Eat Well to Be Well: Nutrients work better when paired together – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Eat Well to Be Well: Nutrients work better when paired together

Food is fuel for your body, and some foods provide a tremendous nutritional boost when paired together!

The potential of teamwork is powerful. Even Helen Keller, an American author and educator, famously said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” This same philosophy also applies to nutrients found in food working together are dynamic health collaborations.

Collaboration is good and when applied to teaming up certain nutrients and foods, your health will benefit significantly. Also known as “nutrient synergy,” nutrients found in food – vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients – perform better when working in tandem with other nutrients, helping improve nutrient absorption, increase satiety and effectiveness, and reduce the risk of disease and illness.

It’s tempting to rely on vitamin and mineral supplements to get nutrients your diet lacks. Still, nutrient supplements cannot replicate the unique power of nutrients found naturally in food. That’s why strategically eating certain nutrients found in certain food together at meals or snacks, creates a healthy situation supporting a healthy nutritional boost.

Here’s a look at dynamic nutrient pairings creating a synergistic effect:

Iron and Vitamin C

Synergistic effect: The human body absorbs only about 10 to 15 percent of the iron you eat. Both animal-based and plant-based foods contain the mineral iron. Rich animal sources of iron include beef, poultry, fish, and pork. The iron found in animal-based foods is called “heme” iron and is easily absorbed on its own.

However, iron found in plant-based foods – beans, spinach, soy products (tofu, tempeh), nuts and seeds, fortified cereals, and the iron found in supplements, is called “nonheme” iron. You can enhance your nonheme iron absorption by eating food that’s high in vitamin C along with iron-rich food. The absorption of nonheme is improved thanks to vitamin C and the acids in your stomach. For example, just 25 milligrams of vitamin C – the amount found in about one-quarter cup of orange juice – can double the amount of nonheme iron you absorb from plant-based foods, while a one-half cup of orange juice increases the amount of iron absorbed by sixfold.

Best food sources: Animal-based food sources of iron include red meat, poultry, fish, and pork. Plant-based foods include spinach, beans, soy products, nuts, seeds, and iron-fortified cereals. Vitamin C is found plentiful in citrus fruits, berries, broccoli, leafy greens like spinach and kale, red and yellow peppers, and tomatoes.

Harnessing the synergy: Suggestions to increase your iron absorption by pairing a vitamin C rich food with iron found in plant-based foods include:

  • Eat an orange with a peanut butter sandwich or breakfast cereal or top cereal with vitamin C-rich berries like strawberries.
  • Add sliced red bell pepper, onions, and fresh fruit to a spinach salad.
  • Use canned tomato sauce or tomato paste for spaghetti or pasta dishes.
  • Have a quarter cup of walnuts with orange or kiwi fruit slices.

Vitamin D, Vitamin K, and Calcium

Synergistic effect: Here’s an important trio of nutrients that work together spectacularly, improving bone health. Vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption (without vitamin D, calcium will not be absorbed), and vitamin K is in charge of regulating the amount of calcium stored in bones. Vitamin K is also involved in triggering a protein called osteocalcin, necessary for placing calcium in bones and teeth.

Best food sources: Food sources of vitamin D include milk fortified with it, egg yolks, and fatty fish. Calcium is abundant in and absorbed best from dairy foods like milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and cheeses. Leafy greens like spinach, kale, collard greens, broccoli, and cabbage are good sources of vitamin K.

Harnessing the synergy:

  • Drink milk fortified with vitamin D.
  • Have a green, leafy salad with cottage cheese and a hardboiled egg.
  • Eat vitamin D fortified yogurt along with a cabbage salad on the side.

Zinc and Vitamin A

Synergistic effect: When one nutrient is lacking, this can upset the balance of their inner workings in the body. For example, the metabolism of vitamin A is affected if you have a zinc deficiency. Why? The liver stores fat-soluble vitamin A and for vitamin A to be released from the liver, zinc is required. Without zinc, vitamin A will not be available, negatively affecting your vision, mucous membranes, skin health, and immune functioning.

Best food sources: Vitamin A is abundant in dark green, leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard, sweet potatoes, beef liver, and eggs. Rich sources of zinc include meat, shellfish, legumes, nuts, and whole grains.

Harnessing the synergy:

  • At meals, combine meat and vegetables like sweet potatoes or roasted peppers.
  • Cook scrambled eggs with black beans and chopped red peppers.
  • Add chopped walnuts or sliced almonds to a spinach salad.

Folic acid, Vitamin B12, and Vitamin B6

Synergistic effect: This trio of vital B vitamins makes magic when working as a team. Together, these water-soluble vitamins reduce levels of the amino acid homocysteine, which can increase your risk of heart attacks and stroke. In addition, these same nutrients help convert food into energy, make new blood cells, maintain healthy skin and brain cells, and work together with cell division and replication.

Best food sources: Top food sources of the B vitamins include legumes, leafy greens, seeds, whole grains, dairy foods, fortified breakfast cereals, seafood, poultry, and eggs.

Harnessing the synergy:

  • Add legumes to stews or soups.
  • Eat a leafy green salad every day.
  • Have scrambled or poached eggs for breakfast.

Calcium, Magnesium, and Potassium

Synergistic effect: The group dynamic of this mineral trio is that together, they accomplish vital functions of balancing electrolytes, promoting nerve functioning, and lowering blood pressure. A 2015 study* found that men who had the highest intake of these three minerals had a 21 percent reduced risk of stroke than men who did not.

Best food sources: Rich sources of calcium are dairy foods like milk, yogurt, cheese, and cottage cheese. Magnesium is found in leafy greens, sunflower seeds, almonds, and beans, while good potassium sources are bananas, tomatoes, beet greens, avocados, beans, lentils, and butternut squash.

Harnessing the synergy:

  • Make a smoothie of a frozen banana, Greek vanilla yogurt, and a handful of leafy greens.
  • Top toast with half a mashed avocado (add lime juice and salt), sunflower seeds, and shredded cheese.


Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in dietetics and nutrition from the University of Kansas, and a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and institutional management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for local clinics, an adjunct professor at an area community college where she teaches basic nutrition, and a freelance health and nutrition writer. She is the author of The Nourished Brain: The Latest Science On Food’s Power For Protecting The Brain From Alzheimers and Dementia, The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook and The Heart Disease Prevention Cookbook. Visit her website at

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