Top 10 Food Synergy Super Foods

Boost your health with these super-healthy foods

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

There's more and more evidence that certain components in the foods and beverages we consume (like minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals, fiber, and fats) interact with each other to give our bodies extra disease protection and a higher level of health. This new nutritional concept is called food synergy, and it couldn't have come at a better time, as more and more baby boomers pass or near the half-century mark (myself included). While writing my new book, Food Synergy, I noticed that 10 particular foods kept popping up in various chapters. I call these the 10 Synergy Super Foods because they have all sorts of synergistic potential going for them.

There are all types of food synergy, from different nutrients that are found together in the same whole food, to nutrients in different foods that work better together, to the synergy in certain dietary patterns (like the Mediterranean diet, Asian cuisine, The Portfolio Plan, etc.).

Here are a few examples of food synergy in action from recent nutrition research:

  • Tomatoes and broccoli: The combination was more effective at slowing prostate tumor growth than either was alone (from a study in which male rats were given prostate tumor cell implants).
  • Apples with the peel on. It turns out that the bulk of an apple's anticancer properties are hidden in the peel. The phytochemicals in the apple flesh seem to work best with the phytochemicals in the peel to reduce the risk of cancer.
  • Cooked tomatoes with the peel on, along with olive oil. Ninety-eight percent of the flavonols (powerful phytochemicals) in tomatoes is found in the tomato skin, along with great amounts of two carotenoids. Absorption of these key nutrients is much greater when the tomatoes are cooked and when you eat some smart fat (like olive oil) along with the cooked tomatoes.
  • Cruciferous vegetables. Two phytochemicals naturally found in cruciferous vegetables (cambene and indole 3-carbinol) were more active when combined, according to research that tested the compounds alone and together in rats. The researchers found that the two compounds were able to protect the rats against liver cancer much better together. Both cambene and indole 3-carbinol are known to activate important detoxification enzymes that help the body eliminate carcinogens before they harm our genes. Foods rich in cambene include Brussels sprouts and certain varieties of broccoli. And all cruciferous veggies are rich in indole 3-carbinol.

Was it too early to write a book about this topic? While it's true that some of the research in the book is from lab or animal studies, and more research is needed, the idea of food synergy leads us down a path that I'm completely comfortable recommending. It's a path toward eating more whole foods and plant foods and fewer processed foods; a path that seeks balance within broad dietary patterns instead of focusing on one or two particular foods or ingredients. It's a path that leads us beyond "low-fat" or "low-carb."

The truth is that there are all sorts of examples of food synergy at work in research published over the last five years. We know now that in so many cases, the power in food is in the package, not the individual components.

I learned while writing Food Synergy that all of this seemingly disparate scientific research actually comes together in a way that makes perfect sense: When we nourish our bodies with the best foods that nature has to offer, our bodies respond in kind.

10 Synergy Super Foods

Synergy Super Food No. 1: Whole Grains

Whole grains are naturally low in fat and cholesterol-free; contain 10% to 15% protein and offer loads of fiber, resistant starch and oligosaccharides, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and often, phytoestrogens. With all those nutrients in one package, it's no wonder whole grains provide so many health benefits, including protection from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and some cancers.

Synergy Super Food No. 2: Veggies -- Especially Dark Green Ones

Whether it's the two vegetables high in viscous fiber (eggplant and okra); the cruciferous veggies (like kale and broccoli) with their anticancer organosulfur compounds; or the carotenoid family (like carrots, sweet potatoes, and spinach) with their rich mix of phytochemicals, the message is clear: The more the merrier! Eat as many vegetables as you can, as often as you can. Dark green veggies, in particular, showed up on all sorts of food synergy lists in my book: for vegetables high in vitamin C; foods with multiple carotenoids; foods high in potassium, calcium, and magnesium; and good sources of vitamin E.



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