Batman and Robin, Thelma and Louise, Brad and Angelina. Some pairs are just meant to be. The same holds true for various foods. Over the past few decades, nutrition scientists have produced a dizzying amount of data on the healing powers of individual food components such as lycopene, vitamin D and omega fatty acids. Lately, however, the white coats are catching on that such molecular marvels often have an even stronger impact when they’re not working alone.
Food synergy occurs when individual components within foods work together in the body to maximize health and training benefits. Iron-rich lentils get a boost from a dash of lemon. As a duo, spinach and blueberries make muscles work better. It’s like adding one plus one and getting four: The total is greater than the sum of the parts. To get more nutritional bang from your meals and snacks, pair up these power foods:
Avocado and Kale
You may want to bid adieu to those bland (and often sugar-infused) fat-free salad dressings. A 2012 study by scientists at Purdue University determined that pairing a vegetable salad with a source of fat bolsters our absorption of important fat-soluble antioxidant carotenoids such as beta-carotene in carrots, lycopene in tomatoes and eye-protecting lutein in dark, leafy greens like spinach, kale and Swiss chard (Goltz et al. 2012). The researchers also found that monounsaturated fat was the most effective form of fat for increasing uptake. So gussy up salads with monounsaturated-rich foods like avocados, extra-virgin olive oil or a sprinkling of nuts.
Cereal and Low-Fat Milk
Comfort food may promote better exercise recovery, say researchers at the University of Texas, Austin. The investigators found that subjects who consumed whole-grain cereal with skim milk after a bout of moderate-intensity exercise experienced a boost in muscle glycogen (the main fuel for exercise) replenishment and muscle protein synthesis on a par with what they experienced when consuming a formulated sports drink (Kammer et al. 2009). The carbohydrates in cereal and the protein in moo juice appear to team up to give muscles what they need to recover after a workout. To avoid an avalanche of sugary calories, choose a cereal that lists a whole grain as the first ingredient and contains no more than 10 grams of sugar per serving.
Greek Yogurt and Hemp Seeds
Eating before bed may not be so bad after all. A 2012 Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise study determined that ingesting a dose of protein 30 minutes before bedtime helped promote muscle recovery in those who exercised earlier in the day, even if protein and carbohydrates were supplied immediately after exercise (Res et al. 2012). Strained Greek-style yogurt has twice as much protein as traditional yogurt, while up-and-coming hemp seeds (aka hemp hearts) contain more protein—about 10 grams in a 3-tablespoon serving—than other seeds, making this pairing an ideal nibble before you call it a night. Be sure it’s plain yogurt to avoid unnecessary sugary calories.
Spinach and Blueberries
Popeye was right: His favorite food could be the secret to a stellar workout. It turns out spinach might help you sail through a tough training session, say Swedish researchers. They found that the nitrate present in certain vegetables like leafy greens and beets helps muscles work more efficiently during exercise, potentially making those indoor cycling classes seem less arduous (Larsen et al. 2011). Further, the payload of antioxidants in blueberries has been postulated to ease muscle oxidative stress and inflammation in response to exercise (McAnulty et al. 2011). To load up on both prior to hitting the gym, try whirling up this tasty smoothie:
1½ cups coconut water
1 T lemon juice
½ C plain low-fat yogurt, preferably Greek-style
1 C packed baby spinach
2 T unsalted almonds
1 T honey
½ t almond extract
⅔ C frozen blueberries
Place all ingredients into a blender in the order listed, and blend until smooth, about 30 seconds. Serves one.
Per serving: 307 calories; 15 g protein; 7 g fat (2 g saturated); 51 g carbs, 10 g fiber; 405 milligrams sodium.
Key: C = cup; T = tablespoon; t = teaspoon.
Sardines and Ricotta Cheese
Calcium and vitamin D may help trim the fat. A 2012 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study showed that subjects who upped their intakes of these two nutrients for 4 months experienced a greater loss in visceral abdominal fat than those who took in less (Rosenblum et al. 2012). Elevated visceral belly fat is a risk factor for a number of maladies, including heart disease. The researchers surmised that higher intakes of calcium and vitamin D may stimulate fat metabolism. Sustainable and inexpensive sardines are among the few foods that provide good amounts of vitamin D, while protein-rich ricotta cheese is loaded with calcium. That makes this sandwich as good a lunch choice as you’ll get.
