I recently had a query via email recently regarding the benefits, or otherwise, of ‘food combining’, and thought I’d blog about it today. Food combining is a term used to describe the nutritional practice of separating concentrated sources of protein (e.g. meat, fish, egg) and carbohydrate (e.g. bread, potato, rice, pasta) at mealtime. Proponents of this way of eating often claim that it aids digestion, which in turn may have benefits in terms of gaining nutritional value from food, while at the same time reducing the risk that it will fester in the gut and cause internal toxicity.
Part of the reason the food combining might assist digestion relates to the fact that protein and starch have reasonably distinct processes responsible for their digestion. For example, protein is initially digested best in acid, while alkali is the medium of choice for the digestion of carbohydrate. Also, the digestive enzymes used to digest protein in the small intestine, are different from those used to digest carbohydrate. In other words, some argue that eating a load of protein and carb all together is asking the body to do two quite different things at the same time. Separating protein and carbohydrate should, in theory, make digestion easier.
Some claim that this is nonsense, and that the human body is designed to digest lots of different foods at once. I’m not actually sure that this is the case. After all, for the great majority of our time on this planet the likelihood is that we mostly ate one food at any one time, be it meat, fish, nuts or some other hunted or gathered food. It is likely that only relatively recently did we get into making meals with mixed food types as we now know them.
Whether the body is adapted to mixed foods or not is not especially important, anyway, in my opinion. That’s because there’s little doubt that some people do not digest food that well. Until a few years ago, there was a test available here in the UK a test that allowed relatively objective testing of digestive capacity. It employed the use of a swallowed capsule which contained a pH sensitive electrode that would read the level of acidity in the stomach, as well as provide information about the likely digestive capacity in the small intestine.
Over a few years, I ran this test reasonably regularly in individuals complaining of ‘dyspepsia’ (indigestion, heartburn, acid reflux). Most of these individuals had been diagnosed as having excess acid. In reality, though, the great majority turned out not to have enough and/or have impaired digestion in the small intestine.
Individuals with low digestive capacity can find that food gets ‘stuck’ after eating (often causing indigestion). If aid levels are low, this can also increase the risk of reflux because acid is important for the closure of the valve that leads into the stomach (the gastro-oesophageal valve). So, low levels of acid can cause stomach acid contents to escape into the oesophagus, which can be felt as heartburn (even quite dilute acid is generally too acidic for the oesophagus, and may cause burning pain as a result).
What’s this all got to do with food combining? Well, as proponents claim, separating protein and carbohydrate at meal times should make digestion easier. I don’t know whether it does or it doesn’t. But here’s something I know for sure: when individuals with dyspepsia eat according to the principles of food combining, it usually turns their symptoms out like a light. So, my sense is that food combining has considerable merit for individuals who suffer from upper digestive symptoms.
In practical terms, what this means is eating either protein or carbohydrate with ‘neutral’ foods such as salad and green vegetables. So, what we end up with is meals like steak and salad, omelette and salad, vegetable curry and rice and pasta with a red sauce (no meat). Because I think starchy foods are, generally speaking, more fodder than food, I would tend to encourage non-vegetarians to use meat or fish plus vegetables (other than the potato) as the format for their main meals.
Interestingly, many individuals with dyspepsia who adopt a low-carb diet often find their upper digestive disappear or improve considerably. One reason for this could be that a low-carb diet is generally well-combined (protein and veg without potato). Another reason relates to the fact that certain foods can trigger dyspeptic symptoms, and the number one offender here in practice appears to be wheat. Individuals of a low-carb diet are usually eschewing wheat, which is another reason why they may find their new diet really helps them.
Overall, I’m a qualified fan of food combining, and I think it has particular merit for individuals with symptoms suggestive of poor digestive function.
However, even for people with relatively good digestion, this practice can still be useful. Dinner time is, I believe, a good time to consider food combining. Assisting digestion can improve sleep and also reduces the risk of reflux. In addition to food combining, other simple measures that can aid digestion include chewing food thoroughly and not drinking much in the way of fluid during eating and for a couple of hours afterwards (this fluid adds additional volume to the stomach and also impairs digestion by diluting acid and digestive enzyme secretions).