Is food combining healthy?
Buying and preparing nutrient-dense foods is a lifestyle challenge in itself. Pair that with the practice of food combining and you’ve got a complicated mealtime dance. Over the years, I’ve been emailed and messaged with this question: Is food combining really worth the effort?
The movement of food combining purports that certain food groups cause digestive distress and weight gain when eaten at the same meal. It traces its popularity to the 1980’s with the publication of Fit for Life. Since then, it has enjoyed the lime light on The Dr. Oz Show and Oprah.
Food Combining Rules
Although there are many variations and minute details, the basic principles of food combining include:
- Don’t combine meat and starches in the same meal
- Combine vegetables with meat or starches
- Eat fruit (except lemons and limes) away from other food groups
- Avoid dairy or eat it alone
While food combining is a step in the right direction for many people, because it encourages freshly-prepared meals, it is a limited approach to wellness that overlooks basic physiology.
Here are the problems with the food combining philosophy, followed by the food combining rules that support wellness at a deeper level.
Food combining is not a traditional practice
Some say that the current food combining theory races its roots back to Ayurvedic texts. This literature discusses the energy of the food, since foods have either a “heating energy” and other foods have a “cooling energy”. This system also says that strong and vibrant digestion, called the digestive fire or “agni,” can help ameliorate the supposedly harmful effects of poor food combining.
But while modern food combining has much in common with Ayurvedic instructions, the vast majority of traditional cultures thoroughly contradict food combining principles. According to Nourishing Traditions,
A final argument against food combining notes that we find no such strictures among traditional societies whose intuitive wisdom has dictated the food choices that kept them healthy for generations.
A few examples culled from the research of Dr. Weston Price will suffice: isolated Swiss villagers ate milk products with rye bead; primitive Gaelic peoples subsisted on fish and oats; natives of the Caribbean consumed seafood along with starchy tubers of the manoic family; Indians in the Andes mountains ate potatoes with small animals and seafood; Polynesians consumed starchy tubers, fruit and seafood. Semitic peoples combined meat and milk with grains.
Primitive peoples, with their unerring native wisdom, put no restrictions on combining starches and proteins or even fruits and proteins.
The body is designed to digest all food combinations
The evolutionary masterpiece of human digestion illustrates the bodys’ capacity to absorb all macronutrients (fats, carbs, and protein) in a single meal.
- Digestion starts in the brain, when the sight, smell, thought, and taste of food triggers saliva and stomach acid production. Saliva contains an enzyme – amylase – which begins to break down carbohydrates.
- The stomach should be a literal acid tank with a pH of about 2, by the time food reaches it. This highly acidic environment turns steak into soup in minutes.
- The contents of the stomach empties into the small intestine, where the acidity triggers the pancreas to release neutralizing bicarbonate and digestive enzymes. Bile from the gallbladder is also released, which allows the absorption of the fats.
Here is the takeaway: if we show up to our meal with mindful presence, the brain readies the body to digest fats, carbs, and protein in the same meal. If we are producing adequate stomach acid, which can be considered digestive fire, the body responds downline with the materials necessary for complete digestion.
Successful digestion renders the food combining rules arbitrary and unsubstantiated.
Why does food combining help?
So why does food combining frequently work? People try a food combining diet and give exultant testimonials of vastly improved digestion and weight loss.
First, food combining creates a mindful, ritualized approach to mealtime. A food combining diet can be a huge step in the right direction for many people. It forces them to give significant attention to the things they are putting in their body.
Fresh produce and whole proteins sources are emphasized, while excluding many harmful processed foods. For example, processed cereal with pasteurized milk (a highly unhealthful but ubiquitous meal) is already out of the game. The emphasis on enzyme-rich raw foods and the reduction of processed non-foods means a healthy change from the Standard American Diet.
Second, food combining may reduce food intake or problematic foods. Food combining leads to mindful portion size and freshly-prepared meals, which supports weight loss.
Additionally, food combining can act as a band-aid for numerous digestive issues by reducing intake of problem foods. For example, eating starches can cause symptoms of bloating, gas, and belching when there is inadequate stomach acid and enzyme production. Food combining often reduces the amount and frequency of starch someone consumes. This ameliorates the symptom, but does not solve the underlying cause.
The root causes of digestive problems
As I mentioned, many people attempt the complex choreography of food combining to lose weight or ameliorate chronic digestive issues. There are a few common reasons why we have digestive issues in the first place, and these issues underly obesity and hormone imbalance.
1. We are not in parasympathetic mode when we eat. Parasympathetic mode is the state of the nervous system which turns on all digestive processes, from stomach acid production to the muscle contractions of the intestines.
How do you show up to your food? If you eat on the go, or while reading work emails, or while angry with your dinner companion, you are not in parasympathetic mode. As a result, you cheat your body of nutrients and, over time, may lead to a stress-induced condition of leaky gut.
2. Due to chronic stress, age, or acid-reducing medication, we may have inadequate stomach acid. Jonathan Wright wrote Why Stomach Acid is Good for You because 90% of his patients were deficient in stomach acid.
Low stomach acid leaves protein, carbohydrates and fats improperly digested. Symptoms including heartburn and leaky gut result. Please see my post How to Heal Low Stomach Acid Naturally and The Heartburn Myth for more information.
3. We have depleted digestive enzyme production. Chronic stress and a sugar-laden lifestyle take a toll on the pancreas, which produces the enzymes necessary to digest food. Additionally, low stomach acid creates a lack of digestive enzymes. The acid in the stomach is responsible for triggering the release of pancreatic enzymes.
To bolster the enzyme production in your pancreas, start by balancing your blood sugar and supporting your adrenals. In addition, support your stomach acid production as discussed above.
