By: Jennifer Fleming PhD, MS, RD, LDN
Nutrient synergy is nutrients working together to create enhanced health benefits in the body. We observe nutrient synergy a lot with certain vitamins and food pairings.
For example, when you take a citrus fruit and consume it with a green leafy vegetable or beans, you’re pairing vitamin C with iron. And that vitamin C actually helps the absorption of iron. We know that iron, especially non-heme iron, or iron that doesn’t come from animals is very poorly absorbed. When we eat sources of non-heme iron with something like vitamin C from oranges, we get better absorption. And absorption is a huge part of your body’s ability to use what you give it. That’s one way to increase your iron absorption, especially if you’re someone who’s not consuming animal products or consuming very little.
In terms of calcium, when we consume certain foods like yogurt, for example, it’s also good to consume sources of foods that have magnesium and potassium. That’s why we might encourage you to add fruit or a banana to your yogurt. It is going to help the absorption of calcium, which is going to be good for your bones.
In terms of vitamin D, you want to consume it with a little fat to enhance absorption. That’s why we have vitamin A and D added to milk, and it’s also why we encourage children to have a glass of milk with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It helps with the absorption of the vitamin D.
When you make a salad with tomatoes–which are great source of lycopene, and you add a fat like avocado or olive oil dressing, you maximize the absorption of that lycopene. So you’re getting greater absorption of some of those antioxidant by simply adding in a little bit of fat. Where the Mediterranean diet took off is it is high amounts of veggies paired with healthy fats like nuts, olive oil, which enhances the absorption of those nutrients for greater use in the body.
It’s this kind of nutrient synergy that we see where we really get maximum benefit when we consume whole foods, as opposed to really piecing out sometimes the specific nutrients.