Some talents just work better as a team. Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. Karl Malone and John Stockton. They bring out the best in each another. Food can work that way, too. Although researchers tend to isolate foods, nutrients, or phytochemicals and study their effects on health, there’s growing interest among nutrition scientists in examining the relationships between them. The foods that follow can do more for your health together than they ever could alone.
"Food synergy is when components within or between foods work together in the body for maximum health benefits,” says Elaine Magee, R.D., the author of 25 books, including Food Synergy. “By eating foods that have a synergistic effect, you can absorb more nutrients, gain control of your appetite, and lower your risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and weight-related diseases like Type 2 diabetes.”
Synergy can occur across different types of foods or even within a food itself, and the tag-team ingredients don’t necessarily need to be in the same mouthful, or even the same meal.
Combo 1 - Onions and Grapes
Fights: Allergies, cancer, weight gain
Quercetin is a powerful plant-derived antioxidant found in many fruits and vegetables, but it’s especially concentrated in onions. It’s been shown to help relieve allergy symptoms and offer significant cardiovascular protection by improving circulation—which, by extension, also supports erectile function.
Meanwhile, the polyphenol antioxidant catechin, found in high doses in black grapes, can help prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurological disorders, and may even help you lose weight.
Together, these foods may inhibit blood clots and boost overall heart health. Add sliced red grapes and diced onion to chicken salad, or combine them with a few other healthful ingredients to make chutney as a perfect complement to grilled chicken.
Combo 2 - Oatmeal and Blueberries
Fights: Heart disease, cancer
Whole grains such as oatmeal house an arsenal of phytochemicals to fight inflammation and disease. “They’re also uniquely rich in the compounds avenanthramides, which help prevent free radicals from damaging LDL cholesterol (oxidized LDL is more likely to encourage plaque buildup in the arteries), thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease,” Magee says.
Blueberries are an excellent source of manganese and vitamins C and K, and a good source of dietary fiber. They’re also on the American Institute for Cancer Research’s list of Foods that Fight Cancer because of their concentrations of ellagic acid, which laboratory studies have shown may help prevent certain cancers. While oatmeal and blueberries are each powerful on their own, they may work even better together. A study conducted by Tufts University researchers and published in The Journal of Nutrition observed that when vitamin C was added to oat phytochemicals, the amount of time LDL was protected from oxidation increased from 137 to 216 minutes.
Combo 3 - Garlic and Fish
Fights: Inflammation, blood pressure, cholesterol
Fish and seafood are the major sources of long-chain omega-3 fats. They’re also rich in other nutrients (such as vitamin D and selenium), high in protein, and low in saturated fat. The omega-3 fatty acids help lower blood pressure, heart rate, and triglycerides; improve blood-vessel function; and reduce inflammation. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating one to two 3 oz servings of fatty fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, or sardines) a week.
“Cook your fish with garlic to make an even bigger impact on your blood chemistry,” says Magee. Researchers at the University of Guelph tested the effects of garlic and fish oil supplements, taken alone and together, on men with moderately high blood cholesterol. The combination lowered total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides.
Combo 4 - Tomatoes and Broccoli
Fights: Prostate cancer
These vegetables are each loaded with cancer-fighting compounds: tomatoes, with antioxidants such as lycopene, vitamin C, and vitamin A; and broccoli, with the phytochemicals beta-carotene, indoles, and isothiocyanates. A University of Illinois (UI) study also found that eating them together is like a one-two punch against prostate cancer. “We see an additive effect. We think it’s because the bioactive compounds in each food have different actions on anti-cancer pathways,” says UI food science and human nutrition professor John Erdman, Ph.D. In the study, the tomato and broccoli combination outperformed other diets in slowing the growth of cancer tumors in rats. So try to add about 11⁄2 cups of broccoli and 31⁄2 cups of cooked tomatoes to your diet at least three times per week.
Combo 5 - Apples and Apple Skin
Fights: Asthma, cancer, diabetes, heart disease
A (whole) apple a day is one of nature’s best prescriptions, and a perfect example of synergy within a single food. Apples are a great source of polyphenols, flavonoids, vitamin C, fiber, and potassium; numerous population studies have linked eating apples with a reduced risk of some cancers, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and diabetes.
In lab studies, researchers at Cornell University found that eating apple slush with skin worked five times better to prevent the oxidation of free radicals than apple slush alone. “The phenolic phytochemicals in apple peel account for the majority of the antioxidant and anti-proliferating activity in apples,” Magee says.
Combo 6 - Salad Greens and Almonds
Fights: Cataracts, cancer, heart disease
Brightly colored vegetables are rich in plant pigments that can reduce your risk of heart disease, cataracts, and cancer. However, they need to be eaten with a small amount of absorption-boosting monounsaturated fat, such as that found in almonds or avocados.
An Ohio State University study measured how well phytochemicals from a mixed green salad were absorbed when eaten with or without 31⁄2 tbsp of avocado. The avocado’s fatty acids helped subjects absorb 8.3 times more alpha-carotene, 13.6 times more beta-carotene, and 4.3 times more lutein than those who ate their salads plain.
“This is a great argument against fat-free salad dressings,” says Magee, who also suggests adding sliced almonds to salads. “When plant sterols are combined with almonds, the LDL cholesterol-lowering effect is greater than with plant sterols alone.”
Combo 7 - Red Beans and Brown Rice
Fights: Cancer, diabetes, heart disease
Packed with protein, fiber, vitamin B12, magnesium, and potassium, red kidney beans really are a magical “fruit.” Eating beans can help prevent colorectal cancers and heart disease, as well as reduce blood cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar levels. Brown rice, on the other hand, is a whole grain (meaning that both the germ and the bran parts of the grain have been preserved) and is high in magnesium and fiber.
Rice and beans are usually inexpensive and readily available, and, when eaten together, form a complete protein. A protein is “complete” if it contains an adequate proportion of all nine of the essential amino acids (those that can’t be made by our bodies and therefore must be ingested). A cup of red beans with half a cup of brown rice provides 327 calories, 1g of fat, 42.5g of carbohydrates, 18g of fiber, and 18.5g of muscle-building protein.
Combo 8 - Green Tea and Lemon
Fights: Free radicals
This is a culinary no-brainer, at least south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But while you may know that the taste of tea is improved by a squeeze of lemon, you may not realize that the nutritional benefits are amplified by it as well.
Green tea is high in catechin, which is associated with lower incidences of cancer, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, and more. However, catechin breaks down quickly in non-acidic environments such as the intestinal tract, so typically only about 20% of catechin is available for absorption after digestion. However, a study published in Molecular Nutrition and Food Research found that adding lemon juice to tea increases the level of antioxidant utilization in the body more than five times.