Do you know how to help your food pack a nutritional punch? Read on to learn four ways that you can boost the amount of food nutrients your body absorbs. And, yes, these ideas are delicious and convenient.
If I were to ask you how to get the most nutrition from the foods you eat, you’d probably say that it all starts at the grocery store. After all, choosing nutrient-rich foods when you shop is one of the best ways to ensure that you’ll get the most nutrition that a diet can deliver.
A few months back, I wrote a post with some tips for selecting and storing fruits and vegetables in order to lock the nutrients in. Today I want to take the discussion one step further. Once you’ve done all you can to lock those nutrients into those healthy foods, what can you do to most effectively unlock them and make them usable by your body?
Choosing nutrient-rich foods is certainly the first step in providing your body with the nutrients it needs. If you really want to optimize your diet, the way your foods are prepared and eaten can influence how well those nutrients are taken up and utilized by your body. In other words, it’s about how “body ready” the nutrients are.
A more scientific term for “body ready” is bioavailability. In the simplest sense, bioavailability is a way of describing how much of a particular nutrient found in a food is actually digested, absorbed and utilized by the body.
The macronutrients in your foods (the major nutrients: proteins, fats and carbohydrates) are very bioavailable and are readily taken up by the body. But your body’s ability to take up micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), as well as phytonutrients (natural plant compounds), is influenced by a number of factors.
How you select and store your food, how you prepare it, how you eat it—and in some cases what you eat it with—can make certain vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients more “body ready,” so you can use more of that food nutrient and reap the benefits.
The foods you choose and the way you store them can affect their nutrient content. Fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables are usually your best bet. They’ve likely been picked at their peak and have had less time in transit and storage, both of which can diminish nutrient content. But frozen foods run a close second: they’ve generally processed very soon after harvest, which locks nutrition in.
Some food nutrients, such as vitamin C, can be lost when fruits and vegetables are exposed to light and air. This is particularly true if the food has been cut open (skins and peels help protect vitamin content). While pre-cut fruits and vegetables are convenient (many of us use them from time to time), it’s best to start with whole foods whenever possible to retain the most nutrients.
Storage conditions matter, too. For instance, tomatoes and watermelon have more lycopene (the antioxidant pigment that gives them their red color) when they’re stored at room temperature rather than in the refrigerator. On the other hand, vitamin C, in foods like citrus fruits and broccoli, is better preserved in the cold temperature of your refrigerator.
Certain food nutrients—most notably the colorful compounds in fruits and vegetables known as carotenoids—are bound tightly to the cells of the plant. In order to increase the bioavailability of compounds like lutein, lycopene and beta-carotene, these phytonutrients have to be released somehow.
The simplest way to release these compounds from carotenoid-rich foods like carrots or spinach is to simply chop them into smaller pieces. That’s another good reason to toss them in the blender when you make your protein shakes in the morning. It gives your digestive enzymes more surface area to work with, and that makes these compounds more bioavailable.
Carotenoids are also fat-soluble, which means that a small amount of fat helps to make these compounds more bioavailable. The same holds true for the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. It doesn’t take much fat, though. The equivalent of a teaspoon or so will do, which is an amount likely to be in most typical meals.
Cooking also helps to release carotenoids. The cooking process helps to break down cell walls, which releases the food nutrients and makes them more body-ready. Gentle cooking can also destroy certain “anti-nutritional” factors in certain foods. For example, raw Brussels spouts and cabbage contain enzymes that can interfere with the bioavailability of thiamin, but the enzymes are destroyed when the vegetables are cooked—and thiamin becomes bioavailable.
Foods that have been allowed to ferment or sprout may have more bioavailable nutrients. Foods like yogurt, pickles, tempeh or kimchi are examples of fermented foods. As they go through the fermentation process, the carbohydrates naturally contained in these foods are turned into mild acids, which increases the bioavailability of minerals like iron, zinc, calcium and phosphorus.
Whole grains and beans contain a compound called phytic acid, which can bind minerals such as calcium, iron and zinc so that they’re less body-ready. But when wheat is “fermented” into bread with yeast or sourdough (or when a bread is made from sprouted grains), more of the minerals in the grain are bioavailable. Similarly, when you eat sprouted beans, more minerals become bioavailable.
Another way to increase bioavailability is by eating certain food nutrients in combination. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, which is why most milk sold in the US is fortified with vitamin D. This increases the bioavailability of milk’s calcium. Another way to pair vitamin D and calcium is to eat calcium-rich leafy greens with fatty fish, which contains vitamin D.
Vitamin C is a huge help when it comes to absorbing iron from plant sources. When beans (a good source of iron) are cooked with tomatoes (a good source of vitamin C), the combination can double or even triple the bioavailability of the iron.
Vitamin C has also been shown to help make some of the beneficial compounds in green tea more body-ready. Green tea contains unique compounds that act as antioxidants in the body, so adding lemon to tea would help make them more bioavailable.
If you like black pepper, it does more than just add flavor to foods. Black pepper contains a compound called piperine, which stimulates your pancreas to release digestive enzymes. It has also been shown to increase the bioavailability of selenium, beta carotene and vitamin B6, as well as certain phytonutrients found in spices.