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What is Food Combining?

Overview of a variety of foods

What is food combining?

Although the overall concept of food combining can be quite complicated, I’ll try to make it simple and understandable. Every year upon completing a detox, I always have a personal goal to practice more of this food combining principle as much as I can on day to day living. I have to admit it’s always a struggle for me to do it long term and commit to it. Nevertheless, for those four weeks I enjoy following this rule to the fullest to allow my body to rest and rejuvenate. 

Proper food combining is when you don’t mix animal protein such as meat, fish, eggs or dairy with starchy foods groups or nut/seed/dry fruit groups. You also never eat fruit unless it’s on an empty stomach. It’s not about how much you eat, or what you eat, but how you combine it! 

Although food combining is slowly becoming more popular, it is an ancient practice. Well, at least parts of it. The ayurvedic diet is similar to food combining and can be traced way back till the 1920s. The focus of the ayurvedic diet, which has its roots in holistic healing and food combining, is that we could achieve the right balance by not mixing certain foods.

Similar to the other methods and healthy practices that we’re discussing, proper food combining wasn’t created simply for weight loss but boosting overall health. Of course, as you know, a healthier body will also naturally eliminate the excess of fat, and losing weight becomes a secondary consequence of simply becoming healthier.

The great thing about food combining is that you don’t necessarily need to avoid any food type. You just need to be mindful of not mixing them. It’s also important to remember that I’m referring to organic food options such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and more, not cookies, French fries and soda when talking about diet and food items.

As you already know, these are bad for your health, and not even food combining can prevent its harmful effects on our health. Now you know the basics of food combining and how it works, as well as why it is beneficial NOT to mix certain foods together. But we will go more in-depth. 

I’ve personally developed five simple rules that can optimize your food combining by pairing the strategy with other healthy practices such as focusing on organic foods, detox practices, raw foods and juicing.

Common rules of food combining

  1. Follow proper food combining rules everyday. Starchy foods are only allowed with non starchy vegetables.

  2. Fruits are to be consumed on an empty stomach only and it’s ok to have it 30 minutes before a meal if it’s eaten on an empty stomach.

  3. Wait 3-4 hours before switching to another food group to ensure that your stomach is completely empty and the previous meal is fully digested.

  4. If you are hungry 1-2 hrs after your meal, it’s ok to eat more within the same food group that you had your last meal from.

  5. Abstain from processed foods completely, anything that has added sugar, white flour, conventional sweets of any kind, anything fried like french fries/chips, crackers, anything that comes from a package that has hard to pronounce ingredients, alcohol, even wine, and all sugar free stuff. 

Beliefs behind food combining

Some of the side effects of bad food mixing can be stomach pain, food coma, bloating, gases, heartburn, indigestion and many others. Overall, you feel uncomfortable after the meal. Unfortunately, being unable to even move or do anything after a meal has become normalized when it shouldn’t. If you’re feeling horrible every time you eat, then there’s definitely something wrong with your diet, and proper food combining can help.

As stated before, some people are more sensitive to certain foods and combinations, so food combining is a constant learning process. You should listen to your body along the way, do some modifications and improvements, and eventually find the rules that work the best for you. The goal is to NOT feel horrible after a meal. Sounds like a simple goal, but it’s a privilege that not a lot of us have. However, following the five rules can help you get a head start, and you might find them extremely helpful.

What does the evidence say?

Woman scientist holding a tomato

The key to food combining according to physician William Howard, one of the biggest names in the history of food combining, is that there are three main types of food:

Acid – All types of meat such as chicken, fish, red meat and other proteins.

Alkaline – carbohydrates and other starchy foods

Neutral – Dark chocolate, almond milk, cream, coconut water, lemons, oil, butter, egg yolks, avocados, cucumber, leafy greens, limes, tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash and wheatgrass.

The main principle is that acid and alkaline foods should never be eaten together. As you might have noticed, mixing these two is a common habit in most American’s homes, as well as common practice for the majority of the diets -except for maybe, low carb or keto -. For example, it’s not unusual to pair mac and cheese, or bread with eggs, pasta with red meat, potatoes with salmon, and so on. If you’re doing food combining, you never mix proteins and carbohydrates together. 

