Food combining

By Jill Levy

Does a flexible eating plan that includes a wide variety of foods, only combined in specific ways in order to promote digestive health and healthy weight management, sound appealing to you? Then the food combining diet may be worth a try.

What is the “food combining diet”? It’s a diet that was first created in the 1950s and has been expanded upon and revised several times since. It lays out a plan for following several simple food combining rules in an effort to reach health related goals, such as fat loss and reduction of gastrointestinal issues. 

While the diet might not be proven to work in many studies, this approach does seem to offer some potential benefits, such as increasing consumption of fiber, antioxidants and whole foods.

What Is Food Combining?

Food combining is a dietary strategy that has the goal of improving digestive/gut health, and therefore aiding in overall well-being. The purpose is to take stress off of the digestive system by eating simple, appropriately portioned meals consisting of whole foods that work well paired together.

While this specific diet only gained a larger following over the past several decades, the idea of pairing specific foods together for health-promoting purposes is a concept that’s been around for centuries. For example, practitioners of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Herbalism have long recommended food pairings to support the digestive organs and to establish “Qi” (vital energy).

Today, proponents of food combining plans claim that food combining can offer benefits such as improving the variety and quality of your diet, increasing your intake of vitamins and minerals, enhancing digestion and nutrient absorption, and helping with weight loss since it can naturally lead to you eating less.

The main idea behind this approach is that the digestive system breaks down macronutrients at different rates, by using different enzymes.

For example, many carbs are broken down by an enzyme called amylase, while proteins are digested with help by pepsin. Fats and proteins take longer to digest than carbs such as fruits and vegetables.

Therefore. it’s thought that paying attention to how and how fast your body digests food combinations is important to prevent indigestion.

Food Types

In order to put together meals that facilitate digestion, you first need to know how foods are categorized. There are four main food types, plus one neutral category.

  • Fruits — This includes nearly all raw and cooked fruits (but usually not dried fruits), including berries, apples, citrus fruits, kiwi, melon, etc.
  • Starches — This includes all grains and also starchy veggies like potatoes, winter squash, etc. 
  • Animal proteins — This includes all meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products.
  • Nuts, seeds and dried fruits — This includes all types of nuts, seeds, coconut and dried fruits. 
  • Neutral foods — This category includes all non-starchy vegetables plus healthy fats like butter, cold pressed oils like olive and coconut oil, along with limes and lemons and non-dairy milks.

Potential Benefits

Food combining hasn’t been carefully researched as much as some other dietary strategies; however, many people report experiencing good results once they’ve followed the food combining rules explained below.

These are some of the potential benefits that food combining can provide:

  • Can help to increase your intake of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, since nutrient-dense, whole foods are emphasized. 
  • Will likely result in you eating more plant-based foods and meals.
  • Can eat plenty and feel satisfied, considering many encouraged foods are high in volume and fiber, but low in calories.
  • Highly palatable meals are discouraged, such as burgers and pizza, which assist in weight loss and other metabolic improvements.
  • Can help improve digestion and limit symptoms like gas and bloating.
  • May support nutrient absorption by aiding in overall gut health.
  • Can help to improve satiety (fullness) and therefore help with weight loss/weight management, even without necessarily counting calories.
  • Typically doesn’t require giving up specific foods, but rather is flexible and often sustainable.
  • Makes cooking and food prep simple and more convenient since meals tend to be repeated often and not time-consuming to make. 

Does Food Combining Really Work?

It ultimately depends on the person and their specific diet, including how much they eat at each meal and the quality of the foods they choose. Plus, whether the diet “works” really comes down to someone’s unique goals — for example, whether they seek weight loss or enhanced digestion.

There’s a good chance that this approach can improve how “mindfully” you eat since it requires you to put thought into your meals ahead of time. This may lead to you choosing healthier, unprocessed foods overall and becoming more aware of your hunger/fullness cues, therefore eating portions that are healthy for you. 

You’ll also likely prepare more of your own meals if you’re following a food combining diet, rather than eating out often, which can lead to reduced calorie intake as well as other benefits.

Additionally, paying closer attention to the foods that you eat together might also help you track how they affect your digestion. This can help you to pinpoint foods that you’re not tolerating well, especially if you keep a food journal or try an elimination diet, so you can remove them from your diet and experience better digestion as a result. 

Food Combining Rules

There are different food combining rules depending on which “expert” you ask and specific eating plan you follow. Some programs advocate for a long list of complicated rules, while others focus on just a few key concepts.

