A few months into my near-constant research of the plant-based vegan diet I developed a list of easy food tweaks that allowed making my newly adopted plant diet even healthier. Since I was constantly on the lookout for ways to eat better, I was glad to find out that we can bring out the healthy potential of some foods by combining them with certain other foods (I’m going beyond the protein-combining myth here!).
Today I’m going to share with you my list of 10 plant-based food combinations that made a difference for me. Interestingly, I use these tips almost on autopilot these days because they are so easy to implement in my daily routine.
10 Healthy Plant-Based Food Combinations
1. Beans and lemon juice. Think it’s an odd combo? Quite the opposite: most beans contain a good amount of iron, a micronutrient that’s essential for our good health. Plant-derived iron may be difficult for our bodies to absorb, but when we combine its sources with foods rich in vitamin C, the iron absorption increases up to six times! Besides lemon juice, you can pair beans with other vitamin C rich plant foods like bell peppers, kale, sweet potatoes, mango, etc.
2. Morning oatmeal/cereal and cinnamon. Sprinkling some cinnamon on your sweet morning meal has other benefits besides making it smell nice: cinnamon has been shown to keep our blood sugar in check, possibly by increasing insulin action. Some doctors even recommend it to type 2 diabetes patients for blood sugar control. One thing to keep in mind: try not to go overboard with cinnamon, as some types of it (cassia, or Chinese, cinnamon in particular) contains a compound called coumarin, which may be toxic to the liver in high doses. Aim at no more than 1 tsp of cinnamon total a week.
3. Fresh vegetable salads and avocado/nuts/seeds. Red, green and orange vegetables are rich in carotenoids – a group of A vitamins (lycopene, lutein, carotene) that are essential for fighting free radicals. Carotenoids are fat-soluble, which means that they are absorbed much better in our bodies when combined with healthy fats. This is where avocadoes/nuts/seeds come in handy: top your salad with these sources of healthy, unrefined fats (this type of fat is much better for us compared to the refined, processed fats like oils).
4. Turmeric and black pepper. There must be a reason why I can’t have enough of Indian food: turmeric, a fragrant yellowish spice abundant in Indian cuisine, is a true nutritional powerhouse! The active compound in turmeric called curcumin may protect us from a number of degenerative diseases such as osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and even some cancers. Did you know that only one percent of elderly people in India develop Alzheimer’s disease? To enhance the benefits of curcumin, add a pinch of black pepper to your food along with turmeric: it boosts the bioavailability of curcumin by as much as 2000 percent!
5. Beans and rice. This is a classic combo in different cuisines from all over the world: rice and other grains are paired with split pea stews in Africa, tofu in Japan, lentils in India, red beans in Cajun cuisine. Generations of cooks from different parts of the world were wise: when beans are combined with rice, the amino acid profiles of both of these foods combine to form a complete protein. Please note that I am not promoting the complete protein myth of the 1970-s (I wrote more on this subject in this post), but it’s nice to know that a combo of rice and beans is not only delicious but also healthy. Especially if you squeeze some lemon juice over your beans, as tip #1 suggests.
6. Kombu and dried beans cooked together. Kombu is a sea vegetable that is available in most health food stores and online (this is the brand I use). When added to a pot of boiling beans, it may enhance their nutritional profile, reduce the cooking time, and even make the beans easier to digest. I wrote more about kombu and other sea vegetables in this post. Don’t let the steep price scare you: one pack of kombu will last you a long time because you only need a postage stamp-size piece for a large pot of beans. (See my post about cooking dried beans at home.)
7. Nutritional yeast and savory foods. Nutritional yeast has lots of benefits for our health (I wrote more about it in this post). It is usually fortified with vitamin B12 – the only vitamin that may run low over the time in people on an otherwise balanced plant-based vegan diet. To avoid getting deficient, it’s a good idea to sprinkle some nutritional yeast on any of the savory foods you eat: I find that its cheesy taste makes a good substitution for Parmesan topping in Italian dishes. (Alternatively, you can take a B12 supplement.)
8. Green tea and lemon juice. It’s no secret that green tea is a healthy beverage: it contains lots of antioxidants that help fight free radicals and environmental toxins. I’ve been drinking green tea since I was a child growing up in Uzbekistan as it was the beverage of choice in my family. Just recently I found out that by adding a little bit of lemon (or other citrus) juice to a cup of green tea we make those antioxidants more readily available for us. Another plus: lemon juice reduces the ability of some compounds in green tea that inhibit iron absorption (see tip #1 above).
9. Ground flax seed and baked goods. Flax seed is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids for vegans. To make all of the nutrients of flax available for absorption in our system, whole flax seeds need to be ground (you can use a coffee grinder for this, or buy pre-ground flax meal). When combined with water in 1:2 proportion, ground flax makes a great substitute for eggs in baking. If a recipe doesn’t call for flax egg substitute, I often throw some ground flax in anyway for good measure. Another way to use ground flax is to add 1 tsp to your morning cereal or smoothie.
10. Tart cherries and green smoothies. Tart cherries can make a great addition to the diet of people suffering from gout or prone to kidney stone formation: they are rich in malic acid, which helps in breaking down excess uric acid in our blood (high uric acid levels are the main reason for gout and some types of kidney stones). Athletes are another group of people who can benefit from eating a few tart cherries every day: anthocyanin flavonoids in cherries reduce inflammation in muscles after strenuous exercise. Studies found that drinking cherry juice may be just as effective as eating whole cherries.
So here’s my list of 10 healthy food combinations that we can all benefit from. Can you add any other combinations to this list? Please let me know in the comments!
In putting together this post, I used a number of articles from all over the web, as well as Rip Esselstyn’s My Beef with Meat book and highly informative videos from Michael Greger’s site, NutritionFacts.org.
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