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Food Synergy: Nutrients That Work Better Together

Why eating a variety of whole foods is your best nutritional bet
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WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

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 news).

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.

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