Nutrient Synergy – You’ve probably have a rough idea of how each vitamin and mineral functions in your body but what you have read is oversimplified. It’s easy to forget that nutrients don’t work in isolation. Vitamins and minerals work together as an organized team to make things happen in your body. One example of this are antioxidant vitamins, like vitamins C and E. These free-radical scavengers donate electrons to cells damaged by oxidative stress. By receiving an electron, these cells become more stable and less prone toward cellular stress. Yet, once an antioxidant donates an electron, it becomes unstable itself, at least until another antioxidant comes along and gives it an electron.
Nutrient Synergy: Vitamin and Minerals Sometimes Compete for Absorption
Vitamins and minerals affect each other in other ways as well. For example, they can impact each other’s absorption. A good example are minerals. Your body needs a variety of minerals to drive chemical reactions. For example, you need magnesium to take part in more than 300 reactions in your body, including ones that contribute to bone health, muscle contraction, blood sugar control, and nerve function. Some, like calcium, potassium, sodium, chloride, phosphorus, sulfur, and magnesium, your body demands in large quantities. Others, called trace minerals, your body requires only in small amounts. Examples of trace minerals are iron, zinc, selenium, copper, iodide, manganese, and chromium. Trace minerals are still important but you don’t need them in substantial amounts.
Nutrient Synergy vs. Competition
Whether you’re talking about major minerals or trace minerals, they’re a competitive lot. In fact, minerals vie with each other for absorption by your digestive tract. So, getting too much of one can reduce the absorption of another mineral or minerals. For example, iron, zinc, and copper all compete with each other for absorption, especially zinc and copper. If you take a zinc supplement without copper, you risk developing a dangerous copper deficiency. Calcium also reduces the absorption of iron. Some vitamins actually enhance the absorption of certain minerals. For example, vitamin C and beta-carotene boost the absorption of iron from an iron-rich meal or supplement.
As you can see, there’s a lot of interaction and synergy going on between vitamins and minerals. Ultimately, your body needs a balanced array of each. That’s why it’s best to get minerals and vitamins from food sources rather than supplements. This, of course, assumes you’re eating a balanced, whole food diet, not a junk food one. It also explains why you shouldn’t be too quick to latch on to a supplement, despite the clever advertising that makes you think you need it. If you take large quantities of one supplement, it can affect the absorption of another vitamin or mineral your body needs. Supplement manufacturers fail to tell you this since they’re trying to sell a product.
Nutrient Synergy: Whole Food Synergy
As you can see, whole foods supply vitamins and minerals in a form your body can best assimilate and what’s becoming clear is that consuming certain foods together can increase the health benefits you get from each. Let’s look at a few whole food combos that offer synergy:
Nutrient Synergy: Green Tea and Lemon
As you probably know, green tea is known for its high antioxidant content. The antioxidants in green tea are called catechins. The green tea catechins your body soaks up when you sip a cup of green tea have a variety of health benefits. The problem with the catechins in green tea is they’re unstable and your intestinal tract quickly breaks them down into an unusable form. Seems a shame to miss out on the health benefits, doesn’t it? Fortunately, adding lemon to green tea stabilizes the catechins so you can capture more of their benefits when you sip that steaming cup of green tea.
Nutrient Synergy: Broccoli and Broccoli Sprouts
Being a cruciferous vegetable, broccoli contains an abundance of anti-cancer compounds called glucosinolates. To carry out their anti-cancer function, glucosinolates must be converted to compounds called sulforaphanes. This can only happen in the presence of an enzyme called myrosinase. Unfortunately, cooking destroys much of the myrosinase in broccoli. However, broccoli sprouts are an abundant source of this enzyme. By eating broccoli with broccoli sprouts, you get the enzyme you need to manufacture those powerful, anti-cancer compounds. The other option is to eat broccoli raw or steam it very lightly.
Nutrient Synergy: Carrots and Olive Oil
You’ve probably heard that carrots are good for your eyesight. That’s because they contain beta-carotene, an antioxidant. Your body converts a portion of the beta-carotene you take in through diet to vitamin A, a nutrient important for night vision. Plus, the antioxidant activity that beta-carotene provides may lower your risk for eye-related problems like age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.
Carrots have plenty of beta-carotene but it’s a fat-soluble, meaning it needs fat for adequate absorption. If you add carrot to your salad without a source of fat, you won’t absorb much of the beta-carotene. Fortunately, olive oil is a source of heart-healthy fats that helps you soak up the beta-carotene and other fat-soluble nutrients from vegetables like carrots. Keep that in mind if you’re tempted to put a fat-free dressing on your salad.
Nutrient Synergy: Greens and Lemon Juice
Greens, like kale and spinach, are good sources of non-heme iron. Regrettably, your body doesn’t absorb non-heme iron as readily as iron from animal-sources, also known as heme-iron. One way to enhance non-heme iron absorption is to sprinkle lemon or other citrus juice on your greens. The vitamin C in citrus helps your body take up iron.
The Bottom Line
These are only a few examples of food and nutrient synergy. Now you know why whole food sources of nutrition are better than supplements and how combining certain foods can enhance the benefits you get from both. This doesn’t mean supplements are completely off limits. If you eat a diet that restricts certain foods, for example, a vegan diet, you may need a vitamin B12 supplement, since B12 is found only in animal-based foods and fortified foods.
Do you shun the sun? You may need a vitamin D supplement since it’s almost impossible to get enough vitamin D from food sources alone. If you’re pregnant, you need to take folate and an iron supplement. Also, if you have a known vitamin or mineral deficiency, taking a supplement can help you get your blood level of that nutrient up quickly. Yet, it’s best, if you don’t fall into one of these categories, to get your nutrients from whole foods since you get them in a balanced form. Plus, it certainly tastes better than swallowing a pill. Agree?
LabDoor Magazine. “Nutrient-Nutrient Interaction in Multivitamin Supplements”
WebMD. “Food Synergy: Nutrients That Work Better Together”
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