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Perfect Food Pairs

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

Fall is a great time of year for food! Humans need many different vitamins and minerals that we can get from a varied diet. In the nutrition world, there is a term called bioavailability, which means how much of a particular nutrient we can absorb from the food we are eating. There are certain food and nutrient pairings that science has found improves the absorptions of the specific nutrients compared to if they were consumed by themselves. And there are also some that have been known by traditional cultures for centuries. So what are some of these perfect food pairings? Let's get into it! 

Adding fat to salads can make them healthier. That is as long as they are healthy fats. Many people love adding salad dressing and cheese to their salads and that is enough to do the trick. The reason it's good to add fats to your salads is because some of the vitamins present in them are absorbed alongside the fats we consume. These vitamins are called fat soluble vitamins, which include A, and K. Vitamin A is found in the carotenoids which give the plants their red, orange, and yellow colors. Think of your carrots, sweet potatoes, and red peppers. Vitamin A is important for cell health and eye function, and it acts as an antioxidant, protecting your body from internal damage. Vitamin K is found in your green leafy plants like spinach, kale, and other salad greens. This vitamin is important for blood clotting and bone mineralization. 

Another fat soluble vitamin is vitamin D which has its own special paring as well. Vitamin D helps the body to reabsorb calcium in our bones, so when people take in calcium through dairy products or plants, pairing that with vitamin D can help improve the absorption, or bioavailability of the mineral in our food. Because of this relationship, many dairy products have been fortified with vitamin D so that these two nutrients are already paired for us, but vitamin D can also be found in fish. But we have another cool way to get vitamin D as well, through our skin. Skin contact with sunlight stimulates the creation of vitamin D from cholesterol in our cells, which is then diffused into the body. Although the rate at which this occurs varies depending upon the season. People above or below 33o Latitude do not get enough sun energy in the winter to make vitamin D, so we need to get more from our diet or supplements. 

 It's weird to think that there is iron in our bodies, but it plays a vital role in our health and bodily functions. Iron is important for the function of hemoglobin which carries oxygen on our red blood cells throughout our bodies and the removes of carbon dioxide. We absorb iron more efficiently from animal protein with heme iron, but it is in plants too. Spinach is the classic example of a non-heme source of iron, meaning it doesn’t come from hemoglobin. Interestingly, pairing non heme sources of iron with vitamin c has been shown to improve the absorption of that mineral. So it's good to pair some citrus fruits, melons, potatoes, or an iron fortified cereal with a glass of orange juice. 

The last perfect pair is a set of three foods that have been known for many generations. For centuries, native american cultures have known the agricultural benefits of planting the three sisters, corn, beans, and squash together. The corn grows tall, and gives a sturdy foundation for the bean plants to grow on. The beans help to stabilize the corn with their vines and fertilize the soil by converting sun energy into nitrogen which is then stored in the soil and shared with the surrounding plant sisters. The squash stays low and protects the soil from the sun with her large leaves. She also attracts the pollinators with her beautiful flowers, but deters pests from eating the produce with her prickly stems. But the three sisters are also a great nutritional pairing as well. Corn is filled with carbohydrates and vitamin c, beans are filled with protein and fiber, and squash is filled with vitamin A, folate, and magnesium. 

Everything is connected! The food we eat impacts our bodies and our health and what we pair our food with impacts how we absorb their nutrients. So don’t be afraid to add some healthy fats to your salad, or drink some milk fortified with vitamin d, or mix some citrus with your iron. The plants that grow well together are also paired well together in our bodies. The evidence shows that a healthy diet is a varied diet and these partnerships are part of that reason. So add some variety and get a taste of all the foods and the health benefits they provide!


Notes from School Dietetics Graduate Program

Salads and Fat

Vitamin D and Calcium

Vitamin C and Iron

Hooda, Jagmohan et al. “Heme, an essential nutrient from dietary proteins, critically impacts diverse physiological and pathological processes.” Nutrients vol. 6,3 1080-102. 13 Mar. 2014, doi:10.3390/nu6031080

The Three Sisters

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