Whoever coined the phrase "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" might as well have been talking about the nutritional potential of food. "When we eat certain foods together, their components work in sync—they produce health-promoting results that far outweigh what you'd get from eating either food alone," says Elaine Magee, R.D., author of Food Synergy. To get the most punch from your plate, try these dynamic duos.
Chickpeas + Red Peppers
One out of five women doesn't get enough energy-boosting iron. But eating more iron-rich food won't do much if your body can't process it. "The kind of iron that comes from plant foods is difficult for our bodies to absorb," says Heather Mangieri, R.D., owner of Nutrition CheckUp in Pittsburgh.
So all that iron from beans like chickpeas goes to waste? Not if you add some delish red peppers. The vitamin C in the scarlet veggie acts as a key and unlocks plant-based iron so your blood cells can get to it. Simply toss in roasted red pepper when making homemade hummus (or use red pepper as your primary dipping vehicle), and top salads with red peppers and chickpeas.
Spinach is packed with lutein and vitamin A, which are both amazing eye protectors. Avocado not only supplies even more lutein and A but also delivers the healthy fats your body needs to soak up these nutrients, says Hope Barkoukis, Ph.D., R.D., an associate professor of nutrition at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
So top quesadillas and tacos with spinach instead of shredded iceberg, and then add the guac. Or mix up a spinach salad with avocado dressing (puree chunks of avocado with lemon juice, olive oil, and your favorite seasonings—even a simple combo like garlic, salt, and pepper).
Broccoli + Eggs
If you suffer from a major case of the crankies every month, relief could be as easy as a trip to certain supermarket aisles. An Archives of Internal Medicine study found that women who downed the most calcium and vitamin D were 30 to 40 percent less likely to suffer from PMS crabbiness.
Two foods to reach for? Broccoli and eggs. Broccoli boasts one of the most easily absorbed forms of calcium found in food, while eggs are one of nature's best sources of vitamin D. Pair up these two foods in a broccoli frittata or an omelet.
Tomatoes + Olive Oil
Lycopene, a powerful antioxidant found mostly in tomatoes, can help prevent sun damage. But for supple skin, don't eat them plain. First coat them in olive oil, says Mangieri. The healthy fats in this Mediterranean staple allow lycopene to be better absorbed by your body. And olive oil has its own skin-saving secrets. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who take in more olive oil are less likely to have wrinkles, possibly because it protects against the oxidative stress that causes skin to age.
These two foods were destined to be eaten together in Italian dishes such as bruschetta or Caprese salad. Get even more of a beauty bang by slow-roasting plum tomatoes in olive oil at 225°F for three hours. (Heating helps release more lycopene.)
Your gut is home to more than 400 kinds of bacteria, some friendly, others not so much. When the bad bugs outnumber the good ones, things slow down digestively and your bowels become, er, sluggish. Yogurts that are specially designed for digestive health can help by providing probiotics, good-for-you bacteria that get things moving again.
But you can't just eat those buggers and forget about them. Probiotics need to feed on prebiotics—specialized fibers found in foods like flaxseed—to survive and thrive. When you eat them together, you restore and then maintain the healthy balance in your belly. It doesn't get any easier than this: Sprinkle a tablespoon of ground flaxseed onto your probiotic yogurt. To dress it up, make a fruit and yogurt parfait with flaxseed granola to add some crunch.
Oatmeal + Apples
A HEALTHIER HEART
Oatmeal houses two superstar ingredients that help protect your ticker: beta-glucan, a cholesterol-lowering fiber, and avenanthramides, compounds that shield LDL cholesterol from harmful free radicals.
Pump up your breakfast bowl's heart-health quotient even more by tossing in a chopped apple. (Keep the skin on—that's where all the nutrients live.) Apples are filled with flavonoids, major-league antioxidants that also zap free radicals and take on inflammation to boot. Saute slices in a touch of butter and ground cinnamon, then chop and mix into your hot cereal.
It's hard to find a food that packs more infection-fighting vitamin A than sweet potatoes. But getting A without enough zinc—found in meats like chicken, beef, and pork—is like trying to start a fire without a match. "You need zinc to metabolize and carry vitamin A throughout your body," explains Barkoukis. "You won't be able to use that A if you don't have enough zinc to get it where it needs to go." So microwave a sweet tater and top it with some precooked chicken and cheese, serve up sweet potato fries (baked, of course) as a side with roast chicken, or seek out chicken and sweet potato soup recipes.
Pasta + Balsamic Vinegar
A TRIMMER TUMMY
When you down some pasta, are you hungry a few hours later? Try tossing it with some vinegar. "Vinegar's acetic acid slows down how quickly you digest and absorb glucose from starchy foods, so your blood sugar rises and falls more gradually," says Carol Johnston, Ph.D., R.D., director of the nutrition program at the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at Arizona State University in Phoenix. "That helps control hunger, so you're less likely to overeat later." Adding two tablespoons of vinegar to a starchy dish can slash postmeal blood-sugar surges by 20 percent, according to a study at Arizona State. Toss whole-wheat pasta with olive oil and balsamic, or shake up your pasta salad by experimenting with flavored vinegars.
Green Tea + Lemon Juice
Green tea is a primo source of cancer-fighting catechins. But while these nutrients may be tough on cancer cells, they're total wimps in your stomach— only 20 percent survive the digestive process and make it out to your body to do it any good. A Purdue University study found that squeezing lemon juice into your green brew toughens up catechins, boosting the number you digest up to 13 times.
For even more cancer protection, stir in sugar (a teaspoon contains only 16 calories). The sweet stuff morphs catechins into a form that's three times easier to absorb.