Choosing nutrient-rich foods when you shop is one of the best ways to ensure you’re fuelling your body with all the nutrients it needs. But do you know how to effectively unlock these nutrients and make them usable by your body?
How to make your food ‘body-ready’
How much benefit you get from the nutrients in your food depends on how ‘body-ready’ the food actually is. A more scientific term for this is ‘bioavailability’; which describes how much of a particular nutrient ends up being digested, absorbed and used by the body.
The macronutrients in foods (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) are very bioavailable and are readily taken up by the body. However, the body’s ability to take up micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and phytonutrients (natural plant compounds) is influenced by a number of factors, all of which can help your body to utilise more of that food nutrient and reap the benefits.
1. Food Selection and Storage
The foods you choose, and the way you store them, can affect their nutrient content. Fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables are often best as they’ve likely been picked at their peak and have had less time in transit and storage – both of which can diminish nutrient content. Frozen foods run a close second as they are generally processed very soon after harvest, which locks their nutrients in.
Some food nutrients, such as vitamin C, can be lost when the food is exposed to light and air; even more so if the skin or and peel has been cut open, as these help to protect the food’s vitamin content. So, while pre-cut fruits and vegetables are convenient, choose whole foods when possible to ensure you get the most nutrients.
Storage conditions matter too, and can vary for different foods. For example, tomatoes and watermelon stored at room temperature have more lycopene (the antioxidant pigment that gives them their red colour) than those stored in the refrigerator. On the other hand, the vitamin C in citrus fruits and broccoli is better preserved in the cold temperature of your refrigerator.
2. Food Preparation
Some beneficial food nutrients such as carotenoids (the colouful compounds in fruits and vegetables) are bound tightly to the cells of the plant. In order to increase the bioavailability of these compounds (such as lutein, lycopene and beta-carotene), the phytonutrients have to be released.
- Chopping carotenoid-rich foods (such as carrots or spinach) into small pieces is an easy way to release the compounds (or add them to the blender when you make your Formula 1 shake). It gives your digestive enzymes a larger surface area to work with; increasing their bioavailability.
- Carotenoids (as well as vitamins A, D, E and K) are also fat-soluble, which means that consuming them with a small amount of fat helps to make the compounds more bioavailable. The fat equivalent of a teaspoon is all that’s needed; an amount likely to already be in your typical meal.
- Cooking helps to release carotenoids, too, as the cooking process helps to break down cell walls and release the food nutrients. Gentle cooking can also destroy certain “anti-nutritional” factors. For example, raw cabbage contains enzymes that can interfere with the bioavailability of a vitamin B1 called thiamine, but these enzymes are destroyed when the vegetables are cooked, meaning the thiamine becomes bioavailable.
- Fermented foods such as yogurt, pickles, tempeh or kimchi often have more bioavailable nutrients. The fermentation process turns their natural carbohydrates into mild acids, which increase 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 and make them less body-ready. But, when wheat is fermented into bread with yeast or sourdough, more of the minerals in the grain become bioavailable. The same is true for sprouted beans and grains.
3. Food Combinations
Another way to increase bioavailability is by eating certain food nutrients in combination.
- Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, so why not try pairing the vitamin D from fatty fish such as salmon, with the calcium in leafy greens?
- Vitamin C plays a big role in the body’s absorption of 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.
- Used predominantly for adding flavour, did you know that black pepper contains the compound piperine, which stimulates your pancreas to release digestive enzymes? This has been shown to increase the bioavailability of selenium, beta carotene and vitamin B6, as well as certain phytonutrients found in spices.
Susan Bowerman is Director of Nutrition Training at Herbalife. Susan is a Registered Dietitian and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.