Food combining stresses it's how you eat, not just what you eat, that leads to good health. We explore whether this practice improves our health.
Janet Lefebvre has always had a sensitive stomach, having long been plagued by digestive issues such as bloating and abdominal pain. To improve her tummy troubles, she’s tried going gluten- and dairy-free, which helped, a bit. But it was the practice of food combining that really alleviated her symptoms.
“Everything just felt easier once I started paying attention to what I was eating with what,” Lefebvre says.
Evolution of food combining
Food combining has been around for some time, but like other diets, it experiences surges in popularity. American naturopath Herbert Shelton and doctor Howard Hay were early pioneers of the practice.
The concept really caught on with the publication of Harvey and Marilyn Diamond’s best-selling book Fit for Life (Grand Central Publishing, 1987). More recently, the nutritional approach has piqued people’s interest as a key component of Donna Gates’s “Body Ecology” diet.
Whether food combining is just another fad, there’s no denying it’s the antithesis of the traditional North American meat and potatoes diet.
The theory behind food combining
Proponents say there are good reasons people should be conscious of how they combine the foods they eat. Requests for an interview with Gates went unanswered, but the basic message of food combining is this: it’s not just what you eat, but how you eat that affects your health and well-being.
According to advocates, the consumption of proteins such as poultry, fish, meat, and eggs causes your stomach to secrete hydrochloric acid while the enzyme pepsin breaks down food in an extremely acidic environment.
Eating starches such as potatoes or bread causes the release of ptyalin, another enzyme, which creates what is called an alkaline condition—an imbalance in the body’s pH level or level of acidity and alkalinity. If you eat proteins and starches together, the theory goes, those foods will neutralize each other and inhibit digestion.
There’s more: proponents say that poorly digested food will putrefy in the intestines and cause your blood to become acidic. As a result, they say, it creates an environment that allows yeast, viruses, cancer cells, and parasites to grow, making people more prone to all sorts of health problems, such as digestive disorders, allergies, headaches, depression, and even cancer.
What to combine—and not
To keep this from happening, those who follow food combining never have proteins and starches (including grains such as rice and starchy vegetables such as potatoes) in the same meal. Plus, they eat fruit alone, ideally on an empty stomach, this being another key component of food combining.
Proponents suggest that fruits take less time to digest, leaving the stomach within 30 minutes and moving along into the small intestine. They believe that when fruits are eaten with proteins or starches, which take several hours to digest, the fruit is held up in the stomach and begins to ferment.
This fermentation in the stomach is said to cause poor assimilation of nutrients from other foods eaten with it as well as causing an environment for pathogenic yeasts such as candida to thrive.
Eaten before a meal, fruit is said to prepare the digestive tract for chemical digestion of complex foods.
Why people follow food combining
The purported health benefits of food combining are one reason people turn to it; another is that it’s said to promote weight loss. Better digestion helps improve metabolism. And by ridding the body of toxins, your energy goes up, and so does the ability to exercise.
Holistic nutritionist Ellie Steele says food combining may help some people some of the time but not all people all of the time.
“In some cases I use it and I think it’s appropriate in certain situations, but I don’t recommend it for everyone,” Steele says. “I don’t think heavy starches and heavy meats are a good idea together, but I don’t know if the combination itself is the problem or if it’s a problem because of the heavy starches period—the difficulty digesting those heavy starches.
“Everything starts with digestion,” she adds. “If we can improve people’s digestion, often people’s symptoms of ill health go away. If we can’t get someone to go paleo or primal [both references to the “Paleolithic diet” approach]—which would be my first step to improve digestion—then I might consider food combining in those cases.
“If someone has any symptoms of digestive issues, whether it’s irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, or bloating after meals, the first things I tell them to take out are gluten and dairy. When you take those out, you naturally fall into better food combining.”
Steele points out that many foods are made up of varying amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, a fact that puts the premise of food combining into question.
“If you look at human breast milk, it has a mix of nutrients, and that’s our perfect food,” Steele says.
Is there proof that food combining works?
Research into the efficacy of food combining is lacking, which is why it’s a nutritional approach that Sandra Ace, a registered dietitian with the University of Waterloo Health Services, doesn’t recommend.
“I am unaware of any well-designed and -controlled scientific studies which support the theory that eating foods in special combinations or specific sequences will provide benefits for digestive issues, immunity, weight loss, or other health concerns,” Ace says.
“Nor is there evidence that eating foods in certain combinations wastes nutrients, produces toxins, or otherwise affects health negatively.
“Any eating pattern that results in an energy intake that’s lower than what your body needs will result in weight loss, so it’s possible that a person following a food combining plan could lose weight,” she adds.
“However, this is because they’re eating fewer calories, not because certain food combinations result in an increase in the body’s ability to burn fat.”
Plus, evidence shows that some food combinations that this theory rejects actually help the body process nutrients. Take the improved absorption of iron (found in beef and lentils) when eaten with fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C, for instance.
Ask questions—use caution
Steele and Ace both say that people making drastic changes to their diet must be careful and should consult their health care practitioner first.
“Sometimes people don’t know what to eat, so they don’t eat anything and end up not consuming enough nutrients,” Steele says. “You still have to make sure the diet is balanced.”
According to current advocates of food combining, the following list is a general guide.
|fruit||alone; 30 to 60 minutes before a meal|
|animal protein (meat, poultry, eggs)||with nonstarchy vegetables (peppers, broccoli, onion, cauliflower, lettuce, tomatoes) and/or cultured/fermented foods and/or ocean vegetables (wakame, kombu)|
|carbohydrates and starchy vegetables (including grains, beans, potatoes, yams)||with nonstarchy vegetables and/or cultured/fermented foods|
|nonstarchy vegetables||with anything except fruits|
|fats (avocado, olive oil, coconut)||with nonstarchy vegetables (though some say fats are okay with animal protein and starchy vegetables)|
|sugars||with nonstarchy vegetables|