Is there any point to ‘food combining’?

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Like a lot of people, I have seen a fair few fad diets come and go over the years. One flavour of the month that I encountered early on in my nutritional career was the food combining diet. Also known as the Hay diet, this way of eating advocated keeping certain foods separate at meal times, which was claimed could bring benefits for the body in terms of enhanced weight loss and well-being. For a time, the public had a voracious appetite for the food-combining diet, with books on the subject rising to the top of best-seller lists.

However, the food combining diet was not without its detractors. Many doctors and dieticians pointed were quick to assert that the gut is designed to cope with the simultaneous breakdown of different types of foods. The food combining diet eventually faded in popularity, but was recently brought again to my attention by a reader’s letter enquiring about its basis and potential merits. So this week, I thought I’d see if there was any reason for us to mix it with this particular nutritional regime.

The core principle of the food combining diet is to avoid the eating of protein-based foods (such as meat, fish, eggs and cheese) with starch-dense foods (such as bread, potatoes, rice and pasta) at meals. Prior to absorption into the body, proteins and starches are digested using fairly distinct mechanisms. For instance, while proteins are initially digested best in the harsh acidic environment of the stomach, starches are broken down most efficiently in the more alkali milieu of the small intestine. Also, the enzymes used to digest protein are quite different from those used to digest starch.

While conventional wisdom dictates that the gut should be able to digest a mishmash of food perfectly well, gut physiology dictates that mixing protein and starch at meals tends to make harder digestive work than having just one of these foods at a time. The central theme of the food combining diet is therefore based around lightening the digestive load by eating meals comprised of either protein or starch, combined with ‘neutral’ foods such as green vegetables and tomatoes. According to this principle, meals consisting of meat or fish with salad or vegetables (other than the potato) are permissible, as are vegetable curry and rice or pasta with a red sauce and salad.

In theory at least, such meals should be more easily, quickly and completely digested than protein/starch combinations. One benefit of better digestion is that it helps the body extract more nutritional value from the food we eat. From a naturopathic perspective, it is also believed that swifter digestion means that food is less likely to cause excesses of internal effluent usually referred to as ‘toxicity’. These potential advantages may help to explain why many individuals find food combining can indeed assist their efforts to shed pounds and boost overall health.

While I do not believe that food combining theory need be flawlessly adhered to by everyone, there are particular circumstances when it can be particularly useful. I generally recommend that individuals think about applying its principles in the evening, when digestive capacity is believed to be at a bit of a low point. My experience is that food combining almost always offers very significant relief to individuals suffering from indigestion and/or heartburn. In certain circumstances, I reckon keeping protein and starch apart at meals can be a winning combination.

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