If you look at dietary advice, our approach to nutrition and supplementation is incredibly linear— we receive blood test results that indicate we have a calcium deficiency, so we start taking a calcium supplement. We’re told we need more vitamin C and, instead of grabbing an orange, we reach for a vitamin C tablet. In theory, this seems appropriate.
In practice, eating for optimized nutrition can feel like a cacophony of deafening noise— an orchestra that is ostensibly out of tune. Too often we’re told, “Eat this, don’t eat that—and only within this timeframe.” However, if we tune out the noise, we’d realize that the process is really very simple.
When it comes to food, the whole is nearly always greater than the sum of its parts. Often, our bodies absorb and metabolize nutrients from whole foods much more efficiently and effectively than nutrients singularly isolated in vitamins and pills. Recognized as “food synergy,” nutrients from food are absorbed together, and work synergistically to produce balanced health benefits that far exceed the merits of a nutrient on its own.
Think of food synergy like an orchestra. The concert doesn’t work with one violin (a nutrient). And the main conductor (your cells) makes the best music with a full band. Each individual in the orchestra harmonizes together to create a beautiful production. Alone, it falls flat.
Have you ever noticed that in certain cultures, foods are eaten together or in a sequential order? Take the spice turmeric— a staple in Indian cuisine for thousands of years. Turmeric is extremely rich in curcumin, a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound with over 320 clinical studies behind it. Now let’s look at black pepper: Piperine, the bioactive compound in black pepper, increases the bioavailability of curcumin in the body by up to 2,000%, making the two spices a synergistic match. No wonder you’ll find the combination of turmeric and black pepper in many Indian dishes.
Even our modern diets reflect our ageless wisdom and our subconscious craving for food synergy. Think of, for instance, the ubiquitous #avocadotoast. While seemingly simple, its enduring appeal lies in that it’s a blank canvas just waiting to be painted with a kaleidoscopic blend of assorted ingredients. Top your avocado toast with sliced tomatoes, and you’ll elevate your breakfast from just trendy to a nutritional powerhouse. That’s because the vitamin E in avocados helps the body absorb lycopene, a powerful antioxidant in tomatoes. While these foods are often paired together because they simply taste delicious, the fact that they make you feel good, too, inadvertently reinforces the magic duo.
Though it may seem plausible to run to the store and grab a vitamin E and lycopene supplement to replace your avocado toast, in reality it doesn’t quite work. When you buy a vitamin E supplement, you’re consuming an isolated (and often synthetic) compound. Even if you combine it with a lycopene supplement, you’re still missing out on compounds found in actual food that are vitally important to our health.
All of this brings us to the last, critical component of food synergy science: phytochemicals. You can think of them as the orchestra’s (food synergy’s) stage crew. Phytochemicals help make sure the show runs to its full potential. From set-up to stage lights, they take the performance from ordinary to extraordinary. Many of these are known and identified—lycopene, curcumin, and piperine are all phytochemicals. But just as some aspects of the stage crew aren’t seen on the stage, some remain unknown. This means that they’d never make it into a pill, and the combinations in which they might work when you combine foods into meals remain a mystery.
Food synergy nutrition is the intentional combination of certain whole foods to combine and take advantage of their complex nutritional power—from vitamins to phytochemicals—in order to promote good health. Ready to try out some food synergy nutritional concepts on your own? Here are a few strong ways you can get started:
Green tea with lemon: A teaspoon or two of lemon juice to your tea is more than just delicious—it can also help you fight cancer. Green tea is full of a substance called catechins, which help reduce your risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and high cholesterol while also boosting immunity. By adding lemon juice, you can improve your body’s utilization of catechins by more than five times.
Tomatoes and olive oil: Is there a more delicious and flavorful combination than tomatoes and olive oil? Tomato skin is packed with powerful phytochemicals and carotenoids, and your body’s ability to absorb these nutrients is significantly improved when the tomatoes are cooked and combined with a healthy fat, like olive oil.
Dark chocolate and apples: We probably don’t need to beg you to add a little more dark chocolate to your diet, but in this case, make sure it's at least 70 percent cacao. Dark chocolate, like green tea, is rich in catechins, and apples contain a substance called quercetin that has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. Combining catechins and quercetins helps to protect against heart disease and cancer by inhibiting the adherence of platelets to collagen.
Oatmeal and blueberries: Blueberries are certainly a superfood in their own right, as they’re packed with vitamin C, fiber, and manganese—as well as a substance called ellagic acid that can help prevent certain cancers. Oatmeal, for its part, boasts heart health benefits thanks to phytochemicals that prevent free radicals from promoting plaque buildup in the arteries. When combined, oatmeal and blueberries work together to further decrease the likelihood of plaque buildup, reducing the risk of heart disease.
Garlic and fish: If you seasoned your fish with garlic the last time you cooked it, you likely helped lower your cholesterol! Fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, protein, and selenium have been shown to help lower triglycerides and blood pressure. When consumed with garlic, these nutritional benefits are expanded.
Spinach and lemon: Have you tried adding a lemon dressing or lemon juice to your spinach lately? You should, because while spinach is chock-full of plant-based iron, it can be difficult for the body to absorb without a little assistance from vitamin C. Lemons or any fruit high in vitamin C—strawberries are also a salad-friendly pick—help your body to convert the plant-based iron in spinach into a more usable form.
Rosemary and grilled meat: Did you know that charring meat over an open flame can cause the production of carcinogens or cancer-causing agents? It’s true. Carcinogens can form in meat when it’s cooked at a high temperature, and burnt or charred pieces of meat deliver these carcinogens in their purest forms. Adding rosemary to your meat can actually prevent the development of these dangerous carcinogens because the antioxidants contained in rosemary stop the carcinogens from forming in the first place. You don’t have to use a lot, and rosemary extract is just as effective.
There are so many opportunities to get to know yourself better from a health and well-being perspective. Becoming an expert at your body doesn't just set you up for good physical health, it's also empowering because it helps you see the pieces of how everything fits together—and that, in turn, puts you in control of your health experience. When you learn where to focus, you head towards your healthiest self.
Originally published at dailygem.co.
Sara Cullen is the founder of GEM, a consumer health company investing in plant-based innovations to deliver better-for-you nutrient solutions—starting with a line of natural alternatives to the supplement aisle.