Dynamic Duos: Foods Team Up for Healthy Benefits

All this talk about supplements over the past few weeks got me thinking that it was time to put some focus back on food.


We all have to eat, and while many of us have issues with too much carbohydrate, too much fat, food allergies, food dislikes, and so on, the bottom line is that we eat food, not nutrients. Dietary supplements have a role in our health, but they’re not meant to replace food, except in extreme situations. Our bodies are very clever at extracting the nutrients and substances from food to be used for various purposes. Eliminating entire food groups, or overdoing a particular food or nutrient can upset the “balance,” and sometimes the consequences can be harmful.

Cut It Out
As a dietitian, I get concerned when people tell me that they’re going to “cut out carbs”, “avoid red meat,” or “stay away from ____.” Now certainly, if someone has an allergy to, say, nuts or soy, that person needs to avoid foods containing those ingredients. But food allergies, while serious, aren’t extremely common. Most people, even people with diabetes, heart disease, or digestive disorders, to name a few, can benefit from eating a variety of foods.

When someone has diabetes, it’s understandable that a primary focus becomes blood glucose management. And knowing that carbohydrate foods raise blood glucose gives people a reason to control, limit, or even avoid carbohydrate foods. The result? Better blood glucose control, perhaps. But what is often overlooked are the missed benefits from eating healthful carbohydrate foods. And in avoiding carbohydrate, protein and unhealthy fats (from animal-based foods, for instance) may be overdone. No dietary supplement can make up for all of the healthy substances in carbohydrate foods; likewise, supplements can’t undo possible damaging effects from eating too much sodium, too many harmful fats, etc.

Food Synergy
This leads me to a concept called “food synergy.” Food synergy means that nutrients in food work together to produce healthful effects. One might ask: Well, if it’s a matter of putting certain nutrients together for an intended purpose, like lowering cholesterol, why not take those nutrients in supplement form?

It’s a great question, and the answer is this: We know that foods contain more than just vitamins and minerals. In fact, scientists have identified literally hundreds of phytonutrients in foods (lycopene, polyphenols, or sulforaphane sound familiar?). We’ve only just scratched the surface in understanding what they do, how they interact with other nutrients, and what they may be capable of in terms of disease prevention. You simply can’t reap the benefits of these tiny but powerful substances by popping a multivitamin.

Nutrients That Help Each Other Out
Various nutrients work as a team to promote health. For this reason, eating isn’t just about getting the right amount of carbohydrate, fiber, or sodium. Sure, that’s important, and it’s a starting place. But dietitians try to help people see the forest for the trees, meaning that eating certain types of foods together can help you maximize the nutrition potential from your foods. So how does the concept of food synergy translate into what’s on your plate? Here are some examples of how food pairings (“dynamic duos”) can boost the nutritional quality of your meals:

Baby spinach leaves and mandarin oranges. One of my favorite salads is baby spinach, mandarin oranges, some slivered almonds, and a drizzle of raspberry vinaigrette. What you might not know is that the vitamin C from the oranges helps to boost the iron absorption from the spinach (iron from plant sources isn’t as easily absorbed as iron from animal foods).

Apples and green tea. Here’s a great afternoon pick-me-up that’s good for your heart. Apples contain quercetin and green tea is full of catechins — both are phytochemicals that team up to prevent your platelets (types of cells in your blood) from clumping together and possibly forming a blood clot.

Cooked tomatoes and olive oil. There’s a reason that a good tomato sauce is made with juicy tomatoes and a generous splash of olive oil. Tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant thought to protect against various types of cancers and heart disease. Raw tomatoes contain lycopene, but this antioxidant is more readily absorbed when the tomatoes are cooked, and when some fat is present, too. Lycopene is also found in apricots, papaya, pink grapefruit, guava, and watermelon.

Yogurt and well, yogurt. If you choose wisely, your yogurt can give you both vitamin D and calcium. Calcium has been overshadowed lately by its partner, vitamin D, but you should know that both nutrients are needed for bone health. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, which, in turn, helps build and maintain strong bones. Yogurt is an excellent source of calcium and many brands have added vitamin D, as well (check the label), which makes it a winning combo.

Beans and rice. A staple meal of many a vegetarian eating plan, beans and rice eaten together make up what’s called a “complete protein” meal. Beans and rice are each lacking in the full set of amino acids. When eaten together, they “complement” each other, providing you with the quality of protein found in animal sources, like red meat and chicken. Soy and quinoa are the only two plant proteins that have all the amino acids needed for good health. Technically, you don’t need to eat the beans and rice together to get your complete protein, but it sure makes for a tastier meal when they’re side by side on your plate!

