Food Combining: What Is It and Does it Work?

A dietitian answers the very popular question: What is Food Combining and Does it Actually Work?

Today we’re talking nutrition. Specifically, we’re talking about a rather hot topic in the health and wellness space right now – a topic known as food combining.

To be honest, prior to the last couple of months, I had never heard of food combining. However, in the last little while I have heard handfuls of social media influencers – from wellness bloggers to even beauty and fashion bloggers talking about this diet trend. I’ve also received handfuls of questions from my own social media audience about the topic – most wondering if food combining is really a “thing”. So, I looked into it and did the research to answer your questions.

What is food combining? What are the claims?

The idea behind “food combining” is that different foods digest at different rates, and in environments of different levels of acidity. Because of this belief, the rules recommend that specific foods be eaten at different times and in specific groupings or combinations in order to promote “optimal digestion”.

Supposedly, by eating certain types foods separately/in different sittings, and eating other types foods together, we can achieve this optimal digestion.

Some of the main food combining rules out there include:

  • Only eating fruit on an empty stomach
  • Avoid eating starches and proteins at the same meal
  • Avoid eating fruits and vegetables at the same meal
  • Eat starches alone or with cooked, non-starchy vegetables
  • Eat high protein foods alone or with cooked, non-starchy vegetables
  • Drink plenty of water, but not at mealtime

Honestly, there were more variations of food combining rules out there (I couldn’t keep track of them all), so those are just some examples. The important thing we want to address here is if following the food combining rules actually makes a difference.

Does it actually work?

Great question. If you listen to all of the influencers out there (you know, the ones with no legitimate credentials whatsoever), you’d think that it does.

Some of the claims made by food combining advocates include:

  • Eating in according with the food combining rules requires less energy to digest the food/meals, therefore saving our bodies energy to do other things.
  • Eating combinations like protein and starches and protein and fruit together causes digestive issues (like bloating, gas, discomfort) because these combinations cannot be digested well at once.
  • Food combining allows the stomach to maintain the correct pH (acid/base) balance to improve health and promote weight loss.

However.

After a lengthy search, I really could not find any evidence that supports food combining rules. I actually couldn’t find research on the topic at all. This lack of research actually makes sense to me, because food combining claims do not go hand in hand whatsoever with what we know about pretty basic human anatomy, physiology and biochemistry.

Why food combining claims don’t make sense:

To keep things simple, our bodies are literally designed to digest and absorb whatever combination of foods we throw at them. There are exceptions, like lactose intolerance, diabetes, celiac disease and other conditions where our ability to digest/absorb certain foods is impaired. However, digesting protein, starches, fruits, vegetables, fats, etc. all together is perfectly natural, normal, and well, easy for the human body.

You see, there are enzymes in our bodies that are released when we eat different types of food – starting in our mouths, into the stomach, then into our small and even large intestine. The food gets mixed together in our mouths, even more in our stomachs, and it is being digested and absorbed all along the way to our large intestine. Digestion doesn’t happen in one place, and eating one type of food isn’t going to keep our bodies from digesting another. It can all be happening at the same time.

What food combining also fails to comprehend is that most foods naturally contain a combination of protein, fat, or carbohydrates together. Most animal products (like meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, etc.) are made up of protein and fat. Vegetables are mainly carbohydrates but also have small amounts of protein. See what I’m saying?

As a dietitian I am constantly encouraging people to eat a balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates at their meals and snacks. It is well-known that doing so helps us feel satisfied and full. It helps balance our blood sugars and supports muscle development and recovery (if you don’t know why you need a combination of protein + carbs after a workout, read that here).

The bottom line:

There is no solid evidence out there to support food combining as a means of improving digestion or achieving weight loss. Our bodies are well-equipped to digest whatever combination of food we choose to eat. The foods we eat in combination are mixed together and digested together as they move through our digestive tracts. Eating a combination of carbohydrates, protein and fats together promotes balanced blood sugars, prolonged satiety and a better chance at getting all of our essential nutrients daily.

To me, food combining seems like a list of rules that would take the freedom out of eating for many. I’m wary of food rules – and long lists of them – as this is where eating disorders and disordered eating often stem. I believe in promoting ways of eating that promote satisfaction, joy, mental health and physical health. If you feel that food combining can provide that for you, great! Just be aware that the evidence is not there to support it, and that promoting the importance of food combining is misleading and potentially harmful.

I hope this clears some things up! If you have questions, drop them below!

If you’re looking for an even more in-depth review of food combining, check out this video by my RD colleague, Abbey!

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