3 (3-ounce) tins sardines, packed in water or olive oil, drained
⅓ C reduced-fat ricotta cheese
⅓ C reduced-fat sour cream
juice of ½ lemon
1 shallot, chopped
2 T chives or dill, chopped
1 T prepared horseradish
1½ t smoked paprika
¼ t black pepper
8 slices whole-grain bread
4 t Dijon mustard
1 C baby spinach
1 medium-sized tomato, sliced thinly
Place sardines in a large bowl and lightly break up the flesh with a fork. Gently fold in ricotta cheese, sour cream, lemon juice, shallot, chives or dill, horseradish, paprika, salt and pepper.
Spread Dijon mustard on four bread slices and top with the sardine mixture. Then add spinach, tomato slices and the remaining bread. Serves four.
Per serving: 316 calories; 25 g protein; 12 g fat (3 g saturated); 26 g carbs, 4 g fiber; 648 mg sodium.
Beans and Lemon
The various varieties of beans and lentils provide healthy doses of iron in a form called nonheme iron, which the body has a hard time absorbing. Well, Mother Nature has provided a solution. Vitamin C, found in vegetables and fruits such as lemon juice, can change the molecular structure of nonheme iron to make it more easily absorbed by the body. Case in point: In a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, women who ate two vitamin C–rich kiwi fruits with a serving of iron-fortified cereal improved their iron stores more than the group who enjoyed their cereal with a banana, which is lower in vitamin C (Beck et al. 2011). This is especially important for premenopausal women, who are at higher risk for poor iron status, owing to menstruation. Low iron levels can lead to fatigue and brain fog.
Salmon and Tomatoes
Consider bejeweling your salmon with a tomato sauce. A Spanish study published in the European Journal of Nutrition reported that women who consumed an omega-3–enriched tomato juice for 2 weeks experienced a greater decrease in certain compounds such as homocysteine and intercellular adhesion molecule 1 (ICAM-1), which are thought to play a role in the development of heart disease, than those who consumed tomato juice without the omega infusion (García-Alonso et al. 2012). The researchers suggested there was a synergy between the omega-3 fats and the phytochemicals in tomatoes. Data suggests that beyond being a champion for heart health, these omega-3s—found in fatty fish like salmon, sardines and trout—may stimulate muscle protein synthesis, helping to increase lean body mass (Smith et al. 2011).
Butternut Squash and Black Pepper
Black pepper improves the intestinal absorption of beta-carotene, according to an investigation published in the Journal of Functional Foods (Veda & Srinivasan 2009). Ginger and capsaicin, the phytonutrient found in cayenne and chili powder, were also found to be effective. Abundant in sweet potatoes, carrots and butternut squash, beta-carotene functions as an antioxidant to help knock out cell-damaging free radicals. Additionally, beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A in the body to support healthy bones, skin, eyes and immune systems.
1 T canola or coconut oil
1 leek, white and light-green parts, thinly sliced
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 t ginger, finely chopped
5 C butternut squash, cubed
1 large apple, diced
5 C low-sodium vegetable broth
1 C water
½ t chipotle chili powder
½ t salt
¼ t black pepper
¼ t nutmeg
¼ C pumpkin seeds
2 t fresh thyme
In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add leeks and carrot; cook 3 minutes. Stir in garlic and ginger; cook 2 minutes. Add squash, apple, broth, water, chipotle chili powder, salt, black pepper and nutmeg. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer covered for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, toast pumpkin seeds in a skillet over medium heat for 3 minutes, or until golden and beginning to pop. Stir often during toasting.
Stir thyme into soup. Carefully purée soup in a blender or food processor until smooth, working in batches if necessary. You can also do this in the pot with an immersion blender.
Serve soup garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds. Serves 6.
Per serving: 151 calories; 3 g protein; 2 g fat (1 g saturated); 25 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 328 mg sodium.
Almonds and Kefir
Researchers at the Institute of Food Research in the U.K. discovered that fiber in the skin of almonds can increase the population of good-for-you bacteria in the digestive tract (Mandalari et al. 2010). The fiber in almond skin appears to act as a prebiotic, so once consumed it provides a food source for the beneficial probiotics found in “alive” foods such as kefir, yogurt, miso and sauerkraut so that they can multiply and outnumber unfriendly critters. Like yogurt, kefir is a fermented milk product, but it contains a different set of beneficial bacteria. On top of boosting digestive health, healthy levels of probiotics may improve immune defenses. For a healthy snack, try stirring chopped almonds into a bowl of kefir.
