Update: I’ve been trying to stick to most of the food combining “rules” for a couple weeks now and I will tell you: it is tough! And honestly, my diet has been a little boring. So in the interest of diet complexity and excitement, I’ve pulled back a lot on any “rules” I’ve tried to live by. I’m really following my “Take This With a Grain of Salt” section of this post!
I think the bottom line is: eat what makes you feel good. Everything else falls into place when you listen to your body and gut.
But I still think learning the food combining rules has been beneficial. The top two rules – fruit first, no starches with meats – are important ones to follow. Everything else, at least for our family, is “nice to have” but certainly not totally necessary.
With that disclaimer in mind, I give you my original post. I hope it gives you some good food combining knowledge! Just remember not to take it too seriously!
Food combining is the science (art?) of serving and eating foods from compatible food groups and in appropriate order as to encourage digestion and proper absorption of nutrients. We’re not talking “wine and cheese” pairing here, oh no – this is much deeper, and much more important, stuff.
This is going to be a long post so I’ve separated it into these sections. Click on the section you want to read to jump right to it!
Let me start by saying… I’m not a nutritionist. I’m a mama of a boy with digestive issues that I want to eliminate (the issues, not the boy!). Therefore, I’m increasingly interested in food and how it affects our bodies. Something tells me that if I find out more about this subject I can help him feel better consistently. So here I am, learning all about foods. We’ve done a lot to change our diet in terms of what we are or are not eating, and Kiddo1 is certainly showing signs of improvement (like his eczema is totally gone since we dropped dairy from our diets!). But there’s a missing piece. Something isn’t quite “there” yet. But I didn’t know what…
Food combining came to be a specific interest of mine on complete accident. Last weekend I was planning the weekly menu and I just got stuck. Menu planning writer’s block, perhaps? Usually when I’m stuck I go to Pinterest but somehow I ended up Googling “food combinations” instead. And my eyes, oh how they were opened with what I found! There was so much information on what foods to eat together and, almost more importantly, what foods not to eat together, that I ended up spending the better part of the day researching how our bodies react to certain food combinations.
I took some notes:
The notes got kind of crazy! One discovery lead to curiosity about one group of food or another, leading me to do more research, write more lists, jot down more “Do’s” and “Don’ts.” In the end, I had so much good information that I decided it’d be best to write it all down here in one clear and concise guide, both for my own reference and in the hope that it might help someone else out there in Internetland.
Remember though – I’m not a nutritionist therefore I present all this information secondhand. I could very well be wrong about some things and I know there is conflicting information out there. Look hard enough and you can find a reason why any kind of food can be good or bad for you! And I’m sure I’ve left out foods and maybe I’ve even placed a food in the wrong category. I’ve done my absolute best to fact-check everything here, but you don’t need to take my word for it. Hopefully this research of mine will inspire others to at least start thinking more about the foods they eat and maybe even spark some interest to do independent research, too. There is so much to learn, I can’t possible sum it all up in one post (even though it is a very long post!).
So, that being said, and without further ado, here’s the cleaned up version of all my notes. I hope it helps you!
Food Combining Don’ts
Let’s start with the bad news, right? Here’s a quick run-down of the combinations of food that are no good and why. If you’re curious about what distinguishes acid fruits from sour fruits or fat protein from meat protein, see the Food Types section of this post.
1. Protein + Carbs – this one is the most important “don’t!”
Meat and potatoes: most of us would call this a healthy meal, but it is NOT! In my research I discovered that carbs are digested through a salivary process while meat is digested through a gastric process. How those two words are defined isn’t nearly as important as what the combination means: it means there are two totally different processes trying to go on in your belly at the same time. Your belly does not like this! It wants to do one thing at a time. The gastric process, which is digesting the acid food that is protein, will literally stop the salivary process of digesting the alkaline carbs. The carbs will, therefore, take longer to digest and will start to ferment in your tummy. This is why we sometimes feel sluggish after a meat and potatoes meal: those carbs are just sitting there instead of doing what carbs do best which is to give us energy! Protein takes so long to digest (4 or more hours! See the “Sequential Eating” section for more) that the carbs can never give us that energy boost. Unproductive carbs are the worst.
2. Protein + Fats
Fats depress the gastric gland, and as we learned in #1, gastric juices are needed in order to digest proteins. So in this case, the protein takes longer to digest (and protein already takes the longest to digest of all the food groups).
