Peanut butter and jelly. Bacon and eggs. Burgers and fries. Some foods are just better together. And as it turns out, the same rule applies to vitamins and minerals too.
That’s because many nutrients work together in synergy (which is why popping a few select supplements isn’t always the best idea). The payoff: a healthier heart.
Here are a few vitamin-and-mineral duos that can add up to big health benefits. Because in this case, the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.
The mineral magnesium, found in nuts and seeds, may help regulate your blood pressure, keep your arteries from hardening, and keep your heart rhythm regular. And it turns out that this powerful mineral has a friend: Vitamin B6, which helps your body absorb magnesium.
Women ages 19 to 30 should aim for 310 daily milligrams (mg) of magnesium; those age 31 and older should strive to get 320 mg. Men ages 19 to 30 should get 400 mg; those 31 and older should try for 420 mg, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) . Both men and women ages 19 to 50 should try to get 1.3 daily mg of vitamin B6; men 51 and older should get 1.7 mg, and women in the same age range should strive for 1.5 mg.
To boost your intake of magnesium, try eating foods like almonds and spinach; to get more vitamin B6, opt for raw foods that are high in the nutrient (like bananas), as opposed to cooked varieties. “What's interesting is there is some data that cooking foods (plant or animal foods) forms a vitamin B6 antagonist,” says James DiNicolantonio, PharmD, a cardiovascular research scientist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. “Thus, even if you are eating foods that are ‘high in vitamin B6,’ if you are cooking them, they may not actually be contributing much to your overall vitamin B6 status.”
If you have trouble increasing your vitamin B6 intake through diet, ask your doctor whether you may benefit from a supplement.
These essential minerals work together like yin and yang to regulate many bodily functions, including important heart numbers like blood pressure. About 1 in 3 adults in the United States have high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and eating too much sodium and too little potassium may play a role in increasing your risk for the condition.
Even though the American Heart Association (AHA) tells adults to consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day, most Americans eat more than 3,400 mg a day. Unfortunately, most Americans also don’t eat enough potassium, according to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines. One way to strike a balance? Ditch processed foods — as 70 percent of all sodium we consume is found in packaged and restaurant foods, according to the AHA. Instead, eat lightly salted, high-potassium vegetables, like squash and spinach.
“For example, I will eat slightly undercooked organic potatoes, beans, or fish and I salt to taste,” says Dr. DiNicolantonio. “I use salt to allow me to eat healthier high-potassium foods, which tend to be bitter without salt.” Men and women should aim to consume 3,400 and 2,600 mg of potassium, respectively. Talk to your doctor about what levels make sense for your situation.
Vitamin D can help regulate blood pressure and improve your heart health, but in order for it to work, it needs magnesium’s help. “Without magnesium, you cannot turn vitamin D into its active form, called calcitriol,” says DiNicolantonio. You don’t necessarily need to consume both nutrients in the same meal, but meeting the daily recommended intake of each is your best bet. Both men and women should aim to get 600 IU (international units) of vitamin D a day. Good sources of Vitamin D include fish and milk; good sources of magnesium include almonds, spinach, and black beans.
You may have also heard of Vitamin D’s friendship with another nutrient: calcium. Together they benefit bone health. However, a review published in May 2017 in The Journal of Clinical Hypertension suggested that calcium supplements might be linked to a higher risk of heart trouble, so talk to your doctor before taking calcium supplements.
Iron is an essential mineral that helps your body build red blood cells. It comes in two forms: heme (found in meat and seafood) and nonheme (found in plant foods as well as meat and seafood). All adult men and women over age 51 should consume 8 mg of iron a day, while women ages 19 to 50 need 18 mg, according to the NIH.
Although iron deficiency isn’t common in the United States, says the NIH, it can occur in vegetarians because the body doesn’t absorb nonheme iron as well as it does heme iron. And untreated iron-deficiency anemia can cause your heart to work to harder, which can in turn cause irregular heartbeats or even heart failure, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
If you aren’t getting enough iron, then adding vitamin C, found famously in citrus fruits (other good sources include berries and bell peppers), could help because it aids iron absorption from plant foods, according to the NIH. But you can have too much of a good thing. A study published in January 2018 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a possible link between too much iron consumption, especially from red meat, and a higher risk of atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque inside the arteries.
That said, if you eat a lot of iron, and are predisposed to storing too much iron, then getting extra vitamin C might actually be detrimental, says DiNicolantonio. Be sure to talk to your doctor about your iron and vitamin C intake.
These B vitamins work together to lower the levels of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to heart disease when it builds up in excess, he says. A study published in November 2018 in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition even suggested that higher intake of folate and vitamin B6 was associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease in a general population.
You can find vitamin B6 in spinach; eggs, poultry, and milk contain vitamin B12. Some people might also benefit from well-formulated B-complex supplements with activated or whole-food forms of B-vitamins, says DiNicolantonio, as some individuals carry genetic MTHFR mutations that may limit their ability to process homocysteine. Just be sure to talk to your doctor before adding a supplement.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that can help keep your heart healthy, particularly if you have heart disease. There are three main types of omega-3s: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are famously found in fish, including salmon, mackerel, and albacore tuna, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in certain plants and plant oils, like flaxseed and canola, according to the NIH.
One of the easiest ways to increase your intake of omega-3s is by eating fish, which contain EPA and DHA — both of which are more easily absorbed by the body than ALA, says the NIH. However, according to a 2018 Gallup Poll, an estimated 5 percent of people in the United States are vegetarian, and another 3 percent are vegan — meaning that fish are (literally) off the table. If you don't eat fish (for either dietary, religious, or other reasons), you may want to up your intake of ALAs.
That's because ALAs can be converted by the body into EPA and DHA — with a little help from a healthy diet, of course. Minerals like magnesium and zinc and vitamins like vitamin C and B vitamins all help to convert ALA into fatty acids like EPA and DHA, says DiNicolantonio.
Add some flaxseeds to your next salad, or sprinkle some chia seeds into your smoothie, both of which are rich in ALA.