Here are some common food combining rules that seem span across different programs and diets:

1. Choose one main food group for each meal, such as meat or starches/whole grains, and then complete the meal with lighter/raw foods in the “neutral category” such as non-starchy vegetables. The main idea is to stick to eating only foods from one category at a particular time, which helps to simplify your meals.

2. In addition to thoughtfully combining only certain good groups, generally cut back or avoid these unhealthy foods which can worsen digestion and inflammation:

  • Refined grains and “white carbs”
  • Foods with added sugar
  • Sugary beverages
  • Alcohol
  • Foods with artificial sweeteners
  • High-sodium processed foods
  • Milk and dairy products
  • Coffee/caffeinated beverages
  • Beef and pork products, especially those that are factory-farmed

3. Wait three to four hours between meals. If you want to snack between meals due to real hunger (not boredom or for other reasons), snack on mostly or only “neutral foods” like fresh veggies/salads.

4. Try to stick to eating fruits alone on an empty stomach, such as first thing in the morning or before a workout. Fruits and veggies can be combined if you tolerate this combination well.

5. Try not to eat more than one protein at a time, such as meat plus cheese or eggs, since it takes a long time to fully digest proteins.

Which foods should not be eaten together? 

The idea is to not combine foods that fall into different food categories: fruits, meats, starches and nuts/seeds/dried fruits. Neutral foods can be eaten with foods in any of the food categories.

Here’s an example of a food combining chart showing meals that ARE recommended, along with some meals that are NOT:

Sample meals that are encouraged: 

  • Vegetarian sandwich on whole-grain bread, made with grilled veggies, avocado, mustard, lettuce, tomato and sprouts. Can be eaten with side salad, sweet potato fries or side of quinoa/other grains.
  • Salad made with greens, chopped raw veggies and olive oil based dressing, topped with cheese or chicken or fish.
  • Platter of raw veggies, hummus, olives, cheese and dressing. 
  • Fish or steak served with veggies cooked in oil or butter.
  • Smoothie made with fruit and leafy green vegetables.

Meals that should be avoided:

  • Sandwich made with meat or eggs or cheese on bread.
  • Smoothie made with dairy and fruit.
  • Salad made with croutons, grains and meat or hard boiled eggs.

Other Considerations

Can you drink coffee when doing food combining? It’s generally recommended that you limit caffeine intake; however, coffee isn’t completely off the table. 

If you do decide to reduce your consumption, try to do so gradually to avoid side effects like strong headaches, fatigue and mood swings. Instead of coffee, it’s recommended that you drink herbal tea, green tea, fresh vegetable or fruit juice, coconut water or plain water.

How does “carb pairing” work? You can combine different starches such as grains and potatoes, but be mindful of your portions since these can be calorie-dense foods. You also don’t want to combine fruit (a carb) with grains and starches.

Is avocado a fruit or vegetable? It’s technically a fruit but treated mostly like a vegetable. It can be combined with starches and other veggies, such on a salad or sandwich.

Is food combining safe? It seems to be generally safe, but that being said, dieticians tell us that the principles of this approach are not necessarily backed up by reliable studies nor scientifically sound — considering our bodies are designed to process different macronutrients even when eaten together. 

It’s also known that meals containing protein, complex carbs and protein tend to be very filling and supportive of metabolic health; however, food combining eliminates these types of “balanced “meals. 

Overall, it seems wisest to focus on the positive aspects of this “diet” — such as eating a variety of whole foods and watching portion sizes — rather than being overly strict about how you combine healthy foods.

Final Thoughts

  • What is food combining? The food combining diet is an eating plan that encourages you to eat a single food group at one time, coupled with mostly non-starchy vegetable and healthy fats (“neutral foods”).
  • The basic food combining rules include: limiting food groups at each meal, including veggies with most meals, eating fruits alone, not combining proteins, avoiding processed and highly palatable foods.
  • While this approach hasn’t been proven to work in many studies, it does seem to offer some general benefits. Potential perks of practicing food combining can include: eating more fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants; eating more vegetarian meals; limiting indigestion; focusing more on whole foods over processed foods; being more mindful about portion sizes.

Jill has been with the Dr. Axe and Ancient Nutrition team for five years. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology from Fairfield University, followed by a certification as a Holistic Health Coach from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Jill takes a “non-diet” approach to health and really enjoys teaching others about mindful eating, intuitive eating and the benefits of eating real foods.

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