3. Protein + Acid Fruits
Acid fruits also inhibit the gastric juices like fats. See #2 for why this is no good. There is an exception to this one though! Woohoo!! Proteins from fats, like nuts or avocado, can be consumed with acid fruits. I can’t figure out exactly why this exception exists, other than maybe their chemical make-out is similar enough to acid fruits because they’re both plant-derived so our tummies can digest them at the same time. Like I said, I’m no nutritionist! But I don’t claim to make this stuff up either!
4. Nut protein + Meat protein
Different proteins require different flavors of digestive juices. Our bodies want to make one kind of digestive juice at a time because our tummies aren’t divided into sections. It’s just one big bowl in there so if we put in two types of digestive juices, the juices won’t target the right things and there will be choas and anarchy in the tum-tum. Bellies are just not multi-taskers! In fact, this rule extends to any two types of protein – bacon-wrapped steak and turducken are the examples that immediately come to my mind.
5. Carbs + Sour fruits
Citrus fruits are acidic, so not only will they also take over your tummy and leave the alkaline carbs undigested but they will also distroy the ptyalin enzyme in our mouths that helps our bodies digest carbs. So double whammy on this one! Once again, those carbs will ferment in our tummies and not give us the energy we need from them.
6. Carbs + Sugars
This one really hurt. Who doesn’t like pancakes and syrup, toast and jam, or freakin’ cake?!?! But sugars, like sour fruits, inhibit that ptyalin enzyme that help us digest carbs, once again depriving us of the wonderful energy we could reep from them. Super sad face.
7. Fruits before Anything – this is the second-most important “don’t”
Fruits are quick to ferment, so when they’re the last thing to hit your stomach, especially if you’ve just eaten carbs or protein, they will sit on top of the food you ate and rot. Ew. This can make us gassy or queasy and we lose good vitamins and enzymes from the fruit.
8. Melons + Anything
Melons just cause stuff to ferment big time. They take over the whole digestion process leaving whatever else you ate to just sit and rot. Ew times a million.
9. A note about beans
They don’t go well even by themselves. Beans are about 25% protein and 50% carbs so they, in and of themselves, cause they same issues as combining carbs and protein. You know what they say… the more you eat the more you toot! (There’s conflicting evidence out there about the make-up of beans. I don’t like beans anyway, so I’m biased against them. If you really love beans and don’t want to give them up, don’t! See the Take This With a Grain of Salt section for more.)
10. A note about dairy
Our family is dairy-free, but I wanted to point out a rule I found in my research. When it comes to milk and all dairy products (including cheese!) the rule is – eat it alone or leave it alone. Dairy products block the digestion of whatever else they’re consumed with, sort of like fruit. So if you want complete digestion, either wait until you have an empty stomach to eat dairy or don’t eat/drink it.
Now that everything we know and love is destroyed, what foods can we actually eat with other foods in order to have everything digested properly? Well, I’m glad you asked…
Food Combining Do’s
Luckily there are still options for food combinations that digest well together! Of course they almost ALL involve nature’s most perfect food group: vegetables. Specifically non-starchy, colorful veggies. Here’s what you can eat and easily digest with them. For examples of ideal food pairings, see the Ideal Food Combinations section. For examples of each of the food groups, see the Food Types section.
1. Veggies + Protein
2. Veggies + Starchy veggies
3. Veggies + Starchy grains
4. Veggies + Oils
And now for the fruits…
5. Acid Fruits + Sub Acid Fruits + Leafy veggies
6. Sub Acid Fruits + Sweet Fruits + Leafy veggies
7. Melons on their own
A note about water… Did you know that water is best drank at room temperature or warm because cold water actually contracts our digestive system? And drinking water during or after meals can wash away a bunch of good enzymes that we both consumed and our bodies created to digest food. But there is good news! Drinking water before a meal jump-starts our systems to get ready for food. We start creating enzymes in anticipation of eating and that helps us to digest better! During meals we should only sip our water. And no alcohol – that tricks our bodies into thinking we aren’t eating so we won’t be creating many good enzymes to aid digestion.
Here’s a visual guide I made to illustrate good food combinations! I also added a guide for when in the day each food group should be eaten. For more on this topic, see Sequential Eating. And for information about what specific foods belong to each food group, see the Food Types section.
There are great lists in the image posted in the above section, but just in case I’ll list them here as well. Disclaimer: I’m going to miss some foods! It’s just not possible to get them all. But this serves as a good guide. If your favorite food isn’t listed, look it up!