4. We have problems digesting fat due to years on a low-fat or poor-fat diet. This means the gallbladder can’t release bile so we can’t digest fat. Greasy stools, constipation, gallstones, and nausea after eating may indicate fat malabsorption. Please see my post 8 Ways to Improve Fat Malabsorption Naturally.
Food Combining Rules 2.0
A poor understanding of physiology underlies the popular method of food combining. Here are food combining rules that support nutrient absorption and digestive wellbeing at the foundational level.
- Combine your food with the practice of mindful mealtime. Sit at the table and set aside your electronics. Create a ritual, such as setting the table or blessing your food, to transition your body into the parasympathetic mode.
- Do not gulp liquids before, during, or right after meals. Gulping a giant glass of water with a meal, a recommendation to reduce hunger, literally dampens the digestive fire. It dilutes the acidity of stomach acid, which in turn compromises enzymatic action. Avoid gulping liquids within 30 minutes of a meal, although you can enjoy a cup or liquid gradually sipped over the course of a meal.
- Enjoy protein with healthy fats. The body cannot use protein unless it is accompanied by fat. Chronic consumption of low-fat protein can deplete the body of the vitamins A and D. A grilled chicken breast with naked steamed veggies is poor food combining, indeed. Add a dollop of hormone-balancing ghee to absorb your nutrients!
- Serve leafy greens with a source of healthy fat. This could be a dressing made with olive oil, a fillet of salmon on the side, or a poached egg on your salad. The fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins improve your absorption of nutrients in the greens.
- Enjoy carbohydrates with healthy fats. All carbohydrates break down quickly into glucose, the form of sugar that enters the blood stream. Fat slows down the absorption of glucose, supporting balanced blood sugar and stable energy levels. Additionally, when you incorporate healthy fats in your meals, you give your body long-burning fuel to keep you full. A low fat diet is not a successful weight loss diet.
Have you tried food combining? What is your experience?
So interesting! I’ve tried food combining and it was just way to stressful to remember all the rules and meal plan accordingly. Does the fruit first rule still apply though? I’ve read you need to eat fruit on an empty stomach since it breaks down so quickly. Is that a myth?
Great article with some really great points. In the end, we always have to get to the root cause of our digestive problems and not believe some dietary dogma. In point 2 of your Food Combining Rules 2.0 you recommend not drinking a large glass of water with meals as it can dilute stomach acid which in turn negatively affects digestion. I’ve actually come across evidence contrary to that, and that water doesn’t negatively affect digestion and it can actually improve digestion when people drink water with meals. I’m curious to know your thoughts on this. I know you do a great job researching and am always trying to learn more myself.
I really enjoy your blog so thanks for the great info!
Thanks for the links, Allison! I trust the research at Authority Nutrition so that’s interesting. But many clinicians, including Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride don’t recommend drinking more than a cup or so of liquid at meals. So, as with many things, I’d leave the final word to the individual, their experience, and their intuition.
Definitely! Depends on the individual because in the end there is almost always conflicting information and scientific “evidence” about what, how and how much to eat. Cheers.
Here’s my thought. I think “food combining” while it may work for a few with specialized needs, doesn’t really hold any weight for the majority of people. I was born and raised on the island of kauai..in Hawaii. My ancestors from Hawaii, as well as my Japanese ancestors (I’m mixed) ate healthy unprocessed, whole foods in all types of combinations. It really bugs me when they come up with these restrictive complicated diets that turn normal people away from healthy eating because it’s so much work.
I know people who mean well, want to eat healthy, then read about the next complicated food trend, can’t do it, then give up. Thank you for being one of the only blogs I’ve seen to shed light on this topic. My philosophy is if you can catch it, gather it or grow it in nature(as we often can here on an island )then it doesn’t matter the combination your consuming it. Whole foods, unprocessed, cooked yourself.
Another well-written and researched article, Lauren! I notice the words “healthy fat” repeated many times – not just here but in health and wellness articles all over the place. I do think that’s one of the major keys to enjoying good health. Fortunately the healthy fats are really appealing to me and I don’t have to think twice about eating them.
Lauren! I enjoyed this Articel, I ‘ m German , so We were raised not to drink while having our meal, only afterwards, being an Adult now , I do enjoy a glass of wine or beer with my meal, but please no water, and I do sip my wine! Thanks!
Great info Lauren! And I completely agree…the people that rave about food combining probably feel much better because it eliminated many really poor choices, like milk and cereal. The same way people that switch from the SAD to a raw vegan lifestyle…they are finally eating whole foods and feel amazing. But eventually they need more saturated fat, etc. I read Body Ecology and think Donna Gates is awesome. But I think it just gets so restrictive. I feel great focusing on real, whole foods. Tons of veggies, some fruit, healthy fats, and animal protein. I do my best to sit down to meals and relax, including a moment to think about how grateful I am for my food. But not every day is like that. Either way, eating real foods seems to eliminate any need for food combining for me.
I tried food combining a few years ago and it actually made me worse. I didn’t know then that I was insulin resistant, and so eating fruit on its own and not being able to combine protein and starch wreaked havoc on my already unstable blood sugar levels. Unfortunately I stuck with it too long because I didn’t know what was happening 🙁
when i have bout of severe digestive problems complete separation of starches and proteins seem to do the trick…but when its less severe then eating protein first …..and then in the same meal follow with starches…. it seems that is all that is needed…. for me anyway
This is so informative, thank you! I’ve never been at peace with the idea of not combining animal protein with a starch when instinctively it seems like the perfect combo of protein and carbs to balance… ironically, though, I read this post (esp the part about straying from tech when you eat!) while while eating avocado and eggs for brekky… gotta put that phone on charge before a meal!