Although researchers tend to isolate foods, nutrients, or phytochemicals to 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.
This fruit-and-vegetable combo is 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 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 anticancer 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 1½ cups of broccoli and 3½ cups of cooked tomatoes to your diet at least three times per week.
Bonus tip: While raw veggies certainly have plenty of health benefits, cooking makes the cancer-fighting constituents of tomatoes and broccoli more bioavailable (that is, ready for utilization and/or storage in the body)—so make a sauce. Cook tomatoes to increase the bioavailability of lycopene, a cancer-fighting compound.
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Combo 2: Apples and Apple Skin
An apple a day is one of nature’s best prescriptions and a perfect example of synergy within a single food. They’re a great source of polyphenols, vitamin C, fiber, and potassium. Numerous studies have linked eating apples with a reduced risk of some cancers, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and diabetes. 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 antiproliferating activity in apples,” says Elaine Magee, R.D., the author of Food Synergy. “Food synergy is when components within or between foods work together in the body for maximum health benefits. 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.
Bonus tips: A 2011 study found that ursolic acid in apple skin may preserve muscle, so snack away.
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Combo 3: Garlic and Fish
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 recommend 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.
Recipe: Garlic Smelts With Parsley
8 large sardines or smelts, cleaned, rinsed, and dried
Extra-virgin olive oil for brushing on fish
Salt and black pepper, to taste
½ tsp minced garlic
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
Preheat broiler. Lightly brush fish inside and out with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.
Lay fish on a baking sheet without overcrowding—keep them at least 1 to 2 inches apart. Broil for 2 to 3 minutes on each side.
Drizzle with more oil if desired and sprinkle with garlic. Garnish with parsley and serve immediately.
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Combo 4: Salad Greens and Almonds
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 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 3½ 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 plain salads.
“This is a great argument against fat-free dressings,” says Magee, who 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.”
Recipe: Arugula and Quinoa Salad With Almonds
½ cup quinoa
2 peaches, quartered
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil 1 cup arugula
½ cup almonds
Black pepper, to taste
Add quinoa and 1 cup water to a saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat. Allow to simmer for 15 minutes.
Coat peaches in 1 tbsp olive oil and cook in grill pan over medium-high heat until fruit begins to caramelize.
Toss quinoa, peaches, arugula, and almonds in a bowl. Drizzle on remaining olive oil, season with pepper, and serve.
“They’re also rich in the compounds avenanthramides, which help prevent free radicals from damaging LDL cholesterol (oxidized LDL can encourage plaque buildup in the arteries), thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease,” Magee says. Blueberries are an excellent source of manganese, vitamins C and K, and dietary fiber. They’re also full of ellagic acid, which studies have shown may prevent certain cancers.
While oatmeal and blueberries are powerful on their own, they may work even better together. A study in The Journal of Nutrition found that when vitamin C was added to oat phytochemicals, the amount of time LDL was protected from oxidation increased from 137 to 216 minutes.
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Combo 6: Green Tea and Lemon
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 greatly 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 a decreased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and high cholesterol. But catechin breaks down quickly in nonacidic 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.
Bonus tip: Not all tea requires boiling water (212°F) to steep. Green tea, for example, will burn and taste bitter. For green tea, heat your water to around 180°F for full flavor.
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.
Bonus tip: Skip the juice. Most of the phytochemicals in fresh grapes are found in their skin.
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Combo 8: Red Beans and Brown Rice
Packed with protein, fiber, vitamin B12, magnesium, and potassium, red kidney beans really are a magical “fruit.” They 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 they form a complete protein. A protein is “complete” if it contains 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 ½ cup of brown rice provides 327 calories, 1g of fat, 42.5g of carbohydrates, 18g of fiber, and 18.5g of muscle-building protein.
Recipe: Brown Rice and Bean Bowl With Chili
½ cup uncooked brown rice
½ (15 oz) can red kidney beans
2 tsp olive oil
Pinch chili powder
2 tbsp chopped Italian parsley
½ tsp garlic powder
Cook rice in a saucepan according to package instructions, then transfer to a bowl.
In a separate bowl, combine beans with olive oil, then transfer to the pan used to cook the rice. Add chili powder, parsley, and garlic powder and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.
Mix all ingredients together and serve immediately.
Bonus tip: Because it’s lower on the glycemic index—a measure of how quickly a food impacts blood-glucose levels—brown rice is better than white rice for maintaining stable blood sugar throughout the day, which can help prevent diabetes. Brown rice also contains more fiber than white rice and helps keep your digestive system healthy and regular.