Essential food combinations for the absorption of nutrients in a plant-based diet

We all seem to be looking for more ways to get the nutrients our bodies need, but nutrient intake is so much more than just the food we eat.

Even if you eat foods rich in nutrients you want to increase in your diet, such as calcium, iron and antioxidants, you may be getting fewer nutrients than you think, depending on how the foods are combined.

According to Catherine Perez, a vegan dietitian, there are several factors that determine how your body absorbs food.

“Regardless of your food choices, your ability to absorb nutrients will change somewhat throughout your life cycle,” she says.

As a child, you needed more nutrients than adults because your lifestyle required more energy, she notes.

And when you’re older, your body won’t digest certain vitamins, like B12, as well as others because your stomach acid decreases as you age.

But specifically for vegans and vegetarians, “certain plant foods have different absorption rates, and that can change depending on how you treat those foods and even what you eat those foods with,” she says.

Fortunately, there are certain nutrients that, when paired together, can increase your ability to absorb them. Here are a few that Perez recommends having at the same time.

4 essential food combinations for optimal nutrient absorption

1. Combine iron with vitamin C

Iron deficiency is a major concern for people on a plant-based diet, Perez says. Plant-based sources of iron are more absorbable if you combine them with something high in vitamin C, she says.

For example, consider eating a burrito with beans, which are high in iron, and diced peppers, which contain a healthy serving of vitamin C.

2. Add zinc to your diet with sulfur

“Zinc is another nutrient that is often a problem for people who want to go plant-based,” says Perez. Found in grains, seeds and legumes such as chickpeas, zinc can be better absorbed when combined with sulfur.

You may already be cooking your chickpeas with sources of sulfur like onions and garlic, and that will make your zinc absorption even better.

3. Eat your antioxidants with fats and fat-soluble vitamins

Including antioxidants on a vegan diet can be a bit tricky. So to make sure you absorb them properly, cook tomatoes, which are rich in the antioxidant lycopene, with fats like olive oil, says Perez.

“If you make a tomato sauce and you use extra virgin olive oil with the tomatoes and cook them down, that will help you activate and absorb lycopene much better than if you didn’t have that fat there at all,” she says.

4. Provide calcium with vitamin D

Bone health is vital for everyone, even those who aren’t vegan, and calcium is useful for strengthening your bones. “If you have those calcium-rich foods and you have enough vitamin D in your diet, your body will be able to absorb it better,” says Perez.

Combine calcium-rich sources such as soy milk, almond milk or plant-based yogurt with a walk outside, as the source of vitamin D from sunlight can help you absorb the calcium better.

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