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What is food combining?

Food combining, also known as food pairing or food synergy, is an approach to eating that may optimize digestion. It is believed that eating different foods together may either enhance or disturb digestion and therefore absorption of nutrients.

You might be wondering why you haven’t heard about food combining principles. Made popular in the 1950s by naturopathic Dr. Herbert Shelton, this way of eating started as early as the 1920s with another burst of popularity in the 1980s when Oprah aired the Fit For Life principles on one of her shows.  

The food combining principles look something like this:

Excellent Food Combining 

Good Food Combining 

Poor Food Combining 

  • High Protein and High Starch                     – eg: Steak and Potatoes
  • High Protein and Fruit                                  – eg: Prosciutto-wrapped pears
  • High Starch and Fruit                                    – eg: Apple Crumble 

** Fruit is to be eaten alone on an empty stomach at least 30 mins before other foods and not for 3 hours after meals.

The belief is that certain foods will digest at different times. For example, fruit only takes approximately 30 mins for your body to metabolize while a steak will take much more time and energy to break down. From there, we need to understand that the stomach is not a very sophisticated organ. It does not selectively digest your food. What goes in together, gets mulched together and once mostly homogenous, it will be sent to your intestines for further digesting. Food combining enthusiasts will claim that, due to the fact that your steak is slower to digest, if you eat it with fruit then the fruit will putrefy as is sits, “waiting”, for the steak to be processed. This can cause gas and other distress.

Does this mean that food combining is the better way to eat?

Food combining has its place. It’s also a great way to focus on healthy eating.  It can be very optimal for people with digestive distress. For example, if you do not produce enough stomach acid or have enzyme depletion, it may be more beneficial for you to take a food combining approach. However, the rules can cause you to feel too restricted; making the practice unsustainable. It’s always important to remember that we are all bio-unique. The best practice is invariably the one that makes your body feel optimal.

Food combining may be a great way to highlight which food combinations make you feel great. And which food combinations make you feel sluggish. Ideally, food gives you energy. Think of your car. When you put fuel in your car, you expect it to run efficiently. If your car were to slow down after you filled it with gas, you would probably investigate why that is happening.  Same approach goes for your body.

This sounds complicated.  Is there an easier way to remember which foods go together?

Of course.  Basically, you want to remember the following:

  • 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

Also, note that certain vegetables are considered a starch. When you’re planning your meals the following vegetables fall into the starch category:

  • All squashes except spaghetti squash
  • Root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, potatoes, parsnips, turnips, beets and even carrots when cooked
  • Corn
  • Peas including sugar snap peas, green peas and snap peas

You may find that when you pair your proteins with a low starch vegetable like Brussels sprouts or a simple green salad, you feel better afterward. For vegetarians, pairing a starch with a vegetable may be most effective. For example, a lentil salad would provide an easy pairing that would be well digested.

Is it science or is it an art?

Food combining started as a personal study in the 1920s with Dr. William Hay’s self-titled diet. The Hay diet classified foods in terms of acid-forming, alkalinizing or neutral foods. After having suffered an acute heart condition, Dr. Hay decided to change his way of eating to favor a more vegetarian diet including daily intermittent fasting. Within 3 months, Dr. Hay lost a significant amount of weight and noticed an improvement in overall health. This led him to research the acidity of foods and how they impact the body.

Let’s take a quick pause to revisit the different digestive “stations” of the body. Before we even begin eating and as soon as we see and smell food, our brain triggers our body to release saliva and start producing stomach acid. As we chew, our saliva (which contains amylase) begins to digest carbohydrates creating a bolus of food that is sent to our stomachs. Our stomach (which is highly acidic) starts to digest more complex structures such as proteins. Our stomach will continue to digest its contents until a thick liquid called chyme is created. The chyme is released to the alkaline environment of our small intestine. This triggers our pancreas and gallbladder to secrete more digestive enzymes to aid in the absorption of nutrients.  

With this in mind, Dr. Hay states:

“Any carbohydrate foods require alkaline conditions for their complete digestion, so must not be combined with acids of any kind, as sour fruits, because the acid will neutralize. Neither should these be combined with a protein of concentrated sort as these protein foods will excite too much hydrochloric acid during their stomach digestion.” – William Hay, How to Always Be Well

However, there is no specific study that can confirm that protein-rich and carbohydrate-rich foods should be eaten separately. In fact, it is important to note that many complex carbohydrates also contain significant amounts of protein. For example, quinoa has 15% protein per serving. Other research also states that eating protein without the presence of carbohydrates tends to promote the body to use the protein as an energy source rather than for its intended benefit of muscle repair.

Are there food combinations that can prevent disease?

There are certain foods that work together synergistically to give your body more disease-fighting power.  Here are three examples that you can implement today to make your body feel like a superhero:

  • Ellagic acid is a natural antioxidant found in fruits, vegetables and some nuts that have been shown to fight cancer. Pair it with quercitin, another polyphenol, and you now quadruple your cancer-fighting potential. Foods high in ellagic acid include raspberries, blackberries, pomegranates, and walnuts.  Foods high in quercitin capers, onions, kale, and apples. Add pomegranates and red onions to your next kale salad to boost your cancer-fighting foods.
  • Rutin is a plant pigment found in certain fruits and vegetables believed to strengthen blood vessels. It works with vitamin C to produce collagen. However, this match also fights LDL cholesterol (your “bad” cholesterol) and lowers your risk for fatty liver disease. Rutin is found in buckwheat, citrus fruits, and apple peels. Vitamin C is high in blackcurrant, red peppers and kiwis. Try adding blackcurrant coulis to your next baked apple recipe.
  • Genistein, an isoflavone with disease-fighting properties found in soy foods such as edamame and tempeh, plus capsaicin, an antioxidant that gives chili peppers and jalapeños a fiery kick, combine to tame inflammation. Inflammation is becoming more recognized as the root source of numerous diseases. Our spicy tofu recipe contains both beneficial nutrients.  

Are there food combinations that we should avoid?

Just as some foods work synergistically together to become super beneficial, there are certain foods that are better eaten separately.

  • When tannins intermingle with plant-based sources of iron, it seriously inhibits the body’s ability to absorb this important mineral. Tannins are generally found in the skin of bitter fruits, black teas, cocoa and legumes such as chickpeas and lentils. Plant-based iron is high in dark leafy greens, tofu, and whole grains. Calcium and oxalic acid are also a no-no. What? Let’s break that down.
  • Calcium, found in sesame seeds, broccoli, and sardines, does not get absorbed by the body when it is eaten with foods that contain oxalic acid. These foods include peanuts, spinach, rhubarb, and beets. However, cooking will break down the oxalic acid; making calcium uptake more available.
  • Citrus fruits can destroy the enzyme needed for you to digest starches. Avoid drinking citrus juice with your morning oats.

As we said, what’s most important is the way your body feels. Find which food combinations make you feel energetic after you eat. Notice if you do better-eating fruit alone. Or, if eating your lean proteins with a side salad makes it easier for you to keep getting on with your day rather than having a need for a nap. Overall, keep your diet as natural as possible, loaded with vegetables and you’ll find that your health will thank you.


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