Batman and Robin; Regis and Kelly. Like all good duos, be they heroes or TV personalities, each complement the other oh-so-well. Surprisingly, the same holds true for food. While some ingredients are perfectly healthful on their own, they’re nutritional gangbusters when combined with the right sidekick. “Pairing foods can help us obtain a synergy from their various nutrients, and it’s the whole reason we push for a varied diet,” says Marni Sumbal, MS, RD, LDN, and owner of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition. “All of those elimination and restricted diets out there aren’t ideal when it comes to being healthy,” she says.
When seeking out ideal food pairings, also consider the antioxidant and phytochemical content, which can provide an added boost, says Ilana Katz, MS, RD, CSSD and founder of Optimal Nutrition for Life. Here, we highlight five of our favorite (but not the only) food pairs, along with recipe ideas that integrate them best.
Better Together: Healthy Food Pairings
1. Tomatoes and Avocado
Why pair? To reduce inflammation
If you’re a Mexican food lover, combining tomatoes and avocado may be a no-brainer. The good news is that the healthy fat in avocados is believed to help the body absorb more lycopene, the antioxidant compound that gives red, orange and yellow produce its hue. Research from Ohio State University found that when avocado was added to salsa, people absorbed more than four times the amount of lycopene than from salsa without avocado. What makes this pair a winning combo? Increased consumption of lycopene plays a role in the cancer prevention, inflammatory diseases, and age-related illnesses such as cataracts. “Cooking the tomatoes also enhances the nutritional effects,” says Katz.
Get fresh: To reap the benefits of this twosome, chop up this simple avocado and tomato salsa. Or, use the ingredients to revamp a traditional Caprese salad (replacing the mozzarella with avocado). You can reap similar benefits by adding olive oil to tomatoes as well, adds Katz.
2. Green Tea and Lemon Juice
Why pair? For greater antioxidant absorption
Yes, drinking green tea with fresh lemon makes your taste buds happy, but adding lemon juice also improves the health benefits, according to researchers at Purdue University. A study in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research found that adding citrus juice to green tea increases the body’s ability to absorb the tea’s antioxidants (catechins). Since the antioxidants found in tea prefer the acidic environment of your stomach, adding lemon juice can increase the amount of catechins the body extracts up to six times. Bonus: Some of tea’s compounds, including oxalates, can inhibit iron absorption from foods, but lemon reduces the effect.
Drink up: Start your morning by steeping tea for one to three minutes (if they’re left in for too long, bitter compounds are released). Then, add as much lemon juice as you like (the more you add, the better).
3. Pasta and Vinegar
Why pair? To feel full longer and fight fat
It happens to the best of us: We devour that plate of pasta, and we’re hungry for more soon after putting down the fork. Interestingly, foods known for causing abrupt spikes and falls in blood sugar (we’re looking at you, white bread, pasta and potatoes) seem to stimulate parts of the brain involved in hunger, craving and reward. The good news is that research from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that vinegar can help moderate these inevitable spikes in glucose and keep us feeling more energized. Vinegar has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity to high-carb meals in people with Type 2 Diabetes, and small amounts of vinegar (about two tablespoons) similarly benefit healthy, diabetes-free adults. Additionally, small studies find that vinegar may also help fight fat.
Get cooking: Next time you create a cold pasta salad, include vinegar in the dressing. “For a complete meal, combine vinegar and pasta with a protein selection, such as sliced chicken or black beans, to better control insulin levels,” says Sumbal.
4. Skim Milk and Banana
Why pair? For stronger bones
You know dairy products are good sources of calcium. What you may not know: Foods containing high amounts of inulin — a type of fiber found in asparagus, leeks, onions, bananas, wheat and garlic — can help enhance calcium absorption. Combine the two, and calcium plus inulin create a healthy recipe for strong bones.
Start sipping: This banana-oat protein smoothie recipe is a tasty way to get both of these ingredients in one place. “Also make sure you’re getting some vitamin D if you choose rice or almond milk,” says Sumbal. “Add in chia or flax seeds; either will provide a healthy fat source and vitamin D.”
5. Fish and Red Wine
Why pair? To enhance heart health
A satisfying piece of grilled fish paired with red wine? Yes, please! A study in Food Research International suggests red wine’s polyphenols (the most abundant antioxidant in the body) protect omega-3 fatty acids from breaking down in the body. Enjoying a moderate amount of red wine (one glass for women and two glasses for men) with omega-3-rich fatty fish (salmon, trout, tuna or herring) may increase your body’s omega-3 content, contributing to enhanced cardiovascular benefits. “Both [ingredients] alone are great for heart health, but since each can potentially have lots of calories, abide by portion sizes,” Sumbal advises.
Wine and dine: Grill, steam or bake four ounces of your favorite omega-rich fish, and limit yourself to a four-ounce glass of wine. Want even more nutritional bang for your buck? “Cook your fish in a garlic type-sauce,” suggests Katz, as garlic’s immune-boosting properties may also be enhanced when paired with red wine.
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