Non-startchy Vegetables: eat these with wild abandon, except where noted
+All dark green leafies (but do limit spinach as it contains oxalic acid which can actually limit digestion and pull calcium from your bones); the best are kale, collard, mustard, dandelion, watercress, and my personal favorite, romaine
+Cruciferous veggies: cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage (napa, savoy, green, and purple), bok choy and pac choy, tatsoi, brussels, kohl rabi, daikon radish, red radish, and watermelon radish
+Bulbs: garlic, leeks, scallions, fennel, onions (borderline at 7g/serving), shallots
+Some Roots and Tubers: turnips, ginger, rutabaga (borderline at 6.6g/serving), beets (although beets are another high oxalic acid food), and tumeric
+Sea veggies: Wakame, kombu, nori, arame, dulse
+Others for which I don’t know their category but they are tasty: asparagus, celery, cucumber, green beans (the only exception to the beans “don’t,” above), spaghetti squash (winter squashes are general starchy but spaghetti squash is borderline at 7g/serving), yellow summer squash and zucchini
+Notice I did not mention nightshade vegetables (such as eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, paprika). Those can actually inhibit digestion and we try to avoid them. We do bend the rules for occasional barbecue sauce though. (See the Take This With a Grain of Salt section of this post!).
Starchy Vegetables (carbs): limit these to once a day (but it is so easy to be addicted to sweet potatoes!!) and do not eat more than two starchy veggies in a meal
+Some Roots and Tubers: parsnips, burdock, lotus root, sweet potato, and yams
+Winter squashes: acorn, butternut, kabocha, dumpling, pumpkin, buttercup, delicata, red kuri, hubbard
+ Others for which I don’t know their category: artichoke, carrots, cassava, corn, Jerusalem artichoke, salsify, sprouts, and water chestnuts
Starchy Non-vegetables (carbs): limit to a couple times a week
+Rice and quinoa
+Breads (including flat breads, gluten-free breads, and tortillas)
+Pastas (even if their gluten free!)
+Cereals (yep, even the gluten free ones)
+Citrus: oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, and the like
+Strawberries (also contain oxalic acid, which, if you don’t recall from above, limits digestion and pulls calcium)
Sub Acid Fruits
+Bananas (bananas are high carb)
Protein – animal-based
A note about protein… did you know we only need 10% of our diets to be protein? That’s right – protein isn’t nearly as important as it has been made out to be. Pregnant women, elderly, and children should eat up to 20% of their diet in protein, but the rest of us are totally fine with less. Excessive protein inhibits calcium absorption, so if you are on a high-protein diet for medical reasons, make sure you’re getting more calcium too.
Protein – plant-based
+Beans and soy (although see the Food Combining Don’ts section about why beans aren’t recommended)
+Nuts: peanuts, cashews, pecans, almonds
+Seeds: sunflower, pumpkin, flax
There’s simply too much information about fats for me to get into here. I could easily spend another weekend researching it. Just know that generally unsaturated fats are liquid at room temp and seem to be slightly better for us while saturated fats are solid at room temp. The less processed the better – stick with fats like coconut oil, olive oil, and occasionally animal fats like lard, tallow, and bacon grease. Just don’t cook your meats in them (see the Food Combining Don’ts section for more information about the Protein + Fat combo).
Now that we know what categories of foods go well together and what foods are in those categories, let’s talk about the order in which we should eat them. Order is a big deal for digestion because some foods take longer than others to digest. If you eat protein first and then those green leafies, you’re going to have to completely digest the protein before your body will start to digest the leafies. Protein can take around 4 hours to digest, so it is most likely that the awesome nutrients from the leafies won’t be used to their maximum potential by your body. That’s sad! It takes effort to eat green leafies, we should reap all the benefits!
In general (there are SO many exceptions), here are common digestion times. For lots more information about sequential eating, I recommend DrBass.com. What I have outlined here is super general.
Fruits: 30 minutes
Vegetables: 1 hour
Starches/carbs: 2-3 hours
Proteins: 3-4 hours
So if you’re going to eat all four types of foods in one meal, the best you can do for yourself is eat the fruit first, then the vegetables, then carbs, and finally protein. Of course that isn’t the most exciting way to eat! But as a general rule it is doable. For a single meal, start with an apple, move on to a salad with dark greens, then maybe some rice and finally the meat.
Sequential eating applies to your whole day as well. Generally…
+Fruits are best consumed during breakfast because they digest fast and give us a morning burst of energy.
+Carbs are good for lunch because they’ll fuel us through the (often) sleepy afternoon and will digest fully by dinner.
+Protein is the way to go for dinner because it takes the longest to digest, will leave us feeling full throughout the evening and will ease us into our 12-hour nighttime fast. (Did you know our bodies need to fast for 12 hours every day? We need to detox and reset our systems. That’s why we’re not supposed to eat too late in the day!)
