Food Synergy: Nutrients That Work Better Together
Why eating a variety of whole foods is your best nutritional bet
Sometimes in life, we don't see the forest for the trees. And the field of
nutrition is no exception. We can get so focused on the health benefits of a
certain vitamin or phytochemical that we miss an important point: Different
components in a single food can work together to benefit our health, and so can
components in different foods that are eaten together.
I remember sitting in Nutrition 101 class 20 years ago and learning that
vitamin C (from citrus fruits and dark-green vegetables) enhances the body's
absorption of iron (found in lean meats, fish, beans, and some leafy green
veggies) when these foods are eaten at the same time. This was an early example
of what we call "food synergy."
David Jacobs, PhD, a researcher from the University of Minnesota, loosely
defines food synergy as the idea that food influences our health in complex and
highly interactive ways. The Produce for Better Health Foundation explains it
as nutrients working together to create greater health effects.
Either way, food synergy is a very good thing. It brings us back to the
basics: For good health, it's important to eat a variety of whole foods.
There is still much we don't know about how the components in food work
together. Case in point: In the past 10 years, scientists have identified
hundreds of biologically active plant-food components called phytochemicals
(also called phytonutrients). A decade ago, we didn't even know about
phytochemicals like lycopene (the one that has made tomatoes famous) or
anthocyanins and pterostilbene (which have propelled blueberries into the
We do know that eating food as close to its natural form as possible is by
far our best bet for improving health and preventing disease. Vegetables,
fruit, whole grains, nuts, and legumes are great examples of foods that are
rich in a combination of important vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein,
antioxidants, and more.
Here are just a handful of examples in which different nutrients and
components in food work together:
- Pairing broccoli with tomatoes could be a match not only made in Italy, but
in health heaven. In a study to be published in the December 2004 issue of the
Journal of Nutrition, prostate tumors grew much less in rats that were
fed tomatoes and broccoli than in rats who ate diets containing broccoli alone
or tomatoes alone, or diets that contained cancer-fighting substances that had
been isolated from tomatoes or broccoli. The take-home message: A lycopene
supplement may not hurt, but the whole tomato will probably help more. And a
tomato eaten with broccoli may help a lot more.
- Antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E; isoflavones from soybeans; and
other compounds are thought to be important in slowing the oxidation of
cholesterol -- which is as important to reducing your risk of congestive heart
disease as lowering your blood cholesterol levels. Antioxidant protection is a
complex system that includes many nutrients and phytonutrients. You need all of
them for maximum effect.