What foods to pair for ultimate nutrition

When eaten together, some foods magnify their beneficial properties. By Nutritionist Honor Tremain.

Pineapple with protein = increased digestion

Pineapple is a rich source of bromelain, a group of enzymes that digest proteins. Bromelain is a powerful anti-inflammatory, making it popular in sports medicine; it can decrease pain and swelling in damaged or inflamed soft tissue and help in joint health and repair.

Bromelain works just as well as pepsin and trypsin, two of the chief protein-degrading enzymes in the gut. This is especially beneficial to exercise or bodybuilding enthusiasts who ingest large amounts of protein and need a rapid metabolism and absorption back into muscle fibres. So have some fresh pineapple with your next high protein meal to upgrade the effects of muscle repair and growth.

Fats with vitamin D = enhanced absorption

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin. It aids in calcium absorption within the gut to help maintain bone health. The inactive form of vitamin D can be obtained from the sun (manufactured by the body), but it’s also found in cod liver oil, salmon, milk, sardines, beef, egg yolk and some mushrooms.

Science has revealed that dietary fat can greatly enhance absorption of the food-derived form of vitamin D. Since vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, its absorption follows a similar pathway to that of oils and fats in the diet. Eating fat stimulates bile, which encourages small structures, called micelles, to form. The micelles transport the fat and vitamin D together to be more easily absorbed by the gut surface. Foods to eat around your vitamin D supplement to help intake include raw nuts, flax seeds, avocado, herring and salmon.

Turmeric with black pepper and oil = enhanced absorption

The eastern spice turmeric is often used in traditional rich curries and spicy dishes. Its primary active ingredient, curcumin, is filling up medical journals with its long list of health benefits, which range from Alzheimer’s disease and cancer inhibition to pain relief. But there’s a downside: by themselves, turmeric and curcumin are very poorly absorbed by the body.

Turmeric is fat-soluble making it challenging for entry into cells or the blood stream. For this reason, when curcumin is eaten alongside oils, it benefits from the oil absorption pipeline. And the compound in black pepper, piperine, helps block some of the gut’s digestive enzymes that normally metabolise curcumin before it can be absorbed. So a combination of turmeric, fats and black pepper works to super-intensify absorption.

Avocado and salad
A salad with avocado, whole egg or full fat dressing increases antioxidants.

Eggs, avocado or full-fat dressing with salad = antioxidant absorption

Did you know that the oils found in the diet are one of the most effective enhancers of carotenoid antioxidant absorption too?

Carotenoids are not only an antioxidant but are also the colour pigments found in fruits and vegetables that range from yellow to orange to red in nature. Carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, are linked to eye health, decreased risk of some cancers and for boosted general health.

Journals from The American Society of Clinical Nutrition found that while salad veggies can be packed full of carotenoids, the addition of full-fat salad dressing, avocado or a whole egg with the salad increased the antioxidant absorption far more than when the salad was fat-free.

Red wine in French oak barrels = double antioxidants

Polyphenols are the most common antioxidants in our diet and can impact on age-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease, obesity and metabolic syndrome. But, like many antioxidants, they are poorly absorbed.

Red wines carry the polyphenol antioxidant resveratrol, to which has been attributed the many health benefits of wine. However, in wines that have been aged in French oak barrels, two types of polyphenol antioxidants can be found: those from the grape, such as resveratrol, and another, more powerful one from the French oak barrel itself called ellagitannin, similar in structure to an antioxidant found in pomegranates but 700 times more potent when aged. Could this be the key to the “French Paradox”: why the French, with a diet laden with sugar and fat, have favourable cardiovascular health and obesity rates? Could it all come down to the type of wood their wine is aged in? It’s looking that way.

Lentils with rice = a complete protein

Some of the most ancient traditional meals are based on the combination of legumes and grains. In India, vegetarian-based lentil dhal is always accompanied with rice. In the Mediterranean, chickpea hummus is commonly served with bread. In Mexico, bean relish is eaten with corn tortillas. Could there be an unrealised dietary wisdom in their food pairing?

Yes! Legumes contain a good mix of many amino acids, yet are low in methionine and higher in lysine, while grains are low in lysine with an abundance of methionine. This makes the combination of grains with legumes a “complete protein”, with the same amino acid profile as meat.

These days there’s a lot of hype about grains, nuts and legumes being bad for health due to “anti-nutrient chemicals” called phytates. In most traditional diets, legumes and grains are soaked overnight, melting away the phytates and gas-causing components, allowing vitamin and mineral absorption to take place and for easier digestion.

Tomatoes and olive oil
Having olive oil on your tomatoes increases the amounts of absorbable antioxidants.

Tomatoes with olive oil = antioxidant absorption

Tomatoes contain the carotenoid antioxidant lycopene, the pigment molecule responsible for its deep red colour and often thought responsible for helping prevent some types of cancer. While lycopene is present in raw tomatoes, studies have noted that processed tomatoes, such as those from a jar, can or in a sauce, mysteriously contain higher amounts of the antioxidant. 

A published journal study found that while the antioxidant lycopene is higher in heated tomatoes, the addition of olive oil elevated the absorbable lycopene by an enormous
80 percent! So do as the Mediterraneans do, and drizzle cold pressed extra virgin olive oil all over your tomatoes.

Vitamin C with iron = enhanced absorption

Iron is responsible for carrying oxygen around the body to give us energy. There are two types of iron — one is found in animal-based foods like meat, fish, poultry and some forms of dairy. This is called haem iron and is absorbed easily by the body.

Non-haem iron is found in foods that are vegetarian-based, such as fermented soybean, legumes, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables.

Non-heme iron is poorly absorbed, so consuming vitamin C with these foods will increase absorption. High vitamin C foods include chilli, capsicum, kale, broccoli, papaya, strawberries and sprouts.


Honor tremain is a qualified nutritionist and author with a focus on food as medicine. honortremain.com.au.