Ideal Food Combinations
So we’ve covered what food categories to eat with others, what foods are in those categories and in what order to eat them. Now comes the inspiration – these are some ideal food combinations to help ease you in to this style of eating! In my research I noticed this topic is not covered very widely. There are lots of posts on ideal combining of food groups, but not a lot of specific ideas. So hopefully this will help those that need a little extra push. I’ve broken these ideas out by mealtime, following the Sequential Eating guidelines in the above section. “Rebel” meals are those that bend the rules a bit (see the Take This With a Grain of Salt section for more on that.) Keep in mind that these ideas conform to my family’s food limitations, so there are more out there if you don’t have to deal with allergies (we don’t eat eggs, dairy, wheat, spelt, peanuts, or nightshades).
+Smoothie #1: pineapple, strawberries, orange/orange juice, apple, flaxseed (a note on smoothies – we use mostly frozen fruits and we thin them with water. Coconut water would be a nice addition, too.)
+Smoothie #2: mango, pomegranate, and blueberries
+Smoothie #3: all the melons!
+Smoothie #4: greens, ginger, apple, papaya
+Skillet with sweet potatoes, spinach or kale, garlic, scallions or leeks, celery root, and maybe even some bacon if you’re feeling rebellious!
+Toast and sunbutter or almond butter (or rebel and have toast with low-sugar preserves)
+Salad with dark greens, red onion and cucumber and olive oil/balsamic dressing, carrot sticks and sweet potatoes
+Stir fry with cabbage, broccoli, onion, garlic, rice and, if you’re feeling rebellious, a little chicken
+Lettuce wrap with julienned (sliced in thin sticks) daikon, carrot, beets, and alfalfa sprouts
+Rice made with kombu and a kelp or nori wrap with bok choy, avacado, red radish, and carotts
+Stuffed winter squash with quinoa, spinach, veggies and nutritional yeast
Dinner – always start with at least a small salad and try to eat the meat last
+Cauliflower rice, steamed squash, and asparagus
+Steak, raw broccoli, steamed kohl rabi (use the kohl rabi greens in your salad if they aren’t too mature and tough)
+Turkey meatballs and spaghetti squash with scallions, garlic, and shallots
+Whole chicken (buying a whole chicken at once is a great way to support small farms!) with roasted turnips and and Brussels sprouts
+Pork chops and lotus root, roasted cabbage, and fennel
+Chips or fries made from almost any veggie (I love sweet potato fries and apple chips)
+Carrot sticks, broccoli, and celery with peanut or sun butter
Take This With a Grain of Salt
By now you’ve probably figured out that this section is NOT about salting your food. Sorry! It’s actually about the old saying which, if you don’t know, means to take this lightly and don’t feel totally constrained by it.
Food is so easy to be overwhelmed by. It’s easy to think that these rules must be followed 100%. I’d rather see them used as guides, not hard-and-fast rules.
What’s really important here? The emphasis here is to strive to make more good choices to eat healthy foods than choices to eat unhealthy foods. Sometimes we need a little honey on our squash to make it palatable. That’s okay! Sometimes we need to add some sweet fruits to our acid/sub acid smoothie, and that’s okay too! The point is to use these rules as a guide and try our best to follow them most of the time. Some days we just need dessert (notice how there aren’t any deserts in this whole post!). Have a cookie, take a break, and try to do better tomorrow.
If you’ve got to have something “bad,” just try to make it as good for you as possible! Have a homemade cookie made with real ingredients and avoid the processed cookies from a box. Put some honey in your tea instead of refined white sugar. Start reducing your sugar intake and notice how your tastes actually move away from sweets (this may sound crazy but it’s totally true. We’ve drastically reduced our sugar intake and now I can’t stand the taste of white sugar!).
All in all, if you start to get overwhelmed remember to “take this with a grain of salt.” Sure we need food to survive but there are virtually endless options out there for us. As our doctor says, focus on foods you can eat that are healthy for you rather than the ones you need to cut out. Experiment with your pallet and your cooking skills. Try new things! Then try them again! We have the power within us to change our habits, change our diets, even change our taste buds. If I, one of the most picky eaters ever, can do it, then you can do it too! Start slow with one or two changes and move forward from there. A fantastic diet isn’t going to happen overnight. Have patience with yourself and your family. Things will turn around eventually.
If you’ve read everything thus far, thank you for reading! This information will benefit you, I promise. We’re all working our way to better health, one good decision at a time.
I consulted a lot of websites and one of my favorite cookbooks to bring this information together. They are:
Clean Food by Terry Walters, Revised Edition published by Sterling Publishing 2009