As Registered Dietitians, “whole foods first” is our philosophy! When it comes to meeting your nutrient needs, eating a diet rich in whole foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans, nuts and seeds) is the best approach. Isolated nutrients, such as those found in supplements, don’t appear to have the same beneficial impacts as whole foods. Although we are unsure why whole foods have greater positive effects in the body, recent research suggests there could be a synergistic effect happening between all the nutrients found in that food.
Food is a symphony, and no one nutrient plays a solo. A synergistic effect in one or more whole foods occurs when the sum of two or more nutrients creates a potential health benefit. For example, an apple contains many different components—naturally occurring sugars; complex carbohydrates; soluble and insoluble fiber; protein; vitamin C; and the phytochemicals, quercetin, catechin, chlorogenic acid, and anthocyanin. Together, these nutrients work in concert to supply energy, protect DNA from oxidative damage, nourish probiotics in your gut, and more! Taken on their own, however, these nutrients don’t make much of an impact. For example, studies on quercetin (the main antioxidant in apples) supplementation are inconclusive and quercetin’s absorbability is diminished when it’s removed from the original food. Similarly, research shows eating fatty fish twice a week appears to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease but taking fish oil (omega-3 fatty acid) supplements does not have the same protective effects. These studies emphasize the importance of eating foods in their whole form to boost the body’s ability to absorb and use the disease-fighting nutrients they contain.
“Whole” is an important distinction here and refers to unprocessed and minimally processed foods that are close to how they appear in nature. Carrots straight from the ground are unprocessed. Although baby carrots undergo processing to remove unwanted and inedible parts, no additional ingredients are added and there is a negligible change to nutrient content. Therefore, baby carrots are minimally processed. However, when carrots are turned into carrot cake, the addition of sugar, fat, salt, and refined grains creates an ultra–processed food—one that may harm health. “Ultra-processed” applies to foods made with highly-palatable industrial ingredients where important components are stripped away (refined grains and juices) and where significant amounts of nutrients are entirely absent. Other examples of ultra-processed food include soft drinks, cookies, candy, and reconstituted meats.
How synergy happens
Consider the nutrition makeup of a mango. One whole mango has more than two days’ worth of the vitamin C you need to support your immune system and maintain the health of your joint cartilage, bones, and teeth. Mangoes also contain fiber, and without it, water-soluble vitamin C in the mango would pass through your digestive system so fast you would hardly have a chance to absorb it! In mangoes, and other fruits and vegetables, fiber works synergistically with vitamin C (and other nutrients) by slowing passage through the digestive tract. This results in increased nutrient absorption.
Did you know mangoes have fatty acids? Without the natural vitamin E in mango, these healthy fats would never reach their destination! Here, vitamin E works synergistically with fatty acids to protect them from oxidation on the journey to your brain where they support learning and reduce risk for age-related cognitive decline. These synergistic nutrient relationships can get much more complicated, but are similar across many vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Any well-practiced vegetarian or vegan can tell you about the importance of pairing beans (a plant source of iron) with peppers (or any other vitamin C source!). Since the type of iron found in plants (non-heme iron) is infamously difficult for the body to absorb, it needs a source of acid (vitamin C = ascorbic acid) to enable the formation of iron chelate, which is much easier to utilize. Pairing spinach (iron) and strawberries (vitamin C) or beef (iron) and broccoli (vitamin C) produces the same effect.
Other food pairings can trigger the release of bodily substances that enhance nutrient absorption. Take, for example, avocados and salsa (a.k.a. guacamole). Tomatoes (salsa) are a rich source of an antioxidant called lutein, which is found largely in your eye’s retina. Lutein protects against age-related macular degeneration and absorbs the potentially damaging blue light emitted by many electronics. The issue is that lutein is hydrophobic (“water-fearing”), meaning the water-rich environment of your digestive tract makes lutein absorption challenging. So how can we absorb it? We need to release a substance called bile, which can make hydrophobic nutrients like lutein useful for the body. Luckily, the healthy unsaturated fats in avocado stimulate the release of bile that makes lutein absorption possible. This same relationship happens when we eat spinach (lutein) with eggs (fatty acids).
Practice synergy daily
You don’t have to be a registered dietitian or nutrition expert to practice synergy in your daily diet. Start by simply choosing whole foods that are unprocessed or minimally processed. When it comes to building meals and snacks, aim to have two or more food groups present (fruits/vegetables, whole grains, healthy fat, lean protein). Keeping a varied diet will increase the number of nutrients available to interact and work together. As you begin to eat more whole foods in your diet and decrease the amount of ultra-processed foods, nutrient synergy will occur, supporting your body’s health and wellbeing. Our corporate nutrition programs are built by our experienced in-house Registered Dietitians.
Recipes with synergy
- Mango Salad with Chile-Lime Salt
- Classic Guacamole
- Plant-Based Sheet-Pan Fajitas
- Strawberry Avocado and Farro Salad
- Healthy Beef and Broccoli