The rule is based on the belief that mixing these two could impair the digesting, causing a buildup in the stomach, which will then ferment, hurt our natural microbiota or gut health, and cause weight gain and other health complications. On the other hand, by eating simple and easy meals, our digestive system wouldn’t need as much energy for digestion, which would prevent bloating and the “food coma” that we all know of. 

Proper food combining could also help prevent overeating, as studies show that we tend to eat more than what we need when we are offered a variety of foods in one single meal.

On avoiding mixed meals

5 main group categories should never cross each other in one meal or in a short period. This means that you should wait at least 3 hours after eating to eat from different group categories. Example: If you just ate a salad with salmon (flesh category), you must wait at least three hours to eat a sweet potato (starch category) since they are from different food groups.

  1. Starches (Brown rice, oats, whole grains, Sprouted Ezekiel bread). Starchy Vegetables (sweet potato, beet, butternut squash). Vegetables including avocado (technically a starch but Nuts and Seeds, Dried Unsulfured Fruit (Almonds, Chia Seeds, Pecans, Nut/Seed butters. dry prunes, goji berries, etc.)

  2. Fresh Non-Starchy Vegetables and Leafy Greens (The only group that can be combined with all the other categories)

  3. Fresh Fruit (Mango, Pineapple, pomegranate, apples, berries, bananas, etc.)

  4. Neutral (Dark chocolate 75% or more preferably. Organic and fair trade, raw cacao powder, nut milk, coconut milk, seasonings and spices, lemon, olive oil, ghee).

  5. Flesh/Animal Protein: Wild Caught Fish, All Shell Fish, Organic Eggs, Raw Goat Cheese combines well with dry fruit, cooked corn (raw corn is considered a vegetable) and Young Thai Coconut. Legumes such as lentils, edamame and beans).

On food altering the pH of the digestive tract

The food we eat plays a role in maintaining the pH levels in our system, which is crucial for good digestion and overall gut health. The human stomach is naturally acidic typically ranging from 1.5 to 3.5 on the pH scale. This acidity is important for breaking down food and eliminating bacteria. However as food progresses through the system the pH levels change.

In the stomach food mixes with gastric acid mainly made up of hydrochloric acid. Foods high in protein such as meat and dairy products can increase stomach acid production leading to a pH level and an acidic environment in the stomach. On the other hand, carbohydrate rich foods like fruits and vegetables tend to raise the stomach's pH level making it less acidic.

As digested food moves from the stomach to the intestine (known as chyme) it encounters a different pH environment. The small intestine has an environment with a pH range of 6 to 7. Here the pancreas secretes bicarbonate to neutralize the chyme from the stomach. This helps create an environment for enzymes in the intestine to function effectively since they require a less acidic setting.

The food you eat can impact the pH levels in your system. Consuming a lot of animal proteins and processed foods may lower the pH (making it more acidic) whereas having plenty of fruits and vegetables can raise the pH (making it more alkaline) which supports an environment. This is why it's important to watch what you eat to maintain a balanced pH in your system, for good digestion and to avoid issues, like acid reflux, ulcers and other stomach problems.

On food fermenting in the stomach

Woman with stomach pain.

Some people believe that following food combining principles can help prevent fermentation in the system by creating optimal conditions for digesting different types of foods. The idea is that specific food combinations might slow down digestion and trigger fermentation in the intestines, where natural bacteria break down leftover food that wasn't fully digested earlier in the process.

Fermentation primarily occurs in the intestine, where bacteria break down carbohydrates to produce gasses like hydrogen, carbon dioxide and methane along with beneficial short chain fatty acids that promote colon health. Although this process is normal, excessive fermentation can happen if a significant amount of carbohydrates reaches the colon. This can result in symptoms like bloating, gas, abdominal discomfort and irregular bowel movements.