If the thought of trying to pair your foods up in a winning way makes you anxious, relax. Dietitians always tell you to eat a variety of foods, eat different colored foods, and eat whole foods (less processed, less refined) whenever you can. It’s simple — really!

Learn more about the health and medical experts who who provide you with the cutting-edge resources, tools, news, and more on Diabetes Self-Management.
About Our Experts >>

16 thoughts on “Dynamic Duos: Foods Team Up for Healthy Benefits

  1. Would the green tea/apples combo present a bleeding concern for someone who takes Plavix to reduce platelet “stickyness”?

  2. I’ve always been taught that white rice is not good for diabetics, that brown rice is slightly better, and wild rice, which isn’t really rice, is the best of the three. Has the science on this changed?

  3. I loved the article – so much wisdom in it. We try so hard to do things that are healthy and most of it is an every day thing. Exercise, eat healthy, drink water, do it all in moderation. I think that’s what we miss and this article leads back to basics.
    Thank you.

  4. Thanks that was A helpfull artical. I would like some more about foods that team up to help with your health.

  5. Hi Terry,

    When choosing a yogurt, choose one that contains “live and active cultures,” and, per 6-ounce serving, contains no more than 150 calories, no more than 1.5 grams of saturated fat, no more than 20 grams of sugar, at least 8 grams of protein, and at least 20% of the Daily Value for calcium. Hope this helps!

  6. I never eat white rice. It raises my blood sugar very high. I eat brown rice and wild rice sparingly and the flavor is so much better than white rice.

  7. I like yogurt but when I eat a pot of yogurt, even natural without flavors or sugar, my glycemie in the morning on fasting is higher than if did not have it. Is is possible that I do not tolerate lactos.

  8. Hi Joe,

    You ask a great question. Having a cup of green tea with an apple once a day is unlikely to pose a great risk for you, being on Plavix. That being said, however, I’d encourage you to check with your doctor or pharmacist about any dietary restrictions that you need to follow while being on Plavix or any other type of blood thinner, for that matter.

  9. Hi Kenneth and Ferne,

    I usually encourage people to choose brown rice or wild rice rather than white rice. Wild rice is a little higher in protein and lower in carbohydrate than white or brown rice. Interestingly, though, the glycemic index of white, brown, and wild rice is actually quite similar. A type of rice that has a lower glycemic index than any of these is brown basmati rice.

  10. RE: Beans & Rice – what about the recent story abuot the negative aspects of white rice towards diabetics? Brown rice or Long Grain brown rice should be a suitable replacement, I suppose

  11. Hi john,

    A study came out this week linking eating white rice with an increased risk of developing diabetes. However, this wasn’t a cause-and-effect study, meaning that this study doesn’t tell us that people who eat white rice will get diabetes. Also, white rice or any one food is not solely responsible for causing diabetes; many other factors are usually involved, too, such as genetics, lifestyle, body weight, etc. In the meantime, though, there’s no reason why one can’t enjoy a beans and rice dish made with brown rice, brown basmati rice, or wild rice.

  12. Hi Padma,

    It’s unlikely that lactose intolerance would cause a rise in your blood glucose levels. Lactose intolerance causes symptoms such as gassiness, bloating, cramps, and diarrhea. You might want to try Greek-style yogurt, which is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrate than regular yogurt and see if that makes a difference in your blood glucose.

  13. For those concerned with white rice — or any other kind — potatoes, pasta, etc. cause blood sugar spikes, if you do a simple thing with your meal that contains them, can cut down on this problem quite a lot. Start eating something that is less processed or non-protein before you start in on the food that concern you. For instance, if you’re having beans and rice and chicken, eat some of the beans and chicken before you eat the rice. 🙂 And be sure to eat slowly — not fast-food style. After about 1/4 – 1/2 of the beginning foods, then go ahead and start having the rice or whatever.

    By starting your meal this way, your digestive process will be slower than than if you start off with the processed foods that cause you problems.

    For even more specific help, look up “glycemic load,” David Mendoza’s site — where there is also a lot of info in Glycemic Index and tons of other diabetes info.

    Take care — go head and enjoy some “normal” servings of your favorite carbs.

  14. very interested article with much wisdom.You says eatin white rice nd beans give complete protain,What of white rice cooked whith vegetable?

  15. Hi Nasiru,

    Most vegetables, like broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, and peppers, do not contain much protein. Beans and lentils, however, are starchy vegetables that are higher in protein, so when combined with a grain food, the quality and quantify of protein is increased.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *