What is Food Synergy?
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What is Food Synergy?

What is Food Synergy?

Posted a month ago

SaVanna Shoemaker, MS, RDN, LD

SaVanna Shoemaker, MS, RDN, LD

Synergy is the idea that two or more things have more power together than they do individually. Maybe you’ve seen it on a motivational poster or heard people refer to the concept of synergy in the workplace. A synergistic effect is one that’s “greater than the sum of its parts.”

And that is a concept that we can apply to nutrition too. It’s called food synergy.

Here’s a quick primer on food synergy and some of our favorite examples of meals that are more nutritious than the sum of their parts.

What Is Food Synergy?

Food synergy is the idea that combining certain foods or ingredients provides more nutrients than eating them separately. It makes sense to approach food with this mindset, because this is how we naturally eat. We combine foods to make them taste better but this combining of foods also provides health benefits.

From a research perspective It shifts the focus away from individual nutrients, and returns the attention to the meal or dietary pattern as a whole. 

By approaching nutrition from a food synergy perspective, we can realize the importance of eating a varied diet and choosing “food first” before dietary supplements to meet our nutrient needs. This is because food contains so much more than just a single, isolated nutrient — and no supplement in the world can replicate the complexity and depth of nutrition in a whole food. 

Whole foods contain various combinations of carbs, fiber, fat, protein, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that all work in concert with one another and with the other components of your meal.

One great example of food synergy in action is tube feedings. Most tube feeding formulas are made from carefully-designed supplements crafted with various combinations of isolated nutrients, oil, sugar, and protein. However, children who require tube feedings consistently have better health outcomes when their tube feeding is made of blended whole foods rather than processed tube feeding formulas.[*][*]

Benefits of Food Synergy

It may seem a little silly to think about the benefits of food synergy because it is essentially the benefits of eating meals. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand why real, whole foods are a better choice than supplements in most situations.

#1. Better nutrient absorption

Combining foods often helps us absorb some nutrients better than if we ate each food individually or took an isolated dietary supplement. For example, eating vegetables with fats or oils helps boost the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Oily or creamy, high-fat salad dressings don’t just make your salad taste better — they help your body absorb some of the nutrients from the greens better too.[*]

#2.Easier to digest

Food tends to be easier on your stomach than supplements. If you’ve ever taken an iron supplement on an empty stomach, you may have first-hand experience with this. Iron supplements can cause nausea and digestive upset, but a naturally iron-rich steak with a side of iron-rich creamed spinach is unlikely to have the same effect.[*]

#3.Nourishing to the gut

The fiber found naturally in some whole foods (e.g., fruits and vegetables) is considered a prebiotic — or a food source for the healthy bacteria living in your gut. They are able to ferment fibers and produce short-chain fatty acids, which play a role in gut health, blood sugar balance, immune health, and brain function.[*]

#4. Enjoyable

There’s no arguing that sitting down to a delicious meal is infinitely more enjoyable than taking a bunch of supplements.

There’s also joy to be found in the cooking process and in “breaking bread” (even if you’re on Keto) with family and friends.

Are Macro Ratios Important for Food Synergy?

Anyone following any diet with any combination of macronutrients can benefit from food synergy. It’s all about balance.

Most meals that you eat should contain a balance of protein, fat, and carbs. On Keto, most of your carbs in a given meal will come from non-starchy veggies, and you will ideally have more fat on the plate. On the other hand, a vegan meal may be mostly carbs from rice, pasta, veggies, and beans — but with some added fat from olive oil or avocado. 

Despite being vastly different in macronutrients, both of these meals can still be perfectly nutritious — providing proteins, fats, carbs, and a variety of micronutrients and antioxidants.

