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Dynamic Nutrition Duos

Nutrition: It's just good chemistry: Some foods do the body much more good when they work as a pair.

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.

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:

Blueberry-Spinach Smoothie

Photography: Matthew Kadey

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.

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.

Butternut Squash Soup

Photography: Matthew Kadey

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.

To find seven more dynamic duos and more tasty recipes (plus the complete list of references for this article) check out the full article in the April 2013 issue of the IDEA Fitness Journal or click here.

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, is a James Beard Award–winning food journalist, dietitian and author of the cookbook Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sport + Adventure (VeloPress 2016). He has written for dozens of magazines, including Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Shape, Men’s Fitness and Muscle and Fitness.

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