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Nutrients Work Better When Paired Together

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on Jun 17, 2022

Food is fuel for your body, and some foods provide a tremendous nutritional boost when paired together!


The potential of teamwork is powerful.  Even Helen Keller, an American author, and educator, famously said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” This same philosophy also applies to nutrients found in food working together as dynamic health collaborations.

Collaboration is good; when it’s applied to teaming up certain nutrients and foods, your health will benefit significantly.  Also known as “nutrient synergy,” nutrients found in food – vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients – perform better when working in tandem with other nutrients helping improve nutrient absorption, increase satiety and effectiveness, and reduce the risk of disease and illness. It’s tempting to rely on vitamin/mineral supplements to get nutrients your diet lacks. Still, nutrient supplements cannot replicate the unique power of natural nutrients in food.

That’s why strategically eating certain nutrients found in particular food together at meals or snacks creates a healthy situation supporting a healthy nutritional boost.

Here’s a look at dynamic nutrient pairings creating a synergistic effect:

  • Iron and Vitamin C

Synergistic effect: The human body absorbs only about 10 to 15 percent of the iron you eat. Both animal-based and plant-based foods contain the mineral iron. Rich animal sources of iron include beef, poultry, fish, and pork. The iron found in animal-based foods is called “heme” iron and is easily absorbed on its own.

However, iron found in plant-based foods – beans, spinach, soy products (tofu, tempeh), nuts and seeds, fortified cereals, and the iron found in supplements, is called “nonheme” iron. You can enhance your nonheme iron absorption by eating food high in vitamin C and iron-rich food. Nonheme absorption is improved thanks to vitamin C and the acids in your stomach. For example, just 25 milligrams of vitamin C – the amount found in about one-quarter cup of orange juice – can double the amount of nonheme iron you absorb from plant-based foods. In contrast, a one-half cup of orange juice increases the amount of iron absorbed by sixfold.

Best food sources: Animal-based food sources of iron include red meat, poultry, fish, and pork. Plant-based foods include spinach, beans, soy products, nuts, seeds, and iron-fortified cereals. Vitamin C is plentiful in citrus fruits, berries, broccoli, leafy greens like spinach and kale, red and yellow peppers, and tomatoes.

Harnessing the synergy: Suggestions to increase your iron absorption by pairing a vitamin C-rich food with iron found in plant-based foods include:

  • Eat an orange with a peanut butter sandwich or breakfast cereal or top cereal with vitamin C-rich berries like strawberries.
  • Add sliced red bell pepper, onions, and fresh fruit to a spinach salad.
  • Use canned tomato sauce or tomato paste for spaghetti or pasta dishes.
  • Have a quarter cup of walnuts with orange or kiwi fruit slices.


  • Vitamin D, Vitamin K, and Calcium


Synergistic effect: Here’s an important trio of nutrients that work together spectacularly, improving bone health. Vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption (without vitamin D, calcium will not be absorbed), and vitamin K is in charge of regulating the amount of calcium stored in bones. Vitamin K also triggers a protein called osteocalcin, necessary for placing calcium in bones and teeth.


Best food sources:  Food sources of vitamin D include milk fortified with it, egg yolks, and fatty fish.  Calcium is abundant and absorbed best from dairy foods like milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and cheeses. Leafy greens like spinach, kale, collard greens, broccoli, and cabbage are good sources of vitamin K.


Harnessing the synergy:


  • Drink milk fortified with vitamin D
  • Have a green, leafy salad with cottage cheese and a hardboiled egg
  • Eat vitamin D fortified yogurt along with a cabbage salad on the side


  • Zinc and Vitamin A

Synergistic effect: When one nutrient is lacking, this can upset the balance of their inner workings in the body. For example, the metabolism of vitamin A is affected if you have a zinc deficiency. Why? The liver stores fat-soluble vitamin A, and zinc is required to release vitamin A from the liver. Without zinc, vitamin A will not be available, negatively affecting your vision, mucous membranes, skin health, and immune functioning.

Best food sources: Vitamin A is abundant in dark green, leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard, sweet potatoes, beef liver, and eggs.  Rich sources of zinc include meat, shellfish, legumes, nuts, and whole grains.

Harnessing the synergy:

  • Combine together at meals meat and vegetables like sweet potatoes or roasted peppers
  • Cook scrambled eggs with black beans and chopped red peppers
  • Add chopped walnuts or sliced almonds to a spinach salad


  • Folic acid, Vitamin B12, and Vitamin B6

Synergistic effect: This trio of vital B vitamins makes magic when working as a team. Together, these water-soluble vitamins reduce levels of the amino acid homocysteine, which can increase your risk of heart attacks and stroke. In addition, these same nutrients help convert food into energy, make new blood cells, maintain healthy skin and brain cells, and work together with cell division and replication.

Best food sources: Top food sources of the B vitamins include legumes, leafy greens, seeds, whole grains, dairy foods, fortified breakfast cereals, seafood, poultry, and eggs.

Harnessing the synergy:

  • Add legumes to stews or soups
  • Eat a leafy green salad every day
  • Have scrambled or poached eggs for breakfast


  • Calcium, Magnesium, and Potassium


Synergistic effect: The group dynamic of this mineral trio is that together, they accomplish vital functions of balancing electrolytes, promoting nerve functioning, and lowering blood pressure. A 2015 study found that men with the highest intake of these three minerals had a 21 percent lower risk of stroke than men who did not.


Best food sources: Rich sources of calcium are dairy foods like milk, yogurt, cheese, and cottage cheese.  Magnesium is found in leafy greens, sunflower seeds, almonds, and beans, while good potassium sources are bananas, tomatoes, beet greens, avocados, beans, lentils, and butternut squash.


Harnessing the synergy:


  • Make a smoothie of a frozen banana, Greek vanilla yogurt, and a handful of leafy greens
  • Top toast with half a mashed avocado (add lime juice and salt), sunflower seeds, and shredded cheese



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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.


  1. Claudia Pierson on June 24, 2022 at 10:29 pm

    I have just started but I am so much learning from and enjoying your publications!!!

    • Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on June 25, 2022 at 7:22 am

      Hi Claudia!

      Thank you so much for making this lovely comment – I appreciate your thoughtfulness in taking the time to let me know this, and I am happy you’re finding my information useful. Have an excellent weekend!

      In good health,

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