How to Eat to Maximize Food Synergy

Here are four things to consider when building your meals to maximize food synergy:

  • Balance your plate. Each meal or snack should contain three components: protein, fat, and carbs (or non-starchy veggies). On Keto, this could be a salmon filet with bacon-wrapped asparagus. A balanced vegan meal may look like a grain bowl with chickpeas and avocado. For a picky kid, it might be chicken nuggets and cheesy broccoli.
  • Keep it real. Choose whole, minimally processed foods most of the time. Processed meals and snacks are often produced in such a way that maximizes flavor while removing most of the nutrients. They may taste really, unnaturally good, but they’re associated with weight gain and chronic disease. Eating mostly whole food — no matter which type of diet you follow — may improve your health.[*]
  • Mix it up. Include a wide variety of protein, fat, fruits and veggies in your diet. Fruits and veggies get their color from antioxidants, and fruits and veggies of different colors often contain different antioxidants. So enjoy your cauliflower and zucchini, but don’t be afraid to include some purple cabbage, red bell pepper, and blackberries too.[*]
  • Season generously. Finally, remember that herbs, spices, and other seasonings add more than just flavor — they are loaded with antioxidants or other beneficial plant compounds. Beyond salt and pepper, you can use garlic, onion, ginger, vinegar, lime or lemon juice, fresh or dry herbs, and spices of all kinds — like turmeric and cinnamon.[*]

Top 12 Food Synergy Pairings

Here are 12 examples of food synergy in action:

  1. Green smoothie with fresh lime juice: Greens are rich in plant-based iron, which the body doesn’t absorb very well — but add some vitamin C from a fresh-squeezed lime, and your body can absorb that iron much more effectively.[*]
  2. Green salad and oily vinaigrettes: Fat-soluble vitamins need to be consumed with fat for optimal absorption, so an oily vinaigrette dressing is the perfect partner for your green salad.[*]
  3. Turmeric with black pepper: Turmeric contains the powerful antioxidant curcumin, but curcumin is very poorly absorbed — until you add black pepper. The piperine in black pepper boosts curcumin bioavailability by about 2,000 percent.[*] Why not try these Keto fat bombs for a satiating turmeric hit, complete with a touch of black pepper.
  4. Yogurt and chia seeds: Yogurt may contain healthy probiotic bacteria, and sprinkling some chia seeds not only adds a little bit of crunch but also some prebiotic fiber.
  5. Trail mix with peanuts and sunflower seeds: If you’re leaning more towards a plant-based diet, the combo of peanuts and sunflower seeds (for example, in trail mix) forms a complete protein with all of the essential amino acids (building blocks of protein) your body needs.[*]
  6. Spinach and mushrooms: Your body absorbs calcium best when there’s some vitamin D present too, so the classic breakfast omelet combo of calcium-rich spinach and vitamin D-rich mushrooms actually provides a synergistic benefit in addition to being delicious.[*]
  7. Caprese salad: Caprese salad is made from layered tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella drizzled with olive oil. Tomatoes are rich in carotenoid antioxidants, which are absorbed best with fat — making caprese salad a synergistic food.[*]
  8. Avocado and a hard-boiled egg: Need a quick and satisfying breakfast? Avocado and a hard-boiled egg provides a filling balance of fat, fiber, and protein.
  9. Lemon butter salmon: Salmon is rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, which are best absorbed in the presence of more fat. Thus, your favorite lemon butter salmon recipe may help your body get more omega-3s from salmon than just baking it with no additional fat.[*]
  10. Onion and ground beef: Onion and ground beef can be used to form the basis of many tasty meals, like meatloaf, meatballs, and burgers. Interestingly, onion is rich in the antioxidant quercetin, which may be best absorbed in the presence of fat.[*]
  11. Garlic and honey: Garlic and honey make an amazing flavor combo, but these two ingredients also have some powerful immune effects too. Honey may help ease a cough, while garlic may help your immune system fight back better against illness.[*][*]
  12. Fresh herbs and oil: Is there anything better than shrimp or beef skewers marinated in olive oil and fresh herbs? We don’t think so, especially considering that the oil makes it much easier for your body to absorb the various nutrients and antioxidants in those herbs.[*]

Food synergy is the concept that a meal is healthier than the individual ingredients it contains, and that a food is healthier than the individual nutrients it contains. Knowing that our foods can work together for our benefit puts some of our favorite food and flavor combinations — like Caprese salad, spinach and mushrooms, and turmeric and black pepper — in a whole new light. No matter your diet, Carb Manager can help you plan and track healthy meals to optimize your nutrient intake and bring more synergy to your diet.