How to use nutrient synergy in your diet

Food synergy is the concept that the non-random mixture of food constituents operates in concert for the life of the organism eaten and presumably for the life of the eater. Isolated nutrients have been extensively studied in well-designed, long-term, large randomised clinical trials, typically with null and sometimes with harmful effects. Therefore, although nutrient deficiency is a known phenomenon, serious for the sufferer, and curable by taking the isolated nutrient, the effect of isolated nutrients or other chemicals derived from food on chronic disease, when that chemical is not deficient, may not have the same beneficial effect. It appears that the focus on nutrients rather than foods is in many ways counterproductive. This observation is the basis for the argument that nutrition research should focus more strongly on foods and on dietary patterns. Unlike many dietary phenomena in nutritional epidemiology, diet pattern appears to be highly correlated over time within person. A consistent and robust conclusion is that certain types of beneficial diet patterns, notably described with words such as ‘Mediterranean’ and ‘prudent’, or adverse patterns, often described by the word ‘Western’, predict chronic disease. Food is much more complex than drugs, but essentially uninvestigated as food or pattern. The concept of food synergy leads to new thinking in nutrition science and can help to forge rational nutrition policy-making and to determine future nutrition research strategies.

N utrients, just like us humans, work better together. What does this mean exactly? It’s a little thing called: Food synergy — when nutrients complement one another and have a profoundly greater effect on our health and well-being. The more natural and unadulterated nutrients are, in the form of whole foods, is the key to a healthy diet.

Though nutrition scientists have been preaching about individual nutrients and their respective impact on preventing chronic disease, more recent observations are starting to show that when isolated, nutrients may not be as powerful as we originally thought. Isolated nutrients (think supplements) don’t appear to protect against disease as effectively as the whole foods they come from.

Bioavailability, come again?

Bioavailability is the proportion of a nutrient that the human body can absorb and use. Just because we consume foods or supplements, doesn’t mean that we will absorb 100% of the nutrients. Food combinations, processing, and cooking all influence how well nutrients will be absorbed.

Nutrient absorption, use, and retention in the body can also vary according to our specific needs. For instance, a woman who is menstruating will absorb much more iron in comparison to a man. A child whose bones are growing will absorb much more calcium than an adult. This absorption rate can also vary according to age, sex, amount of nutrients in the body, current health, and digestive wellness. External factors such as medication or alcohol consumption, even level of stress, can impact how nutrients are ingested.

Eating food as close to their purest form as possible is our best bet when trying to improve health and prevent disease. So rather than getting your nutrients from supplements, aim to get them from whole foods. Learn which foods are a match made in health-heaven and which nutrients fight for their right to be absorbed.

Love at first bite

The following power pairs work well together to make our bodies feel divine. Having them both in the same meal will boost their respective absorption.

Our families and distant ancestors instinctually knew a few things or two, as many regional foods and classic local recipes naturally contain synergistic food pairings. Reading through these food pairings, think about what cuisines come to mind. Hint: Mediterranean diet.

Nonheme iron and vitamin C

Nonheme iron, which is the type that comes from plant foods, is not as readily absorbed as iron from animal sources. Iron is essential for the transport of oxygen to every cell in the body. Without enough of it, fatigue, low immune system, and shortness of breath can occur. Having plant-based iron and vitamin C together will help increase absorption.

Nonheme iron: Grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds

Vitamin C: Orange, lemon, bell pepper, tomato, leafy greens

Vitamin A or lycopene and fats

Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant that helps fight cell damage and supports eye, bone, and skin health. Lycopene is a potent antioxidant that can decrease our risk of cancer. As both are fat soluble, they require fat, to be absorbed by the body.

Vitamin A: Dairy, sweet potato, squash, kale, spinach, apricot, cantaloupe

Healthy fats: Avocado, olive, oil, nuts, seeds, fatty fish

Vitamin D and calcium

Calcium is known as the bone-building and strengthening nutrient, but is only truly effective with the help of vitamin D. Vitamin D aids calcium absorption.

Vitamin D: Eggs, mushrooms, fortified milk

Calcium: Dairy products, almonds, kidney beans, sardines, canned salmon and tofu

Vitamins B6, B12 and Folate

This family of B vitamins synergistically work together to reduce levels of homocysteine, an amino acid which, when high, significantly increases the risk of heart disease.

Vitamin B6: Rice, beans, lentils, poultry, seeds

Vitamin B12: Beef, fish and seafood, poultry, dairy, and nutritional yeast

Folate: Asparagus, avocado, broccoli, whole grains, nuts, and seeds

Too close for comfort

Sometimes some substances in foods interfere with the body’s uptake of vitamins and minerals. Oxalates and phytates, known as anti-nutrients compete, with iron and calcium. They don’t completely block them, but rather limit the amount that your body receives.

Oxalates, found in dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and beet greens can actually compete with iron and calcium. Phytates, which are found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils bind to minerals in the gut before they are absorbed. They can also slightly reduce the digestibility of starches, proteins, and fats. Soaking, fermenting, and sprouting can all decrease can all decrease these anti-nutrients.

