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How (and Why) to Practice Food Synergy
By Dr. Josh Axe
May 2, 2023
Ever wonder if it’s okay to eat many different types of foods together in one meal? The concept of food synergy is about consuming a balanced diet that includes a variety of whole foods in order to maximize their health benefits.
Reason being: Each food contains a unique mix of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other compounds — and when you combine different foods together, some research suggests certain nutrients are beneficial together.
So what is a synergetic diet, and how can you practice food synergy when creating meals at home? Below, we’ll look at how food synergy works, what makes it different than “food combining” and how to practice it.
Of course, you should always consult your healthcare practitioner prior to beginning any new dietary or lifestyle regimen.
What is meant by food synergy, also called nutrient pairing? Food synergy refers to the idea that certain nutrients or foods have greater beneficial effects when consumed together than when consumed separately.
This concept suggests that the interaction between various nutrients — similar to the interaction of vitamins and minerals — in whole foods act synergistically, meaning their combined actions cooperate together to lead to greater effects than when they are consumed separately. Therefore, the goal is to focus on sustaining a generally healthy diet overall, rather than seeking out specific nutrients.
Food synergy can also refer to the idea that certain foods help enhance the absorption or bioavailability of nutrients in other foods. For instance, consuming foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, alongside iron-rich foods like spinach, can improve the body's ability to absorb iron. That's a classic food pairing.
What is an example of synergy in nutrition? Here’s an example of how food synergy works:
Plant foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are rich in many different antioxidant compounds, such as polyphenols, flavonoids and carotenoids. These compounds work together in many ways, such as to help provide protection against oxidative stress and excess inflammation.
If you were to isolate just one antioxidant from a fruit, for example, berries, and take it in supplement form, it wouldn't have the same effects as when you consume the compound from foods that also contain other compounds.
This same concept applies to many different foods, such as vegetables, herbs, whole grains, legumes and spices.
It’s also beneficial to eat a variety of whole foods together, such as vegetables and legumes, which can aid in the absorption of their nutrients.
“Food combining” is a dietary theory that suggests that certain food combinations can help improve digestion and overall health.
This theory is based on the idea that different types of foods require different enzymes and digestive processes to be properly broken down and absorbed by the body. While there may be some benefits to certain food combinations for improving digestion, the idea of strict food combining is not supported by scientific research.
The human digestive system is complex and has evolved to be able to break down and absorb a wide variety of foods at the same time. Therefore, some research suggests it isn’t necessary to complicate things by only eating certain foods in combination, such as fruits only with other fruits, and instead to focus on variety and nutritious food choices.
What are the benefits of food synergy? Here’s why you may want to incorporate this practice into your regular diet:
Eating certain foods together, such as whole grains with legumes or different spices in conjunction, can help the body absorb beneficial nutrients more easily.
Phytochemicals, such as flavonoids and carotenoids, work together in complex ways to help provide greater antioxidant protection than when individual antioxidants are consumed.
Want to improve gut health?The combination of different types of fiber in whole foods can help promote healthy digestion by regulating bowel movements and promoting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
The combination of protein, fiber and healthy fats in whole foods can help promote feelings of fullness and reduce cravings, which is helpful for promoting healthy weight management.
If you don’t consume animal proteins, eating a combination of different plant foods (such as beans and rice) can help you meet your protein needs by providing you with all essential amino acids.
Practicing food synergy involves choosing and combining foods in a way that maximizes their nutritional benefits. In general, focusing on a varied and balanced diet that includes a variety of whole foods and nutrient-dense sources can help you practice food synergy and optimize your health.
What foods work synergistically? Here are some tips to help you incorporate food synergy into your diet:
When you eat foods from different groups (such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds), you help ensure that you're getting a range of essential nutrients.
Eat grains, nuts, seeds and legumes to add different amino acids to your diet.
Certain vitamins — such as vitamins A, D, E and K — are fat-soluble, meaning they need to be consumed with fats to be properly absorbed.
Processed and refined foods often lack the complex combination of nutrients found in whole foods, so focusing on consuming whole, unprocessed foods can help you maximize the benefits of food synergy.
Which foods work best together? Drawing on the principles above, here are some examples of the best food synergy pairings:
What vitamins work in synergy? As mentioned earlier, consuming vitamin C with iron can help improve iron absorption. Pairing spinach with vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus fruits, strawberries, or bell peppers, can boost both of their benefits.
A compound called piperine in black pepper can enhance the absorption of curcumin, the active compound found in turmeric.
The healthy fats in almonds can increase the absorption of calcium found in kale and other greens.
The healthy fats in hummus can increase the absorption of beta-carotene found in carrots.
This is another example of vitamin C and iron being eaten together.
Tomatoes are a good source of lycopene, an antioxidant that has been linked to many health perks. Pairing tomatoes with healthy fats, such as olive oil or avocado, can help improve lycopene absorption.
Oats are a good source of fiber and beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber that can help lower cholesterol levels. Combining oats with nuts, such as almonds or walnuts, can help increase the antioxidant and inflammation-balancing effects of beta-glucan.
Beans and rice are both good sources of protein and fiber, but when consumed together, they create a complete protein source.
Certain forms of yogurt are a good source of probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria that can promote gut health. Pairing yogurt with berries, such as blueberries or raspberries, can provide additional antioxidants and fiber, as well as improve the flavor and texture of the yogurt.
The vitamin D in salmon can help the body absorb calcium found in broccoli.
The vitamin C in lemon can increase the absorption of the antioxidants in green tea.
The healthy fats in avocado can increase the absorption of beta-carotene (vitamin A) found in sweet potato.
The protein and fats found in eggs enhance the body’s ability to absorb vitamins and nutrients found in vegetables.
The probiotics in yogurt can increase the absorption of antioxidants.
The healthy fats in nuts support the absorption of nutrients found in whole grains such as wild rice or quinoa, plus this helps form a complete protein.
The sulfur compounds in garlic can work synergistically with the iron found in spinach.
The inflammation-balancing properties of ginger can aid in the absorption of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish such as salmon and tuna.
There are no specific foods that should not be paired together for food synergy. However, some people may experience digestive issues or other adverse effects when certain foods are combined and eaten together, especially highly-processed foods.
Pay attention to your body’s reaction when combining these foods and consider limiting how often you eat them together if you react negatively:
Consuming foods that are high in fat and sugar, such as ice cream and desserts for example, can cause gastrointestinal distress.
Drinking milk and consuming acidic fruits such as oranges or grapefruit together can sometimes lead to digestive discomfort.
Eating beans and dairy products together may trigger excess bloating and gas, as both are high in carbohydrates that can be difficult to digest.
Some people find that eating protein and starchy foods together, such as a steak and potatoes, can cause digestive issues as the enzymes required to break down each type of food work best under different conditions.
Drinking carbonated beverages with meals can cause occasional bloating and discomfort, as the bubbles in the drinks can cause gas to become trapped in the stomach.
Note: Everyone's digestive system is unique, so what causes issues for one person may not affect another. If you experience digestive discomfort after eating certain food combinations, it may be helpful to keep a food diary and identify patterns of what negatively affects your digestion.
Dr. Josh Axe, DC, DNM, CNS, is a doctor of chiropractic, doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist and author with a passion to help people get well using food and nutrition. He operates leading natural health website DrAxe.com and is co-founder of Ancient Nutrition, a health supplement company. He’s also author of the books Eat Dirt, Essential Oils: Ancient Medicine, Keto Diet, Collagen Diet and Ancient Remedies.