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You’re eating right, taking all the right supplements and exercising regularly, but you’re not seeing the results you want. Maybe you’ve nailed down exactly what you have to eat to live your healthiest lifestyle, but have you thought about the combinations of foods you eat? How about the ingredients you’re combining, beyond your basic macronutrients?
Well, you should because consuming certain food combinations can help increase nutrient bioavailability and pave metabolic pathways to better overall health. Bioavailability, in simple terms, refers to the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food.
It may sound complicated, but that doesn’t mean the ingredients themselves have to be. In fact, you’re better off sticking with minimally processed ingredients.
“The closer the food is to the Earth in its purest form, the more benefits you will get from it,” says New York City–based registered dietician Supriya Lal. She suggests eating food for its entirety — as a source of a variety of different minerals, vitamins, fiber, protein, fats and carbohydrates — rather than for one particular nutrient.
However, this rule doesn’t apply if you have extreme deficiencies, in which case Lal advises consulting with a dietician or primary-care physician about your personal nutritional needs.
That being said, certain food combos can make your meal even more nutritious when eaten together. Here are some examples of ingredients that are even better when eaten together:
Spinach (Iron) + Lemon (Vitamin C)
One of the most common deficiencies that women have is iron. Luckily, spinach is packed with it.
“Childbearing-age menstruating women may face polycystic ovary syndrome or excessive fatigue because of iron deficiencies. This can often be treated with proper food pairing, for example by combining vitamin C and iron,” Lal says.
Plant-based non-heme sources of iron, such as tofu, beans and legumes, are more bioavailable (a combination for the most efficient nutrition absorption) than meat sources. If you are having a spinach salad for lunch, squeeze fresh lemon on it or drink a glass of orange juice. Add a side of steamed broccoli, raw bell peppers or kiwi to your steak.
Salmon (Vitamin D) + Kale (Calcium)
Calcium and vitamin D work together to maintain bone health. Your body needs vitamin D in order to absorb calcium. To maximize benefits, pair egg yolks, cheese or oily fish like salmon with spinach, kale, collards, soybeans and calcium-fortified cereals. There are tons of combinations of salads you can use to pair these two foods.
Turmeric (Curcumin) + Black Pepper (Piperine)
Spices not only add flavor but also have health benefits when consumed together. Curcumin in turmeric is an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. Piperine, the bioactive compound found in black pepper, helps relieve nausea and headaches, improves digestion and prevents inflammation. By combining black pepper and turmeric, our bloodstream is able to absorb up to 2,000 percent more curcumin from the turmeric.
Tomato (Vitamin A) + Avocado (Fat)
Go on and have another serving of that guacamole, but make sure to sprinkle in an extra cup of tomatoes. By combining the beta carotene (which is converted into vitamin A in the body) in tomatoes with avocado’s healthy fat, your body will be able to absorb much more of the nutrients that can help reduce your risk of cancer, cataracts and heart disease and reduce inflammation.
“As a general rule, fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) are better absorbed when taken with meals that are high in fat,” says nutrition expert Kristamarie Collman, M.D. She advises adding superfoods like avocado, salmon, olive oil, eggs, walnuts and almonds to meals.
Food vs. Supplements
Some people may take a look at this list of combinations and think it’d be way easier to opt for supplements instead. But don’t throw in the towel on real, whole foods because you think you can get all the same nutrients from a supplement.
“I always advocate the food form first, unless you have very severe deficiencies,” Lal says. She recommends “eating the rainbow” — meaning a variety of fruits and vegetables from each color group — to diversify access to important vitamins and nutrients and improve your microbiome.
Collman also recommends drinking plenty of water (about half your bodyweight, in ounces) to ensure that your intestines function at high capacity and are able to process the nutrients.