Essential food pairings for nutrient absorption on 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 foods we eat. 

Even if you’re eating foods that are high in the nutrients you’re aiming to increase in your diet — like calcium, iron and antioxidants — depending on how the foods are paired, you may be getting less nutrients than you think. 

Multiple factors go into how your body absorbs food, according to Catherine Perez, a vegan dietitian.

“Regardless of your dietary choices, your ability to absorb nutrients is going to kind of change throughout your life cycle,” she says.

As children, 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 for vegans and vegetarians specifically, “certain plant-based foods have different absorbability rates, and those can change, depending on how you treat those foods and even what you might be eating those foods with,” she says.

Luckily, 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 pairings for optimal nutrient absorption

1. Pair iron with vitamin C

Iron deficiency is a huge concern for people on a plant-based diet, says Perez. Plant-based sources of iron are more absorbable when you pair them with something that’s high in vitamin C, she says.

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

2. Incorporate zinc in your diet with sulfur

“Zinc is another nutrient that tends to be a concern for those looking to go plant-based,” says Perez. Found in grains, seeds and legumes like chickpeas, zinc can be better absorbed when paired with sulfur.

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

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

Absorbing antioxidants on a vegan diet can be a bit tricky. So, to ensure you’re absorbing them properly, you should cook tomatoes, that are rich in the antioxidant lycopene, with fats like olive oil, says Perez. 

“If you’re making a tomato sauce and you’re using extra virgin olive oil with the tomatoes and cooking them down, that’s going to help you activate and absorb lycopene a lot better than if you didn’t have that fat there at all,” she says.

4. Have your calcium with vitamin D

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

Pair calcium-rich sources like soy milk, almond milk or plant-based yogurts with a walk outside, because the source of vitamin D from sunlight can help you better absorb the calcium.

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