Food combining principles have been around for a long time. Generally, food-combining eating assigns foods to different groups. These are usually broken down into carbs and starches, fruits, vegetables, proteins, and fats. Some guidelines also classify foods as either acidic, alkaline or neutral. Food-combining diets specify how you should combine these groups in a meal.
We'll Bite, What is It?
The basic principle behind food combining diet is that different foods require different pH levels to digest properly, and they all have different transit times in the GI tract. The belief is that eating certain food combinations, specifically, protein-rich foods combined with carbohydrate-rich foods, are harder to digest. This combination supposedly decreases nutrient absorption and would cause food to sit longer in the GI tract, which could promote gas, bloating, and the buildup of toxins from food not moving through quickly enough.
Here are the four most common rules of food combining:
1) Always eat fruit, and especially melon, on an empty stomach, or at least twenty minutes before eating anything else.
2) Eat starches alone, or with cooked non-starchy vegetables.
3) Eat meat, dairy, fish, and eggs, and other high-protein foods alone or with cooked non-starchy vegetables.
4) Eat nuts, seeds, and dried fruit with raw vegetables.
What's the Truth?
So, does it work? First of all, there is not a lot of evidence supporting these guidelines. It’s not that lack of evidence is evidence against. but some of these principles don’t make sense biochemically.
Food combining diets advise that carbohydrates can’t digest in an acidic environment. There is some truth to the idea that carbohydrates digest better in an alkaline environment due to the activation of the amylase enzymes. However, eating carbohydrates alone is not going to prevent them from being acted on by stomach acid, because stomach acid is released when we eat any type of food, not just protein. Truth is, we start to produce stomach acid when we simply smell food.
If our stomachs are empty, they are acidic. They really only drop in acid when food enters them. In a healthy individual, the stomach should release acid when any food goes in. So once these contents of the stomach move into the small intestine, the pancreas releases digestive enzymes, along with bicarbonate. Bicarbonate is an alkaline secretion that neutralizes stomach acid. This will activate the pancreatic enzymes that work to break down mostly the carbohydrates and fat, but some protein is also broken down in the small intestine. However, the pancreas actually releases these enzymes in response to the drop in pH when the acidic stomach contents enter the small intestine. So, based on physiology, the more acid that your stomach produces, the more alkaline the pancreatic response will be. In that case, eating protein with carbohydrates or fats could actually increase the digestive capacity in the small intestine.
Our bodies make all these enzymes that get released into the small intestine (lipase, amylase, and trypsin) and these work on different components of food: carbohydrate, fat, protein. The body is releasing these enzymes into the small intestine knowing it’s going to get a big mix of what you’re eating. All of the food gets mixed up with your stomach acid into a substance called chyme, and that’s what gets released into the small intestine. Everything is already mixed together. Things are not digested sequentially.
Then based on the macronutrient contents in your stomach, it’ll be released into the small intestine at different rates. Carbohydrates spend less time in the stomach then fat for example. The more fat we eat, the longer it’s going to stay in our stomachs. However, this doesn’t change how much the foods get digested, it just may change the gastric emptying rate. The possibility exists that it may feel better if we’re just eating carbohydrates and they get released quicker. However, it’s also going to make you get hungrier faster.
A Potential Downside of Food Combining
Food combining principles suggest that we should only eat fruit on its own. That works for healthy people, but anyone dealing with a blood sugar control issue shouldn’t be eating carbohydrate foods on their own. Carbohydrates, if on their own, get digested and absorbed into the bloodstream much faster. So adding protein or fat to a carbohydrate source can help reduce the spike in blood sugar that would come from eating that carbohydrate on its own. For those that have a healthy blood sugar response, combining a piece of fruit with fat is actually a great way to increase satiety levels, like an apple with almond butter. Eating fruit on its own is necessarily helpful or harmful. Some people can just tolerate it better than others.
Additionally, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that salads with lettuce, tomatoes, and carrots require a fat-containing dressing to absorb the mixed carotenoids present in the vegetables. These carotenoids protect against chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer. So it’s important to eat fat with your vegetables and other plant foods to maximize nutrient absorption.
Why It May Work For You
One of the reasons why food combining diets may work for some people is because they end up eating less food at one sitting. When you combine the two food groups, the starches, and the fat together, the result is delicious, making it easier to eat a larger volume of food. Eating large meals makes it hard to effectively digest food because stomach acid and other enzymes get diluted by the volume. Your GI tract is going to have to work a lot harder to handle that extra volume. We recommend eating until you’re about 80% full to optimize digestion.
This is where a 21-Clean Program can really come in handy. With two Clean shakes per day, you automatically ease digestion. Not only are shakes typically less food than a large meal, but they are also “pre-digested” due to the fact that they are blended. It’s a digestive win-win.
All in all, learn to tune in and listen to your body. Do you notice excess bloating and stomach discomfort when you eat fruit as a dessert after a large meal? Or maybe when you eat roasted chicken with sweet potato? Maybe you notice no difference at all. Your body will tell you what works well with it and what doesn’t when you are willing to create the space to listen. It’s always worth experimenting to learn what works best for you.
If digestion is a big concern of yours, check out our Top 10 Tips to Improving Digestion and how inflammation may be the culprit.
Written by Hannah Aylward
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