Supporters of food combining suggest that consuming foods requiring environments separately (for example proteins with non starchy vegetables instead of with carbohydrates) could lower the chances of indigestion and excessive fermentation. 

The concept behind this approach is to enhance the efficiency of digestion for each type of food while reducing the amount of carbohydrates reaching the colon. People might find relief from issues by tweaking the foods they eat together. This implies that making changes could help in handling digestion and symptoms related to fermentation.

Evidence-based examples of food combining

Keeping it simple is an excellent rule to follow for the rest of your life. Your plate should have as few ingredients as possible since the body digests best when there is not much of an overmix of food. If you want to vary the ingredients, simply stick to picking items from the same food group listed above. This will make the digestive process much more comfortable and not so demanding, which will allow you to feel great after meals and with extra energy.

When hungry, it’s best to eat more from one category. If you're feeling extra hungry, it’s best to just eat more from the same food group. For example, if you choose a starch group for lunch, you can have as much Carrot Ginger Soup as you like with 2-3 slices of Ezekiel Toast and a whole avocado. I bet you won’t feel too hungry after that meal. 

If you get hungry between meals and decide to have a snack, ask yourself how long has it been since the last meal? If it’s been more than 3 hours feel free to choose a food group to eat from it. It no longer has to be the same as your last meal; however, if it’s been 2 hours or less you should only eat from that last food group you ate from. 

For example, if you just ate a salad with Beets and Ezekiel Toast which is a starch group make sure your mini meal or snack is from the starch group, it can be perhaps another avocado toast or Sweet Potato Bisque. Whatever you choose, make sure you follow the food combining rules.

Citrus fruits and iron

Slices of citrus fruits

Combining citrus fruits with foods rich in iron is a smart way to boost the absorption of iron, which is important for keeping your blood and energy levels in good shape. Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, grapefruits and limes are packed with vitamin C, which helps the body absorb iron effectively. This is especially helpful when you're getting your iron from plant based sources like spinach, legumes and whole grains since these types of iron are not easily absorbed by the body as the kind found in animal products.

Vitamin C works its magic by transforming iron into an absorbable form. When you enjoy a citrus fruit along with an iron rich meal the vitamin C combines with the iron to create a complex that's easier for your body to soak up through the lining. This can significantly boost the amount of iron taken in from your meal, which is crucial for individuals who may be at risk of iron levels such as vegetarians, expectant mothers and young kids.

Moreover this food pairing can contribute to nutrition and well being. For instance a salad featuring spinach and strawberries topped with a citrusy dressing or a bowl of bean chili spritzed with lime not only tastes great but also helps increase your intake of iron.

The combination of vitamin C and iron not only helps maintain blood but also enhances the immune system and boosts energy levels showcasing the benefits of pairing citrus fruits with iron rich foods in your diet.

Carrots and fat

Eating carrots alongside a bit of fat is a great way to make sure your body gets the most out of the beneficial fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A found abundantly in carrots, as beta carotene. Beta carotene acts as a precursor to vitamin A for maintaining eyesight, supporting the immune system and keeping the skin healthy. The absorption of beta carotene gets a boost when consumed with fats.

Fats play a role in breaking down beta carotene and other vitamins that dissolve in fat helping them get absorbed effectively into the bloodstream through the system. Including some fats like olive oil, avocado or nuts, in dishes featuring carrots can ramp up their value. For example drizzling olive oil over a carrot salad or adding cream to a carrot soup not only makes them tastier but also ensures that your body gets more vitamin A from these meals. This approach promotes wellness by showing ow combining foods can amplify their nutritional benefits.

Spinach and dairy products

Eating spinach with dairy products can boost the absorption of important nutrients and improve overall health. Spinach is packed with iron, a mineral needed for making hemoglobin that carries oxygen in our bodies. However the iron in spinach and other plant foods (heme iron) isn't as easily absorbed by our bodies compared to the heme iron found in animal products.

Dairy products can actually be helpful because they are rich in calcium. While calcium is known to hinder iron absorption, recent research indicates that this effect is minimal when part of a diet. Moreover dairy products offer nutrients that work well when combined with spinach. For example, vitamin D present in dairy items can help absorb calcium, an essential nutrient also found in spinach crucial for strong bones and preventing osteoporosis.