Leavening bread helps counteract the blocking effect of phytates and increases bioavailability.

8fit recipes with synergistic effects

Chickpea & chard hash

Calling all you legume lovers and plant-based eaters out there. These recipes contain non-heme iron in the chickpeas paired with vitamin C rich lemon juice for an iron-rich meal.

Sweet potato toast with avocado & tuna

All nutrients on board this sweet potato toast ship. Sweet potato is rich in vitamin A and will find it’s smooth sailing when captain healthy fat in the form of avocado joins the crew.

Turmeric latte with pistachios

Time to spice up your life. Adding even a pinch of black pepper can increase the bioavailability of turmeric by 2000%. This classic recipe is an anti-inflammatory home run.

Pasta Primavera

Did you say pasta? Yes, please! The combination of tomato and broccoli can help boost the cancer-preventing properties of lycopene. Plus pasta, people — pasta!

Find these synergistically satisfying recipes on the 8fit app.

Food synergy: From broccoli and tomatoes to dal and rice, know some food combinations which can work wonders for your health!

How to use nutrient synergy in your diet

Food synergy: Dal and rice is the perfect example of food synergy


  • Broccolis should be eaten in combination with tomatoes
  • Have green tea with lemon for an antioxidant boost
  • Curcumin in turmeric is activated in presence of piperine in black pepper

Food synergy is a concept that has been studied over many years to define the relationship between certain foods in terms of food pairing and nutrient interaction. Certain foods and nutrients work best when together. They bring out the best in one another for a power-packed nutrition punch. The accurate combinations of foods you put on your plate can not only spur your body in absorbing various nutrients, but it also improves body’s ability for fighting diseases.

Here are some dynamic food pairing duos to keep you in the best of health:

1. Broccoli and tomatoes

Tomato is rich in a powerful antioxidant called lycopene while broccoli contains another beneficial phytonutrient called sulforaphane. Together, these two have been studied extensively for their cancer-preventing properties especially prostate cancer. Both tomato and broccoli have their nutritive value enhanced when steamed or cooked. This perfect pair also boots your immunity. Toss some diced tomatoes with broccoli and some mushrooms or bell peppers for a quick evening supper or add chopped broccoli and tomato to your breakfast omelette.

How to use nutrient synergy in your diet

Nutrition value of broccoli is enhanced in the presence of tomatoes
Photo Credit: iStock

2. Green tea and lemon

Green tea, without a doubt, is rich in many health benefitting antioxidants like catechins. If researchers are to be believed, the antioxidant capacity of green tea is enhanced by 5-10 times when paired with a dash of lemon juice. This is because of the presence of vitamin C in lemon which pairs perfectly with catechins in green tea. This match made in the kitchen can boost your immunity, prevent premature aging, and can also fight certain types of cancer. So, next time-just squeeze some lemon juice in your cup of green tea.

3. Turmeric and black pepper

The bioactive form of turmeric is curcumin which is one of the most powerful antioxidants ever known. Not only it is anti-inflammatory, but it possesses strong anti-cancer properties. The bioactive compound present in black pepper is known as piperine. When paired together, piperine helps enhance cancer-fighting properties of curcumin and increases its absorption by as much as 1000 times! So, the next time when you grab your turmeric latte, just add a dash of black pepper to it.

4. Dal and rice

One of the most widely believed misconceptions is that a vegetarian diet lacks complete protein. To make any protein food a complete one, it must contain all the 9 essential amino acids which your body cannot synthesize on its own and you can very well have your own complete protein meal even if you are a vegetarian or a vegan. Combining rice with pulses is the best way to do so. Rice contains sulfur-containing amino acids- cysteine and methionine, but low in lysine while pulses are low in cysteine and methionine but high in lysine. So, combining these two as a part of your major meals make up for a perfect synergistic dose of complete protein.

5. Vegetables and oil/nuts

A dash of oil or sprinkling a few nuts over your vegetable preparations is the best way to unlock vitamins present in the veggies. A hint of healthy fats can help enhance the absorption of nutrients like alpha and beta carotene, lutein, and lycopene in addition to enhancing the absorption of Vitamin E, A, and K. So, adding a healthy dressing of cold-pressed olive oil to your salads or simply sprinkling some crushed nuts will do wonders for your health by making sure you absorb all the goodness of fat-soluble vitamins from vegetables.

How to use nutrient synergy in your diet

Cook veggies with some nuts and oil to unlock their nutritive value
Photo Credit: iStock

(Nmami Agarwal is nutritionist at Nmami Life)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. NDTV is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information on this article. All information is provided on an as-is basis. The information, facts or opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

How to use nutrient synergy in your diet

It’s a basic Paleo principle that you should get as much of your nutrition as possible from whole foods, not isolated nutrient supplements. There are all kinds of reasons for that. Supplements are often contaminated and the ones that aren’t are typically expensive. Taking a bunch of pills is annoying and hard to remember. But even if you’re happy paying out as much as you need to get the best supplements and don’t mind dedicating your second bedroom to your pill bottle collection, there’s another reason to get your nutrition food: nutrient synergy.

