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It takes two to boost your nutrient absorption


It’s not always what you eat, but what you eat with it that can maximize your nutrient absorption from foods. Several studies show the many ways in which food-food combinations can go a long way toward making sure we are well nourished, plus in good nutritional shape to keep health problems at bay.

Here are some examples:

  1. Vitamin C and iron. Liver and red meat are among the richest sources of dietary iron. This essential mineral is needed to make red blood cells, which transport oxygen all around our bodies. This is why people who have iron-deficiency anemia often feel tired and out of breath, especially when climbing stairs.

If you don’t eat meat or are vegetarian, no worries. Iron is also found in a variety of plant foods such as spinach, dried beans and peas, lentils, lima beans, Swiss chard, turnip greens, prunes, bok choy, raisins, dried apricots, almonds, kale and peanut butter.

In the U.S., Canada and many other countries, wheat and other flours are fortified with iron, thus making breads, cereals and other grain products a good source of this vital mineral. The problem is that iron in plant foods isn’t absorbed as well as from animal or meat sources.

To boost iron intake from plants, eat foods rich in vitamin C at the same time. Rich sources of vitamin C include broccoli, leafy greens, kiwi, citrus, peppers, tomatoes, strawberries and melon.

So in one sitting, drink orange juice with your fortified oatmeal; have strawberries or strawberry jam with that peanut butter sandwich; adorn a spinach salad with bell peppers, tomatoes and chickpeas; add some chopped tomatoes to those bean burritos.

  1. Avocados, carrots and tomatoes. Eating slices of avocado along with either raw carrots or tomato sauce can boost absorption of carotene, the plant-based form of vitamin A. Night vision, skin health and immune function are vital functions of this essential nutrient.

The effect of these food duos is bigger than bite-sized. According to researchers from Ohio State University who published their research last year, eating a meal with raw grated carrots plus avocado compared to carrots alone increased absorption of carotene nearly seven times. Similarly, the combo of tomato sauce and avocado doubled the intake of this vitamin.

So top a sandwich or salad with grated raw carrots and sliced avocado; add slices of avocado onto a tomato sauce-based pizza.

In other research, studies show that combining tomatoes with a healthy fat makes it easier for our bodies to obtain the carotene in tomatoes. So try an olive oil-tomato combination in salads, pasta sauces and tomato-based soups.

  1. Calcium and vitamin D. Calcium is a mineral that keeps bones strong, prevents tooth loss, and helps blood to clot and muscles to contract. This mineral doesn’t work its magic until it’s in our bodies, hence the vital role of vitamin D. Most people meet some of their vitamin D needs through sun exposure. However, sunscreens with an SPF of 8 or higher can block vitamin D-producing UV rays. This means it’s prudent to eat a dietary source of vitamin D along with calcium-containing foods.

Dairy products like milk and yogurt contain both calcium and vitamin D through fortification. Beyond this, vitamin D-containing foods include fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, with smaller amounts in beef liver, cheese and egg yolks. Many mushroom growers today expose their fungi to UV light to give them a boost of vitamin D.

As for calcium, beyond dairy foods and calcium-fortified items such as orange juice and breakfast cereals, other sources include fish with bones such as salmon and sardines, chickpeas, white beans, tofu (made with calcium sulfate), dried figs and green vegetables such as broccoli.

The best vitamin D and calcium combinations are breakfast cereal and milk, salmon burgers with broccoli on the side, soup or casserole with white beans and mushrooms.

  1. Tomatoes and broccoli. Scientists at the University of Illinois have shown that combining tomatoes and broccoli in one meal has a more powerful cancer-fighting effect that either of these veggies eaten alone. The researchers showed this in animal studies where rats that ate this dynamic duo experienced a significant shrink in the prostate tumor cancer cells with which they were implanted.

So add broccoli to tomato sauce, toss tomatoes in a broccoli salad, and top pizza with stalks of broccoli.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Contact her through

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