10 Food Pairings that Maximize Nutrient Absorption

nutrient absorption

Many foods are commonly paired together for taste: peanut butter and chocolate, ham and cheese, cookies and milk, spaghetti and meatballs, wine and cheese… the list goes on. Yet there’s a more important reason to pair certain foods, and that is to increase nutrient absorption. It’s true: The foods you eat together can increase the beneficial effects of eating, including increasing nutrient absorption and boosting the effectiveness of antioxidants.

For example, when you eat foods that provide plant-based iron (aka non-heme), you can increase iron absorption by also eating a food that’s rich in vitamin C. This is because when you pair vitamin C with non-heme iron at the same meal, the vitamin C helps break the iron down, so the body can more easily absorb it. 1

Another example is the powerful, disease-fighting antioxidant lycopene. Serving foods that provide lycopene with a healthy fat like olive oil has been shown to boost absorption.

So, the next time you’re sitting down to plan your meals, consider the food pairings below to help increase nutrient absorption and get even more out of your favorite recipes.

Top Foods Pairings to Increase Nutrient Absorption

1. Tomatoes with Olive Oil

Whether you’re topping a homemade pizza, bruschetta, or just eating a fresh from the garden tomato, drizzling it with some extra virgin olive oil or a tasty vinaigrette won’t just take the flavor profile up a notch, it can also increase nutrient absorption. This is because tomatoes are a rich source of the antioxidant lycopene, and the healthy fat found in olive oil is needed to maximize absorption. 2

Lycopene is the nutrient that gives tomatoes their reddish hue. It’s also high in other red or pink-colored fruits and vegetables like watermelon, pink grapefruit, and sweet red peppers. 3 So, try adding a balsamic vinaigrette over a watermelon salad, pair pink grapefruit with avocado or coconut, and feta cheese with sweet red peppers, for other examples. Or add your favorite lycopene-rich foods like tomatoes or peppers into a whole egg omelet.

2. Dark Leafy Greens and Salmon

Foods high in calcium combined with foods high in vitamin D make for a terrific pairing. For example, try salmon over steamed spinach or kale to help increase the absorption of both beneficial nutrients. Other great calcium and vitamin D combinations could be a tuna salad with Greek yogurt or an egg and cheese omelet.

3. Bananas and Dairy

Many of us start the day with a protein-rich smoothie made with milk or yogurt, protein powder, perhaps some nuts and spinach, and a banana. Perfect! This is because bananas provide inulin, a fiber-packed prebiotic that helps the body absorb calcium from the milk and also supports greater gut health.

Other delicious combinations include inulin-rich onions or garlic served with calcium-rich salmon, dark leafy greens, and beans.

4. Oatmeal with Protein Powder

Carbohydrates are important for fueling the body and energizing activities. Unfortunately, even complex carbohydrates sometimes don’t have enough staying power. They can digest quickly to be broken down into glucose, which can lead to a blood sugar spike, followed by a crash.

Proteins, on the other hand, digest more slowly. So, when you combine the two, you get the energy you need but it sticks with you, so you don’t notice much, if any, energy spike or crash.

Stirring a quality protein powder in your oatmeal both flavors the oatmeal and will provide satiation, so you can last until lunchtime before you’re hungry again. Other options are to have a side of oatmeal with your eggs. Or, if you prefer toast, then top it with some protein-rich nut butter.

In short, combine a quality protein with a complex carb and some healthy fats to keep you going for hours.

5. Nuts (or Seeds) and Berries

Combining nuts and berries is always delicious. Plus, the berries are rich in vitamin C, which pairs well with the iron and vitamin E in the nuts. Vitamins C and E help regenerate each other’s antioxidant potential for an even bigger boost in nutrition.

6. Salad with Dressing

Many people have stopped dressing their salads to avoid the extra calories, preservatives, and other unwanted chemicals. Yet some beneficial vitamins found in vegetables, including A, D, E, and K (i.e., fat-soluble vitamins), are better absorbed when consumed with fats or oils. So, topping a salad with some quality, healthy fats can help improve nutrient absorption. One of the easiest ways is to add a quality homemade dressing to your salad.

You don’t have to stick with dressings, though, to reap the benefits. You can also top your vegetables—from lettuce and kale to broccoli and peppers to zucchini and mushrooms—with fatty fish like salmon, sardines, or mackerel; sprinkle on some nuts or seeds; or even go with a chopped salad with a hardboiled egg to better absorb those important fat-soluble nutrients.

7. Tea with Lemon

Hot or cold, tea is rich in a compound called catechins, which are a type of antioxidant. 4 Unfortunately, catechins aren’t all that stable. They can quickly break down as they go through the human digestive system. That’s where lemon juice (or other foods high in vitamin C) comes to the rescue. Vitamin C helps prevent the catechins from breaking down, increasing their absorption, so you get more of the goodness from your cup of tea. If you aren’t much of a tea-drinker, you can also add some matcha to a fruit smoothie for these benefits.

8. Salsa and Avocados

One of the all-time best combinations (IMHO) is mixing salsa that’s loaded with tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, and spices with smashed avocado to create guacamole. For even more benefits, use carrots as your guac carrier as the healthy fats in the avocado help the body better absorb vitamin A from the vegetables. 5 Taste meets nutrition for a perfect pairing!

9. Bell Peppers with Hummus

Another highly dippable food is hummus, and it pairs wonderfully with vitamin C-rich vegetables like bell peppers. This is because hummus is an iron-rich plant food, and vitamin C, as mentioned above, helps increase the absorption of non-heme iron. 6 This type of iron isn’t as easily absorbed by the body as heme iron (found in meat and poultry).

Other powerful pairings for iron and vitamin C include adding lemon juice to a lentil soup or salad or loading chili with tomatoes and peppers.

10. Ice Cream and a Sunny Summer’s Day

While it’s not something you likely want to do every day due to the calorie count, enjoying an ice cream or froyo on a sunny day won’t just help you keep your cool, but the vitamin D your body absorbs from the sun can help the body take in more calcium from the dairy-rich treat.

Foods that Don’t Pair Well?

Sure, no one wants an ice cream and IPA float (though a dark stout might be a different story…) or chocolate chips in their tuna salad, but are there foods that shouldn’t be combined due to nutrient absorption? Indeed, there are. For example,

• Making a green tea and spinach, kale, or other leafy green smoothie could inhibit some of the antioxidant effects of green tea. Both green tea and leafy greens are great foods, but eating them at separate meals seems to be more beneficial.

• Snacking on nuts with a latte sounds like a great afternoon pick-me-up. However, foods high in phytic acids—such as nuts, seeds, and legumes—can decrease the absorption of calcium from the milk in the latte. If you’re getting plenty the rest of the day, this is not an issue. However, if you’re deficient in calcium, zinc, or iron, it’s a good idea to munch on foods high in phytic acid separately, so they don’t interfere with nutrient absorption.

• Speaking of foods rich in calcium like milk and yogurt, it’s also best not to pair them with foods relatively high in oxalic acid, like rhubarb, parsley, spinach, or watercress, as this nutrient can also interfere with the absorption of minerals. Let’s be fair, though; this combination doesn’t sound that appetizing.

Improving Nutrient Absorption

Fortunately, many food combinations to enhance nutrient absorption are also some of the best tasting and most satisfying. A salad with an oil and vinegar dressing typically is more appetizing, serving guacamole with salsa only comes naturally, and adding a protein source to morning oatmeal helps fuel a productive morning. So, as you’re working toward a healthier diet, now you can pair taste with nutrient absorption for the best of all worlds!