The Healthy Food Guide team believe that making small diet and lifestyle changes brings the best long-term gains. We look at the science behind the headlines and promote a balanced way of eating.

Individual nutrients are important, but in 
isolation we risk missing out on nature’s in-built health booster: food pairings. Nutrition editor Amanda Ursell reveals the winning combinations.

We all know some foods are more nutritious than others, but did you also know that some foods love each other more than others?

When certain foods are paired up their nutrients and plant chemicals interact to enhance each other and provide more nutrition bang for your buck.

The Mediterranean diet is perhaps one of the best examples of how well certain foods combine for our overall nutritional good. Sardines, for example, give you an easily available form of iron for energy, but if you finish your meal with cheese, the vitamin D in the sardines will help your body absorb the calcium from the cheese.

Being aware of food pairings could help with a healthier diet. Check out our top combinations.

AVOCADO AND LETTUCE: protect against heart disease and macular degeneration

It’s not just beta-carotene in carrots that benefits from pairing with a little fat. Adding an avocado, which is a good source of monounsaturated (and polyunsaturated) fats, to a salad of lettuce and spinach has been shown to help people increase their absorption of the antioxidant alpha-carotene by 8.3 times. It also increases absorption of lutein, a yellow pigment in spinach, by just over four times, compared with those who only had salad leaves. These antioxidant pigments appear to play a role in helping to protect our skin and eyes from damaging sun rays.

Ways to pair

  • Get monounsaturated fats from avocados, olive and rapeseed oil, nuts and seeds.
  • Get lutein from lettuce, spinach, kale, red peppers, dark cabbage and sweetcorn.

SOYA BEANS & ALMONDS AND SATSUMAS: promote healthier arteries

Studies show that the flavonoids in almond skins work together with vitamin E (also in almonds) and the vitamin C in fruits such as satsumas. This is because the combination helps prevent LDL cholesterol oxidising. Oxidised LDL isn’t good news because it can build up on artery walls, leading to blockages and, ultimately, stroke and heart attacks.

Laboratory studies have also revealed vitamin C and plant oestrogens in soya beans and wholegrains work together to stop LDL cholesterol oxidising, making a winner of a combo of bean casserole and broccoli with wholemeal bread on the side.

Ways to pair

  • Get flavonoids from almond skins.
  • Get vitamin E from sunflower seeds, sunflower oil and wheatgerm.
  • Get vitamin C from citrus fruits, including satsumas and grapefruit, peppers (all colours), dark green leafy vegetables, berries and kiwi.

PEAS AND YELLOW & GREEN PEPPERS: reduce tiredness and boost concentration

Iron is essential for healthy blood and cognitive and immune function, among others. The main contributor of iron in our diets is the non-haem variety (non-animal-derived) found in vegetables, cereals, nuts and seeds. Although we can absorb 15–25% of haem iron (found in animal sources such as meat and fish), only 2–25% of non-haem iron is absorbed – and this depends on what else we eat and drink alongside it.

Tea and calcium-containing foods can, for example, block absorption. However, vitamin C can increase absorption by up to four times and may even reverse the blocking effects of tea and calcium.

Ways to pair

  • Get non-haem iron from peas, baked beans, lentils, wholemeal bread, fortified breakfast cereals, cashew nuts, dried apricots and peanut butter.
  • Get vitamin C from peppers (all colours), dark green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, green beans, berries and orange juice.

CARROTS AND OLIVE OIL: increase UV protection for skin

We know that beta-carotene, the orange antioxidant pigment found in carrots, is ‘unlocked’ and made available to our bodies when mixed with some plant oils. How much you need on your salads and greens to optimise usage has, however, remained vague.

A small study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has now revealed that starting at around 1tsp oil, then increasing amounts steadily, boosted the levels of beta-carotene absorbed, and was optimal at around 2tbsp. (If you’re on a diet plan, do take into account that this amount of oil is around 288kcal.) The bottom line, however, is that you can feel reassured that a bit of full-fat salad dressing isn’t necessarily a bad thing!

Ways to pair

  • Get beta-carotene from carrots, dark green vegetables like spinach and kale, sweet potatoes, apricots and mangoes.
  • Get monounsaturated fats from olive and rapeseed oil, avocado, nuts and seeds.

TOMATOES AND BROCCOLI: possibly reduces the risk of prostate cancer

We can’t go as far as to say eating broccoli and tomatoes together will prevent prostate cancer, but an interesting study on rats a decade ago revealed that compared with those on a normal diet, rats fed on a combination of tomato and broccoli appeared to have significantly reduced tumour formation.

Scientists aren’t sure quite what is giving this apparent protective effect, but putting both on the menu is well worth making part of a healthy prostate plan. So, too, is shedding excess weight and lowering saturated fat intake if either are high.