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Does “Food Combining” Make Sense?

When we envision a healthy diet, we carefully consider our food choices. What do we buy? How do we prepare it? Do we have an appropriate balance of macronutrients and ample micronutrients to fuel our body and optimize our physiological functioning? Are we avoiding unnecessary toxins and additives and eating a clean diet? In addition to these essential questions, some sources suggest that how we combine our food selections can make a difference in our health and metabolism. They claim that some combinations offer the best chance for good digestion and optimum nutrient absorption, while others put us at distinct disadvantage. Are they right? In a Healthy Way of Eating routine, does the how, when and “with what” matter? Let’s take apart the philosophy of food combining.

What is it?

Let’s start by defining the concept of food combining. A quick Internet search will offer all manner of do’s and don’ts, some more sensical than others. In simple terms, however, the notion of food combining suggests that different foods digest in unique ways and at different rates, and that to optimize metabolism a balance of acidic and alkaline in the digestive environment is key.

Alkaline foods include most vegetables and fruit, while acidic foods include most fats and oils, grains, dairy, meats and beans. All of these foods require their own distinct digestive enzymes to break them down for our bodies to utilize the nutrients. These enzymes are produced and function in different “environments” with varying levels of acid and base. (Do you feel like you’re back in science class yet?) There is speculation that combining different kinds of foods in a meal can create confusion for these digestive enzymes and our natural digestive process. A number of issues then arise as a result (e.g. indigestion, bloating, poisonous bi-products, etc.).

Hype or Healthy?

Like most “hot topics,” food combining philosophies offer different strategies and extremes depending on the source you reference. Some go so far as to say you should only eat fruit by itself. Others suggest never eating melon. Still others claim there should be no less than 4 hours between starch and protein meals or that you should never mix protein and fat, and so on. It doesn’t take long to be utterly baffled and feel like “What the heck CAN I eat? Do I also have to stand on one leg, sneeze two times, and chew everything 10 times?”

When we sift through the more dramatic or unusual suggestions, however, we find that the core principles inherent to most “food combining” resources emphasize certain fundamentals, and, boy, do they look familiar!

  • The majority of your meal should be comprised of alkaline-forming foods with minimal acidic-forming foods. This means focusing first on bigger quantities of vegetables (and some fruit) and second on protein.
  • Eat animal protein by itself OR pair with vegetables rather than any refined carbohydrates (i.e. white bread or pasta).
  • Avoid all refined carbohydrates, and instead focus on unrefined slow-releasing carbohydrates.
  • Don’t combine fat and carbohydrate.
  • Don’t eat so late that your body will have to digest while you’re sleeping. Leave at least an hour (ideally a few hours) between eating and sleeping.

In addition to examining our food intake in the context of macronutrients, there’s of course the spectrum of food quality: whole-food based items on one end, and 100% processed items on the other. As we move along the spectrum toward foods being more processed, and we combine processed fats with processed carbohydrates, we come upon choices most of our society finds quite tasty. These tempting combinations simultaneously become very addicting, as in the case of pizza, cookies, doughnuts, ice cream, etc.

Some food combining enthusiasts may recommend not mixing fat and carbohydrates due to the varying times and methods of digestion, while others may offer a similar recommendation but focus more on the relative quality (or lack thereof) of the food item. The common ground here is that overly-processed items (such as refined, high sugar products) are a novel food source as far as your digestive system is concerned. Very few naturally occurring foods contain the concentrations of fast-digesting sugars that modern food provides. Our bodies are not adapted to deal with a flood of fast-digesting sugars that cause blood sugar levels to skyrocket and then an army of hormones to urgently restore the balance. Nearly all recommendations regarding food combining are sure to note that the quality of food is imperative. Our bodies operate best when we eat whole, organically grown, fresh, naturally occurring foods. The quality of what you consume far surpasses how and when you eat it.

Is food combining for you?

Having established the basics of food combining, consider where you’re at in your Healthy Way of Eating journey as well as where you are on the behavior change spectrum. Attempting to implement the principles of food combining into your routine can be confusing and complicated, especially if you haven’t mastered thebasics yet. The majority of my clients were rather new to the thought and action of healthy eating. Their goal was to get healthier and, more often than not, to lose weight.

Although food combining raises intriguing questions about metabolism and may help encourage optimum food digestion, the central research studies around it were performed using low-calorie diets, which is NOT the solution for weight loss. For most people, food combining isn’t necessary to accomplish the weight loss and body composition changes they desire. If you feel you’ve mastered a Healthy Way of Eating and could benefit from learning more about your metabolism and digestion (e.g. potential sensitivities to food, etc.), consult with a registered dietitian for a more personalized, detailed plan.

Thanks for reading, everyone! Have you tried incorporating certain food combining principles? What’s been your result? In the whole picture of healthy eating, what practices have made the most difference for your weight loss success?

Written by Becca Hurt, MS, RD, Program Manager of Life Time WeightLoss

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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