No, your vitamins aren’t sitting around in a circle holding hands and feeling their life energy. “Nutrient synergy” is the way that two or more different nutrients work together to produce an effect that you can’t get from either nutrient alone. Sometimes they help each other do the same job; other times, one nutrient helps you absorb more of the other. It’s a little bit like building a house. You can have a pile of bricks in one place, a separate pile of mortar, a third pile of shingles, and a fourth pile of drywall, but that doesn’t give you a house. To get houses that actual people can live in, you have to have a little bit of all those things and combine them.

It’s the same way with nutrients: you can take some Vitamin C, some Vitamin E, and some other antioxidants, but it won’t give you all the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. And you can even scale it up to food combinations and dietary patterns in general: certain combinations of foods are more effective at promoting health than the foods in isolation (wouldn’t you know it, these typically happen to be the same combinations typically found in traditional diets).

We don’t even know exactly what it is in some of these foods that causes the effect, so we can’t possibly replicate it in a pill. But it’s clear that eating healthy foods will give you more benefits than eating isolated nutrient supplements, and an overall healthy diet pattern will give you even more benefits than just eating the foods alone. There’s more to food than the sum of the numbers on the nutrition label.

Here’s the case for how that actually happens with some specific nutrients.


Several studies show that antioxidants work better in teams – which is exactly how we get them in whole foods. Vitamins C and E, for example, are well-known as antioxidant buddy cops, which is convenient since they tend to come packaged together in a lot of the same foods (mostly dark leafy greens).

This article makes the case for the synergistic effects of antioxidants and other polyphenols in the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. Trials of antioxidant supplements have had lackluster results compared to the obvious and well-studied benefits of eating whole fruits and vegetables, possibly because the supplements can’t recreate the full antioxidant experience.

Just to take a couple specific examples…

How to use nutrient synergy in your diet

    found that ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and alpha-tocopherol (Vitamin E) worked synergistically with beta-carotene. Know what has all of the above? Spinach, kale, mustard greens, and other dark green leafy vegetables. , flavonoids work synergistically with Vitamins C and E to reduce oxidation of LDL cholesterol. got more protection against prostate cancer than rats fed pure lycopene (that’s the antioxidant in tomatoes that everyone talks about for protecting against prostate cancer, and in human studies, whole-food tomatoes do seem to work) , intact freeze-dried broccoli was more effective for cancer prevention than isolated chemicals found in the broccoli. found that the anticancer effects of ginger are caused by synergy among all the antioxidants it contains, not just one.

You could argue that antioxidants in a supplement would work synergistically just as well as antioxidants in the whole food, but that doesn’t account for the huge number of antioxidant phytochemicals that we can’t put in a supplement because we haven’t even defined or discovered them yet. You could wait to get all the good stuff in a tomato until scientists exhaustively measure every single phytochemical it contains and stick it in a pill for you…or you could just eat the tomato.

Antioxidants can also work synergistically in combinations of foods – it doesn’t necessarily have to be just within the one food. To take one tasty example, this study found that consuming both red wine and olive oil at the same meal provided greater antioxidant benefits than consuming either one separately. This one found that adding milk or lemon juice to green tea improved the bioavailability of the catechins it contained. And this one found that eating tomatoes with broccoli was even better for prostate health than eating either alone.

Micronutrients and Fat

It’s not just antioxidants, either! Another example of nutrients working together comes from various combinations of micronutrients and healthy fats

The obvious example is the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins: Vitamins A, D, E, and K need some fat to be absorbed. So isn’t it convenient that they often come packaged right with the fat in the same food? Think about Vitamin A in liver, Vitamin D in fish, or Vitamin E in almonds. With food sources that don’t naturally contain a lot of fat (like vegetables), it’s easy enough to add some olive oil or avocado (or both!) to your salad.

Another example is B vitamins with Omega-3 fats. In this case, it’s not about absorption: B vitamins aren’t fat-soluble, but some evidence shows that B vitamins and Omega-3s may have synergistic effects on heart health. This may be one of the reasons why fish (a natural source of both Omega-3 fats and B vitamins) is such a healthy food, but isolated Omega-3 supplements have had mixed results for preventing heart disease (or anything else). Yet again, whole foods trump supplements.

Summing it Up

Supplements do have a place even in a healthy and nutrient-dense diet: if you pick them carefully and use them wisely, they can be absolutely great. But the majority of your nutrients should come from whole foods, partly because the nutritional content of whole foods is more than the sum of its parts. And the nutritional content of an overall nutrient-dense diet is even better than the sum of its whole foods. There’s a limit to how much we can know about foods by counting up their individual nutrients, and a limit to how much nutrition we can really get from supplementing with a smattering of purified vitamins and minerals.

Whole tomatoes are better for you than isolated lycopene, and tomatoes eaten with other nutritious vegetables are even better than whole tomatoes. It’s about the big picture – so go grab yourself some tomato and spinach salad, and chow down on a big plate of nutrient-dense foods; it’ll do you better than a supplement, and it’s tastier to boot.