To those of us who appreciate the Superhero universe, sidekicks are actually kind of off putting, if not downright embarrassing.
Most of us would turn green – and not from being bombarded by gamma rays – if Robin, Bucky Barnes (the original comic-book version), Speedy, or even Krypto the super dog got their own DC or Marvel Universe feature-length film.
Infinitely more palatable, literally and figuratively, are nutritional sidekicks. The following representatives of this little appreciated clan – when allowed to participate – make their senior partners downright heroic.
Sidekick: Full-Fat Salad Dressing
Like most nutrition folk, I've long advocated using low or non-fat salad dressing on salads. Sure, mostly empty calories. Ensuing fatness and all that.
Trouble is, we've all been thinking one dimensionally. We all forgot that food and the substances it contains don't exist in a vacuum. You can't dump a bunch of chemicals in a beaker, churn them up with some acid, and expect that they'd all float around without somehow affecting each other. Likewise, you can't assume our digestive systems are all-powerful and absorb everything we eat with 100% efficiency.
In the case of salads, the problem has to do with the absorption of their nutrients, many of which, including a wide array of carotenoids and polyphenols, are fat-soluble. That means they're best absorbed when eaten with some fat.
If, however, we neglect to ingest them with fat, as we largely do when we use non-fat salad dressing, many of those coveted nutrients just sit in our intestines. They get the ticket to gastrointestinal Disneyland but they don't get to go on any rides and then they're forced to ride out on the back of Dumbo.
I'm not saying you need to drown your salad in full-fat dressing. After all, most are really calorically dense. Just a tablespoon should do and you can cut out the extra calories elsewhere.
You undoubtedly know all about coffee's beneficial effects on the brain and the body. It's a pretty good Superhero all on its own, but adding just 2-3 grams of undutched (non-alkalized) cocoa powder to it tamps down on coffee's anxiety-producing effects while bolstering its cognition-enhancing effects. You get laser-like focus and more smarts without the jitters.
What happens is that two cocoa phytochemicals – theobromine and epicatechin – bind to adenosine and benzodiazepene receptors in the body, thereby reducing anxiety and improving motivation, mood, attention, and error rates.
I think that's pretty cool, but there's something that works better than cocoa powder and that's cacao, which is the least processed form of cocoa – it hasn't yet been exposed to high temperatures and a chemical assault. As such, it's nutritive qualities and coffee-supercharging powers are more formidable than those of cocoa.
To supercharge your coffee, add 2-3 grams (about a teaspoon) of cacao. It contains more fat than cocoa powder does, so it should mix into your coffee fairly well. It also makes a great, chocolaty, polyphenol-packed addition to your protein shake, yogurt, cereal milk, or anything else you might want to jazz up.
Unroasted and cold-pressed cacao, while not common, is still pretty easy to find. Amazon offers the Navitas brand of organic cacao for well under 10 bucks.
Sidekick: Vitamin C
Collagen has taken the joint-restoration mantle from glucosamine and its sidekick, chondritin. There's good reason for it, too. Several studies have shown collagen supplementation increases blood levels of collagen propeptides, which indicates that the body is churning out collagen and hopefully trowelling it onto those frayed joints.
Whether collagen is effective simply because it has much higher levels of the amino acid glycine than most other protein sources isn't currently known. However, we do know that taking just 50 mg. of vitamin C with your collagen doubles the amount of collagen propeptides found in the blood in less than an hour.
Without vitamin C, collagen is like one of those lame Avengers with questionable super powers, like Hawkeye or Black Widow. Put the two together, though, and you've got yourself a Spiderman or Captain America.
The main study that brought this phenomenon to light combined 15 grams of collagen from gelatin and 50 mg. of vitamin C powder, but it's unlikely you need to be so precise. My recommendation would be to just pop a 250 or 500 mg. tablet/capsule of vitamin C and follow it up immediately with your 15 to 20-gram serving of collagen dissolved in water, coffee, or tea (or whatever delivery system you use).
Take it before you work out as an insurance policy on joint health, or use it every day for things like improved hair quality and better skin.
Vitamin D is in the spotlight more than it's ever been, but doctors and patients are neglecting a pretty important nutritional fact of life: Vitamin D doesn't even bother to get up in the morning and put its pants on if magnesium isn't there to exhort it on.
You can practically swallow half a bottle of vitamin D a day and you won't have much luck in raising blood levels if sufficient amounts of magnesium aren't around.
Now, truth be told, calcium is equally important to vitamin D, but because of a complicated cascade of historical and economic factors, Americans take in a hell of a lot more calcium every day than they do magnesium. The problem is that having a high calcium-to-magnesium ratio (as the majority of Americans do) cripples the body's ability to transport, synthesize, and activate vitamin D.
The end result of this imbalance is vitamin D deficiency, or at the very least, a vitamin D insufficiency.
This undesirable calcium/magnesium ratio also allows calcium to turn your normally pliable coronary blood vessels into calcified tunnels through which your cardiac surgeon has to go spelunking to save your life.
So here's what to do: Take between 2,000 and 5,000 IU of vitamin D a day, just before a fatty meal (dietary fat helps with absorption). Then, to ensure that the vitamin D gets out of bed, take between 400 and 500 mg. of magnesium, also with a meal.
If you're an athlete and you sweat a lot (as magnesium leeches out of the body through sweat), take an additional dose with a separate meal.