomenon of nutrients functioning better when they're together. At the end of the day, this phenomenon points to a diet of a variety of whole foods as nature's best and most time-tested intention. 

Nature's main menu 

It's not a coincidence that certain iconic food pairings are so delicious-there is nutrient synergy happening behind the scenes. Here are some examples of nutrient synergy & their food counterparts:

  • Vitamin C & iron: including a source of vitamin C with plant sources of iron increases iron absorption six fold
    • Black beans and lime (are you thinking about Chipotle or is that just me?) 
    • Black beans and red pepper 
    • Orange juice and oatmeal 
    • Citrus and greens (kale, spinach, etc.)
  • Vitamins & fat: Vitamins A, D, E & K all require fat to be absorbed
    • Sweet potato (vitamin A) and olive oil (sweet potato fries, mmm!)
    • Tomatoes (vitamin C) and guacamole 
    • Brussel sprouts (vitamin K) and olive oil (don't knock it 'til you try it!) 
    • Kale (vitamins C & K) and almonds
  • Antioxidants
    • Lycopene: a cancer-fighting antioxidant found in tomatoes is better absorbed with fat:
      • Tomatoes and guacamole 
    • Lycopene & other antioxidants: when interacting with other antioxidants, the collective efficiency is greater.
      • Tomatoes & broccoli: each contains antioxidants in the form of lycopene, vitamin A and C (in tomatoes) and beta-carotene and indoles (in broccoli). Together, these foods create serious antioxidant synergy. 
  • Complete proteins: certain foods provide amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that when combined with another amino acids are complete and able to be used in the body .
    • Peanut butter and whole grains (your PB&J) 
    • Rice and beans 
  • Turmeric & black pepper:
    • Curcumin, the anti-inflammatory compound in turmeric, becomes biologically available in the presence of peperine, the primary compound in black pepper. 
      • Ever looked at the ingredients in curry

processed & fortified or whole foods?

While our body's biology dictates specific pathways for the absorption and function nutrients, whole foods cleverly provide exactly what the body needs. Eating a variety of whole foods is a delicious way to choose the health, happiness and harmony of your body and the earth.