Why 'food pairing' could be the key to better gut health

close-up shot of an unrecognizable person holding a plate of avocado and tomato toast food pairing
Tomatoes and avocado on toast is a nutrient-rich food pairing. (Getty Images)

Nutrients – both macro and micro – are essential for our health and wellbeing, but did you know that pairing some foods can help you to absorb nutrients better?

Dubbed ‘food pairing’, this strategy ensures that you are getting the most nutrients absorbed into your body from the food you are eating which is beneficial for your gut health.

“Pairing food can create a healthy balance of gut bacteria and improve digestion,” pharmacist Abbas Kanani tells Yahoo UK. “This is because when the correct foods are combined, it helps to ensure that the gut and the body are getting the correct amount of nutrients to function at its best.

“Eating new combinations and regularly varying your diet with a variety of fruits, vegetables, fermented foods and grains encourages a diverse and balanced gut microbiota, which is important for gut health.”

One of the most common food pairings is iron, such as spinach, nuts, and red meat, and vitamin C like citrus fruits. One study found that taking 100mg of vitamin C with a meal can increase iron absorption by 67%.

“Vitamin D-rich foods like salmon or sardines paired with calcium-rich foods such as leafy greens and broccoli boost the absorption of calcium,” Kanani says. “Vitamin D also helps to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body.”

Baked fish and vegetables. Grilled fried salmon, broccoli, paleo, keto, lshf, fodmap or dash diet. Mediterranean food with steamed fish. Oven dish, healthy concept, gluten free, clean eating, balanced food. White ceramic plate on gray table. Top view
Salmon and broccoli mixes vitamin D with calcium. (Getty Images)

Fat is one of our macronutrient groups – along with carbohydrates and protein – which make up the majority of our diet. Lycopenes are found in red pigmented fruit and vegetables such as tomatoes, watermelons, and pink grapefruit. So, avocado and tomatoes are an example of pairing fat with lycopenes.

“Lycopene is an antioxidant found in tomatoes which is absorbed better when eaten with healthy fats,” Kanani explains. “Cooking tomatoes can also increase the bioavailability of lycopene.”

Kanani says incorporating food pairings is a manageable way to boost the nutrients in your diet, from using fruit toppings on yoghurts, or making smoothies and salads containing food pairings.

For example, you could pair Greek yoghurt with pink grapefruit for a fat and lycopene mix, or eat peppers, tomatoes and broccoli for vitamin C options alongside iron-rich foods like red meat, nuts, and beans.

Unrecognisable woman sitting on sofa and having oatmeal with berries for brakfast
Yoghurt and grapefruit is an example of fats and lycopenes. (Getty Images)

Vitamin D is found in fatty fish like salmon, along with mushrooms and eggs, so these could b paired with calcium from leafy green vegetables like carrots, or dairy products.

“A mixture of protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates in each meal will help ensure you are getting balanced nutrition,” Kanani adds. “Prepping meals and snacks for the week will help you have healthy, well-paired options available when life gets busy.”

So, now you know how to increase the absorption of nutrients in your body, but did you know some foods can actively decrease that absorption too? These are called antinutrients.

These are plant compounds like tannins, phytates, and lectins that are found in seeds, grains, and legumes that our bodies can find difficult to digest.

However, the health benefits of these foods often outweigh any negatives, and so they should remain in your diet.