Yes, you read that right: iron and vitamin C. It’s no joke—there are some foods that work better together because they help unlock each other’s full nutrient potential.
Don’t worry, this isn’t the complicated “food combining” of the 1970s. It’s as simple as pairing ingredients that were made to go together anyway.
Iron and Vitamin C
Iron is an essential nutrient that constitutes about 65 to 75 percent of hemoglobin, which is a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen to tissues in the body. There are two kinds of iron: heme iron, which is found in meats, poultry, and seafood; and non-heme iron, which is found in fruits, dark leafy vegetables, grains, and legumes. Both types of iron are valuable; however, the body has a harder time absorbing non-heme iron—and that’s where vitamin C comes into play.
Vitamin C helps the body absorb non-heme iron by binding to it and helping it travel to the intestines. When vitamin C binds to non-heme iron, it increases the stability and the solubility of the iron. This allows the body to more readily absorb the iron through the mucus membranes of the intestines.
If you want to reap the full benefits of the iron from plant-based foods, it’s best to consume it with foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, bell peppers, and strawberries. Aim for about 1 gram of vitamin C per every 3 milligrams of iron for optimal absorption. Next time you make a spinach salad, ditch the balsamic vinaigrette and instead opt for a lemon vinaigrette. For good measure, sprinkle a few strawberries on top.
Not a team player: While vitamin C helps unlock iron’s full potential, calcium and caffeine serve to inhibit it. For optimal absorption, avoid coffee and milk with your spinach.
Dark Leafy Greens and Fats
Dark leafy vegetables are full of such nutrients as calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, and vitamins A, C, E, and K. Greens such as kale, spinach, chard, collard greens, arugula, and bok choy are nutritional powerhouses that form an important component of any diet. But here’s the kicker: most of the nutrients in dark leafy greens are fat soluble, which means it’s best to eat them with a healthy source of fat.
There are plenty of ways to combine greens and fats. If you’re making a salad, toss the greens with some unrefined olive oil. Alternatively, you can cook your greens with butter, ghee, or coconut oil. Cooking is recommended for spinach, chard, and beet greens because they are high in oxalic acid, which can deplete calcium.
Vitamin B12 and Folate
Folate (also known as folic acid or vitamin B9) is found in dark leafy vegetables, legumes, egg yolks, and sunflower seeds. Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products. Folate and vitamin B12 work together in the synthesis of DNA and red blood cells. These essential nutrients truly go hand-in-hand, and deficiencies in either one of them can have drastic consequences. In fact, vitamin B12 deficiency has been linked to Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, autoimmune disorders, and much more. In short: eat your folate and your B12 and eat them together. It’s as easy as adding a salad or vegetable to your animal protein.
Lycopene and Fats
Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant found in red-tinted fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes and watermelon. Lycopene may help prevent heart disease and certain cancers, but it is fat-soluble so it needs to be consumed with fat. Adding some fat to your lycopene will help the digestive tract absorb it better. For optimal nutritional benefits, toss your tomatoes with some olive oil.