Edamame and Cayenne
If edamame could speak, they would say to cayenne: “You complete me.” Scientists in Korea discovered that the tag team of genistein, an isoflavone antioxidant found in soy foods such as edamame and tofu, and capsaicin, the antioxidant that gives chili peppers their fiery kick, can help tame inflammation (Hwang et al. 2009). Chronic inflammation in the body is now widely accepted to be a risk factor for illnesses like heart disease and cancer. For a nutritious afternoon snack, prepare 1 cup of frozen shelled edamame according to package directions, and season with ¼ teaspoon of sea salt, ⅛ teaspoon cayenne and a squirt of fresh lemon juice. Bonus: The vitamin C in the lemon juice will rev up absorption of the iron in edamame.
Chicken and Carrots
As noted, in addition to its role in bone growth, vitamin A—found in carrots, dark leafy greens and winter squash—is good for skin, eyes and the immune system. But you need an optimal intake of zinc (in poultry, eggs, pork, oysters and beef) to get the full benefits of vitamin A. That’s because zinc is needed to make retinol-binding protein, a compound that transports vitamin A throughout your body. So make sure you team up your meats with brightly colored vegetables at the dinner table.
Raspberries and Apples
A fruit salad may just be the perfect dessert. A University of Florida study determined that the antioxidant ellagic acid, found in raspberries, walnuts, pomegranates and cranberries, enhanced the ability of quercetin—another beneficial antioxidant—to kill off cancerous cells (Mertens-Talcott et al. 2005). You can also find quercetin in grapes, onion and buckwheat. Food scientists have uncovered thousands of such bioactive phytochemicals in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. And they are now discovering that these often work better in pairs or groups, proving that the power is in the packaging and that pills with single nutrients just can’t match the healing power of whole foods.
Beck, K., et al. 2011. Gold kiwifruit consumed with an iron-fortified breakfast cereal meal improves iron status in women with low iron stores: A 16-week randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Nutrition, 105 (1), 101–109.
García-Alonso, F.J., et al. 2012. Effect of consumption of tomato juice enriched with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on the lipid profile, antioxidant biomarker status, and cardiovascular disease risk in healthy women. European Journal of Nutrition, 51 (4), 415–24.
Goltz, S.R., et al. 2012. Meal triacylglycerol profile modulates postprandial absorption of carotenoids in humans. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, 56 (6), 866–77.
Hwang, J.T., et al. 2009. Anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic effect of genistein alone or in combination with capsaicin in TPA-treated rat mammary glands or mammary cancer cell line. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1171, 415–20.
Kammer, L., et al. 2009. Cereal and nonfat milk support muscle recovery following exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 6 (1), 11.
Larsen, F. J., et al. 2011. Dietary inorganic nitrate improves mitochondrial efficiency in humans. Cell Metabolism, 13 (2), 149–59.
Mandalari, G., et al. 2010. In vitro evaluation of the prebiotic properties of almond skins (Amygdalus communis L.). FEMS Microbiology Letters, 304 (2), 116–22.
McAnulty, L.S., et al. 2011. Effect of blueberry ingestion on natural killer cell counts, oxidative stress, and inflammation prior to and after 2.5 h of running. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 36 (6), 976–84.
Mertens-Talcott, S.U., et al. 2005. Ellagic acid potentiates the effect of quercetin on p21waf1/cip1, p53, and MAP-kinases without affecting intracellular generation of reactive oxygen species in vitro. Journal of Nutrition, 135 (3), 609–14.
Res, P.T., et al. 2012. Protein ingestion before sleep improves postexercise overnight recovery. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 44 (8), 1560–69.
Rosenblum, J. L., et al. 2012. Calcium and vitamin D supplementation is associated with decreased abdominal visceral adipose tissue in overweight and obese adults. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 95 (1), 101–108.
Smith, G.I., et al. 2011. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids augment the muscle protein anabolic response to hyperinsulinaemia-hyperaminoacidaemia in healthy young and middle-aged men and women. Clinical Science (Lond), 121 (6), 267–78.
Veda, S., & Srinivasan, K. 2009. Influence of dietary spices—black pepper, red pepper and ginger on the uptake of ß-carotene by rat intestines. Journal of Functional Foods, 1 (4), 394–98.