There's more and more evidence that certain components in the foods and beverages we consume (like minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals, fiber, and fats) interact with each other to give our bodies extra disease protection and a higher level of health. This new nutritional concept is called food synergy, and it couldn’t have come at a better time, as more and more baby boomers pass or near the half-century mark (myself included). While writing my new book, Food Synergy, I noticed that 10 particular foods kept popping up in various chapters. I call these the 10 Synergy Super Foods because they have all sorts of synergistic potential going for them.
There are all types of food synergy, from different nutrients that are found together in the same whole food, to nutrients in different foods that work better together, to the synergy in certain dietary patterns (like the Mediterranean diet, Asian cuisine, The Portfolio Plan, etc.).
Here are a few examples of food synergy in action from recent nutrition research:
- Tomatoes and broccoli: The combination was more effective at slowing prostate tumor growth than either was alone (from a study in which male rats were given prostate tumor cell implants).
- Apples with the peel on. It turns out that the bulk of an apple’s anticancer properties are hidden in the peel. The phytochemicals in the apple flesh seem to work best with the phytochemicals in the peel to reduce the risk of cancer.
- Cooked tomatoes with the peel on, along with olive oil. Ninety-eight percent of the flavonols (powerful phytochemicals) in tomatoes is found in the tomato skin, along with great amounts of two carotenoids. Absorption of these key nutrients is much greater when the tomatoes are cooked and when you eat some smart fat (like olive oil) along with the cooked tomatoes.
- Cruciferous vegetables. Two phytochemicals naturally found in cruciferous vegetables (cambene and indole 3-carbinol) were more active when combined, according to research that tested the compounds alone and together in rats. The researchers found that the two compounds were able to protect the rats against liver cancer much better together. Both cambene and indole 3-carbinol are known to activate important detoxification enzymes that help the body eliminate carcinogens before they harm our genes. Foods rich in cambene include Brussels sprouts and certain varieties of broccoli. And all cruciferous veggies are rich in indole 3-carbinol.
Was it too early to write a book about this topic? While it’s true that some of the research in the book is from lab or animal studies, and more research is needed, the idea of food synergy leads us down a path that I’m completely comfortable recommending. It’s a path toward eating more whole foods and plant foods and fewer processed foods; a path that seeks balance within broad dietary patterns instead of focusing on one or two particular foods or ingredients. It’s a path that leads us beyond "low-fat" or "low-carb."
The truth is that there are all sorts of examples of food synergy at work in research published over the last five years. We know now that in so many cases, the power in food is in the package, not the individual components.
I learned while writing Food Synergy that all of this seemingly disparate scientific research actually comes together in a way that makes perfect sense: When we nourish our bodies with the best foods that nature has to offer, our bodies respond in kind.
10 Synergy Super Foods
Whole grains are naturally low in fat and cholesterol-free; contain 10% to 15% protein and offer loads of fiber, resistant starch and oligosaccharides, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and often, phytoestrogens. With all those nutrients in one package, it’s no wonder whole grains provide so many health benefits, including protection from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and some cancers.
Veggies -- Especially Dark Green Ones
Whether it’s the two vegetables high in viscous fiber (eggplant and okra); the cruciferous veggies (like kale and broccoli) with their anticancer organosulfur compounds; or the carotenoid family (like carrots, sweet potatoes, and spinach) with their rich mix of phytochemicals, the message is clear: The more the merrier! Eat as many vegetables as you can, as often as you can. Dark green veggies, in particular, showed up on all sorts of food synergy lists in my book: for vegetables high in vitamin C; foods with multiple carotenoids; foods high in potassium, calcium, and magnesium; and good sources of vitamin E.
Nuts contain mostly monounsaturated fat, and antioxidant phytochemicals (like flavonoids). Most also contribute phytosterols, which in sufficient amounts may help lower blood cholesterol, enhance the immune system, and decrease the risk of some cancers. Nuts also have some vitamins and minerals we tend to lack, like vitamin E, potassium, and magnesium. Two forms of vitamin E tend to work best together (alpha- and gamma-tocopherol), and you’ll find them in almonds, cashews, and walnuts. Walnuts also contain some plant omega-3s.
Tea (Especially Green Tea)
With each sip, you get two potent flavonoids -- anthocyanin and proanthocyanidin -- plus a healthy dose of catechin, which may enhance the antioxidant activity of alpha-tocopherol (a form of vitamin E). Green and black teas also contain antioxidant polyphenols, thought to block cell damage that can lead to cancer. Phytochemicals in tea have a half-life of a few hours, so have a cup now and another later to get the biggest bang for your tea bag.
There are 30-plus phytochemicals in olive oil, many of which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action in the body, helping to promote heart health and protect against cancer. They're also found in the olives themselves, of course.
Fish offers heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, along with a dose of potassium. It’s also a rare natural food source of vitamin D. A recent Norwegian study found that the intake of fish and fish products was strongly linked to higher mental performance in a group of men and women aged 70-74. And because lean fish had the same health benefits as fatty fish in this study, it may not be just the omega-3s at work, but perhaps a combination of components found in fish. Fish omega-3s may also have some synergy with plant omega-3s and olive oil, so cook your seafood with a little canola oil or olive oil. Or, serve your seafood with a side dish rich in plant omega-3s or lightly dressed in olive oil.
Tomatoes contain all four major carotenoids, which have synergy as a group. Few fruits and vegetables can say that! Tomatoes also contain three high-powered antioxidants thought to have synergy together (beta-carotene, vitamin E, vitamin C) as well as lycopene, which has synergy with several food components.
The whole citrus family is loaded with synergy because it boasts plenty of vitamin C and the phytochemical subgroup flavones, which are thought to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action in the body, as well as other benefits. Oranges also offer two carotenoids: lutein and zeaxanthin. Grapefruits are rich in the antioxidant lycopene.
Ground flaxseed seems to have synergy within itself on many levels, through fiber, lignans (plant estrogens), and plant omega-3s. But the seed may have synergy with several other foods, such as fish omega-3s and soy, and these are just the ones we know about. Remember, it’s ground flaxseed you want to add to your yogurt or cereal. All those healthy components aren’t absorbed and available to the body until the seed is ground.
Dairy foods deliver a team of players that’s important for healthy bones (calcium, vitamin D, protein, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamins A and B6), some of which have synergy together. Calcium combined with vitamin D, for example, may reduce the risk of colon cancer. Including a couple of low-fat dairy servings a day is also part of the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet to lower hypertension.
The Bottom Line to Food Synergy
The bottom line wisdom to food synergy is evident. I predict it will still be evident five years from now after hundreds more studies are published, and I wanted to get this exciting news out as soon as possible. And here’s the bonus: The more you incorporate powerhouse foods and beverages into your day, the less room there is for the more processed and nutrient-poor foods and beverages that now monopolize so many of our diets.