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.
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!
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