Furthermore the smooth texture and mild taste of dairy products can make eating spinach more enjoyable leading to increased consumption of this leafy green. For instance blending spinach into a yogurt based smoothie or preparing creamed spinach with milk not only makes for yummy meals but also boosts their nutritional value. Ensuring a mix of calcium, vitamin D and iron in your diet helps keep your bones strong and supports your health.

Additionally adding dairy to your meals can counteract the oxalates found in spinach, which can hinder mineral absorption. The calcium in dairy can offset these effects making both iron and calcium more accessible to your body. So combining spinach with dairy not only creates a creamy dish but also boosts its nutritional value significantly.

How does our gut actually work?

Digesting food is the activity that requires the most amount of energy from our body. Do you know that sluggish feeling after a good lunch or dinner? The so-called “food coma” after a huge meal? That’s the reason why it happens! 

I always like to bring up this example to my clients when explaining this phenomena: Imagine doing a HIIT training and then doing a sprint cardio session after you had a big meal of cheeseburger and fries with a sugary bubbly drink. The only activity after that meal I can think of is watching netflix on the couch. 

That’s because digesting all that food requires a lot of energy from the body, and so we have to save energy, both physically and mentally. Even our mental energy slows down after a big dinner, and especially if it’s accompanied with a glass of wine. If this is not enough evidence of just how much the food we eat affects our everything, I don’t know what else will make you believe that what we eat matters so much.

Food combinations that DO work

A solid breakfast which should be fruits since they don’t require much effort to digest and exit your stomach within 29-30 min, giving you plenty of energy to go about. I found that eating fruits in the morning before any other fruit is a great option for optimum energy and mental focus. 

However I have several options for those of you who need something more substantial, yet still easy on digestion. More options like (plant-based protein smoothie, and detox coconut chia pudding) will be linked under recipes. 

Eat your First meal/Breakfast only when you’re hungry, which may vary from day to day. If you like to workout in the morning, you can have it before or after training. Your goal is to learn to listen to natural hunger cues instead of eating just because it’s time.

When it comes to lunch, you don’t need to stick to a specific hour, such as noon. Eat when you feel hungry. My personal favorite food category for lunch is nuts/seeds/dry fruit paired with a variety of non starchy vegetables. 

When I choose that group I get to use my favorite salad dressings like Hemp Seed dressing. For a small treat post lunch, I’d have the nutella superfood ball recipe or a chia seed pudding on coconut milk base which is neutral and pairs with any food group.

For Inspiration, Check Out These Delicious Recipes:

If you have your lunch at 1 PM and feel hungry around 3-4 PM but don’t want to wait for dinner, you can incorporate fresh raw juice or any fruit/vegetable smoothie from the recipes provided. Again, you just need to make sure that the juice is consumed at least 30 minutes before dinner as it takes about 30 minutes to exit out of your system completely.

Your dinner can be cooked or raw. It’s an excellent option to combine proteins and non-starchy vegetables for this meal. When we consume proteins, the hydrochloric acid and the enzyme pepsin are responsible for digestion. Both of which are not good for the digestion of starches. 

Being so, be mindful of not mixing the different food categories. In this case, proteins can go well with spinach, carrots, broccoli, onions, etc., as they will be easily digested in a protein “environment”. Dinner is your last meal of the day, so make sure you don’t snack after it. Also, make sure that you eat dinner at least three hours before your bedtime.

If you want another combination option, you can mix starch groups with non-starchy vegetables for this cooked meal. Some examples from the starchy group are rice, buckwheat, quinoa, and beans. While from the non-starchy group we can have tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, bell pepper, onion, zucchini, etc. 

Some good combinations are pasta with tomatoes and baked sweet potatoes with salad. You can also have hot cocoa as dessert since it’s a neutral food and combines well with any food category you chose for dinner.

Eat fruits on an empty stomach

Various fruits in bowls.

