On one of my go-to health podcasts recently, the interviewer asked the interviewee—holistic nutritionist, wellness expert, and celebrity health coach Kelly LeVeque, RD—about her thoughts on “food combining.” Food combining?
As someone who’s generally in-the-know about trendy health topics, I was curious. I had never heard of food combining before. In fact, the interviewer herself admitted to googling the topic before asking the question. LeVeque explained, “[food combining] essentially says combining certain foods is better for you, while combining others causes gas or bloating.”
Could this be legit? I couldn’t help but think it sounded counterintuitive. After all, aren’t our bodies designed to eat balanced, diverse meals? After a quick Google search, I found that food combining is a hot topic among many in the health and wellness space—but not surprisingly, there’s a good amount of skepticism.
I decided to reach out to some experts to get to the root of this trend. Here’s what to know about food combining—and whether it’s worth your time.
The Deal with Food Combining
The concept of food combining is historically rooted in Ayurveda, an ancient holistic medicine practice stemming from India. The goal is to cut down on fermentation in the gut, in turn helping to reduce bloating and even encourage weight loss. (LeVeque de-bunked the weight loss aspect on the podcast, however.)
“Food combining is a thought or philosophy that certain foods are complementary with each other,” explains dietitian Angel Planells M.S., R.D.N. National Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. “Meaning, they may work together to make a complete protein, or they are digested well together, leading to minimal distress. The same concept applies to foods that may not go so well together. There is a belief that improper food combos can lead to disease, digestive distress, and toxin buildup.”
This sounded familiar. On the podcast I listened to, LeVeque suggested that eating proteins and vegetables together works well, since they’re broken down at similar speeds. Adding fruits and starches, which are broken down more quickly, though, may increase the fermentation in your gut and cause bloating or discomfort.
The ultimate goal: Pair the right foods together and avoid the less-than-ideal combos.
Here’s where things get tricky: There are many approaches—and accompanying food combining charts—out there, all with slightly different rules.
A few of the most common rules I came across include:
- Only eat fruits on an empty stomach, and do not mix them with other foods
- Eat leafy greens with anything
- Do not combine protein and carbohydrates
- Avoid mixing different proteins at one meal
So, Is Food Combining Actually A Good Idea?
Though the food combining diet makes big promises around GI distress and weight loss, modern science does not support the approach.
In fact, one study published in The International Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders compared two groups: one following a typical balanced diet and another following a food combining diet on which they could not combine fats and carbohydrates together into one meal. After six weeks, most participants lost weight—but the food combining approach offered no benefit over a balanced diet.
Most professionals don’t recommend the approach. “It goes against the logic that we know you’re supposed to have protein, carbs, and healthy fats at the same time to stay satiated. It just doesn’t make sense,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
When you eat an apple, for example, you’ll feel far more satiated when you combine it with a fat and protein source (like peanut butter). “I feel much more satisfied, because the protein and fat sustain me for longer,” says Planells. This is a no-go on a food-combining protocol, though.
Additionally, most foods we consume naturally contain multiple macronutrients in them. So it’s near impossible to truly isolate macronutrients. “Almost every food has a combination of macronutrients,” Harris-Pincus explains. A broccoli floret, for example, has both protein and carbohydrates in it.
Another argument against the logic of the concept: Our bodies naturally release digestive enzymes for proteins and carbs at the exact same time, according to Harris-Pincus.
Is Food Combining Ever A Good Idea, Then?
Though food combining in the traditional sense—as it relates to isolating macronutrients—isn’t rooted in much science, there are some instances when combining foods in certain ways is a good idea. In fact, pairing certain foods together can help boost absorption of some common micronutrients.
1) Iron and Vitamin C
Vitamin C is known for aiding in iron absorption—particularly the iron in non-animal foods, like nuts, seeds, and legumes, explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N.. So, combining vitamin C- and iron-containing foods is especially important for vegans and plant-based dieters.
One study published in International Journal For Vitamin and Nutrition Research found consuming vitamin C-rich foods with iron helped with overall iron absorption. This can be done easily by combining sweet potatoes with lentils, lemon with chickpeas (like in hummus), or sprinkling nuts over a strawberry spinach salad, suggests Blakely.
2) Fat-Soluble Vitamins and Fat
Have you ever had a dietitian tell you to take your vitamin D supplement with a meal? The reason is that vitamin D, like all fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K), requires fat to be absorbed properly.
“I always have people take vitamin D supplements at dinner, because there’s generally fat at dinner,” says Harris-Pincus.
In fact, one study found from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that combining a meal containing vitamin A in the form of beta carotene, with a fatty dressing allowed for better absorption of it.
Generally, this doesn’t require a ton of thought. It’s as simple as tossing avocado on your salad. Plus, no balanced meal is complete without a healthy fat, anyway. “You want to have fat with everything—that’s what makes a balanced meal, Harris-Pincus says. “You’ll be hungrier faster without it.”
3) Turmeric and Black Pepper
There’s also some science behind adding an extra crack of pepper to a well-spiced dinner. “Turmeric is actually very poorly absorbed in our digestive tract,” says Blakely. “However, black pepper can increase absorption by up to an estimated 2,000 percent.”
She suggests adding turmeric and a pinch of black pepper to smoothies, or grinding pepper corns onto turmeric-based curry dishes.
What To Do If You’re Feeling GI Distress
One of the main reasons someone may try a traditional food combining diet is that they’re experiencing GI distress. However, there are better ways to get your tummy troubles in check.
1. Chew Your Food Well
People tend to blame their actual food their stomach issues, but simply chewing slowly and fully can have a major impact on decreasing GI distress, says Harris-Pincus. If you don’t chew your food enough, your body often has to work harder to break it down.
Plus, eating quickly may also lead you to swallow extra air, potentially causing excess gas or bloating, adds Planells.
2. Get Evaluated
If you’re certain your stomach problems are caused by your diet but you can’t quite pinpoint the trigger, Harris-Pincus suggests keeping a food diary and talking to a professional.
“I would get evaluated first,” she says. “Figure out if you actually have something pathological going on that’s causing you problems. Nutritionists are often able to look at a food diary and work backwards, potentially pinpointing patterns or a diagnosable condition, like IBS.
Plus, if you don’t produce enough digestive enzymes needed to break down food because of a health condition, age, or certain surgeries, a dietitian may recommend you try taking digestive enzymes before eating.
3) Balance Your Gut Bacteria
One major contributor to gas and bloating is not having the proper balance of bacteria in your gut, says Blakely.
“Beneficial bacteria helps aid in digestion and elimination,” she explains. “But it is possible to end up with an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, or lack of beneficial bacteria, that could be part of the issue.”
Factors such as stress, medications, food intake, or our environments can all play a role in this.
“Taking a probiotic supplement can help to support a healthy gut balance,” she suggests.
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