One of the rules of proper food combining includes only eating fruit on an empty stomach. Having fruit on an empty stomach is a suggestion in nutrition circles as it is believed that fruits digest faster compared to other foods. 

The idea is to consume fruits to avoid any digestive issues. The theory proposes that when fruits are eaten alone without digesting foods like proteins and fats they can pass through the stomach quickly and reach the intestines for optimal nutrient absorption.

Fruits mainly consist of sugars and water which are indeed digested quicker than carbohydrates, proteins or fats. When eaten on an empty stomach the body can process these sugars more efficiently potentially leading to faster energy release and nutrient absorption. 

This practice may also reduce the chances of fermentation in the system that could happen if fruits were consumed with or after slower digesting foods; thereby minimizing problems like bloating and gas.

In addition, having fruit on a stomach can improve hydration levels and offer a dose of vitamins and antioxidants early in the day. It may help stabilize blood sugar levels in the morning and gently stimulate the system for a regular bowel movement routine.

Grains and vegetables are acceptable, solo

Bowl of rice and vegetables

Embracing a strategy that emphasizes separating grains and vegetables from other food groups could bring about multiple advantages believed to enhance digestion and overall well being. The idea is that by consuming grains and vegetables the digestive system can function effectively. This concept is based on the notion that different foods require different conditions—grains may digest better in a less acidic environment while proteins, which thrive in highly acidic environments, could hinder the digestion of grains if eaten together.

Following this method may potentially reduce discomforts like bloating, gas and indigestion that can arise when incompatible foods are combined. Simplifying meals may also promote digestion purportedly leading to energy utilization and swifter nutrient absorption.

It is important to note that incorporating grains and vegetables in your diet is essential. Eating grains and vegetables is important for a well-rounded diet because they offer nutrients like fiber, vitamins and minerals. These food categories aid in maintaining digestion, managing blood sugar levels and lowering the chances of long term illnesses, which all contribute to one's health and happiness.

Starch and protein cannot be eaten together

Although the basic principle of food combining is quite simple, we can always take it one step forward. Depending on your source, the rules can vary. Still, it is widely believed that the enzymes responsible for digesting proteins are more efficient in an acidic environment. 

In contrast, the digestion of starches is more efficient in an alkaline environment. Eating food items from both together also requires our stomach to be both alkaline and acidic at the same time. The result of that by consuming both together would neutralize the digestive process, and neither would be appropriately digested.

Furthermore proponents of food combining argue that such practices can help maintain an acid base balance in the body. This is believed to support health and reduce the risk of diseases by minimizing metabolic strain on the body.

The bottom line

Food combining is a strategy that suggests consuming foods together and separately to improve digestion and overall well being. Advocates of this approach argue that various foods require different conditions and mixing incompatible ones could result in digestive problems, like bloating, gas and discomfort. Key principles include eating fruits solo, pairing proteins with starchy veggies instead of grains and combining grains with veggies but without heavy proteins.

For instance a meal following the food combining principles may involve a chicken salad with leafy greens and assorted vegetables lightly dressed with lemon and olive oil while skipping cheese or bread. Another example could be enjoying a quinoa and veggie stir fry while keeping proteins like tofu or chicken separate according to these guidelines.

While some support food combining it's essential to note that not all nutritional experts endorse these rules as essential for everyone. The digestive system is resilient and can efficiently manage mixed diets. Nonetheless some individuals may discover that certain aspects of food combining help ease their digestion issues or enhance their health.

Each person's body is distinct, with abilities and nutritional requirements. What benefits one individual might not necessarily benefit another. It's really important to pay attention to how your body reacts to foods and combinations of meals. Trying out food combinations can help you figure out what kind of choices work best for your own health and well being.

In the end the key is to follow a healthy diet that aligns with your health objectives and requirements. Whether you decide to experiment with food combining or not, focusing on a diet that includes plenty of foods, veggies, fruits, lean proteins and good fats is always a good move. Listen to your body signals. Adjust your eating habits accordingly to discover what truly suits you best promoting health and energy levels.

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