What is food combining good for?

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).

13 Responses to What is food combining good for?

  1. Dennis Mullins 6 October 2009 at 2:09 pm #

    I have tried food combining and am a limited fan. However the reason I think it works, at least for me, is because it spreads out the consumption of (limited) carbs over the day rather than just improving the digestion per se. So a typical day plan might be :
    Good breakfast 8.00 am – fruit, fish or egg/spinach and some muesli
    Animal protein lunch 1.00pm – Fish or meat/poultry and plenty of fresh veg not grains (but maybe 2 or 3 small potatoes) + low carb fruit.
    Light Dinner 6.00 pm. Vegetable protein (eg lentils, houmous) + salad veg and slice or two of rye bread + some fruit (even a banana occasionally)
    The advantage I think is that the protein lunch keeps one awake and avoids a feeling of being overfull in the afternoon. Also the carbs in the evening help sleep.
    Note also that this plan provides 5 portions of fresh veg and 3 portions of fruit a day which I think is very important

  2. Chris 6 October 2009 at 6:11 pm #

    Excellent Blog John and very informative. I guess food combining has much in common with Marmite; it divides people.
    I am much clearer about food combining for the things you have said and I can see how it may be a useful tool as treatment in practice but I remain a sceptic of wider application. For one, according to one discourse I read, proponents such as Dr. Hay drew conclusions about digestion from observations about the pH of, putting this delicately, ‘output’. For me, ‘output’ would seem a primitive way to hypothesise about digestion. I do acknowledge your own reference to more sophisticated methods.
    Second, to quote you and then offer alternative reasoning; “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.”
    You know I am a firm advocate that contrasts between a modern diet and the diets determined through the course of human evolutionary history may well cast light upon modern health conditions. You would appear to be opinionated upon similar lines since your book, ‘The True You Diet’ exceptional and helpful in many ways also advocates ‘typing’. Recognition of the importance of diets of the past is one thing but application is another.

    Attempts to ‘profile’ the diets of our distant ancestors and progenitors has substance in the broad view but plenty of speculation in the detail. Assumptions must be made about flora and fauna present in habitats long since disappeared. We are indebted to the patience of those that study this area. You have to admire the tenacity of people who study fossilised pooh, for example.

    Even if we could conclusively benchmark the detail of the pertinent development of the human diet questions would still remain. Should we regard any period as being optimal? According to Ivan Crowe and others (forced) change and innovation in eating habits have been related to variance in climate, consequential change in habitat, and loss of certain of the food sources necessitating adaptation. Would we conclude that in a period involving change and adaptation would we conclude that only one period in time determines what is good for us or ought we consider that all of time may have some pertinence in some way?

    There are some broad observations that make sense. Along the way the human line became more adept at provisioning caloric return for caloric effort. In time this would permit our ancestors the ability to break free from a purely subsistence economy and in turn to enter the agrarian age. There were false starts and collapsed civilisations.
    Improvement in caloric and nutrient return can be associated with certain major transitions. From a baseline largely involving leaves, nuts, pithy stalks, seeds, ripe and unripe fruits from a tropical or subtropical forest habitat authors believe incorporation of USOs (underground storage organs; potato and carrots being modern familiar examples of USOs) had nutritional, behavioural and social implications that had ramifications for our behaviour today. The change was probably directed by collapse of habitat and likely had evolutionary consequences. It was probably a tough time.
    Ivan is illuminative about other innovations and their place in time. Carcass consumption; fire for cooking; riverine and lakeside habitats; migration and adaptation to alternate habitats including coastal; cultivation; and development of potential from grains.
    Changes occurred that in general involved moves to more energy dense foods and improved technologies that prima facie would appear to render energy and nutrients more digestible or accessible. Grain, by reduction in perishability, added a degree of food security hitherto not present, as did livestock husbandry.
    There may be good reason to examine the dietary additions and question have we fully adapted to them as in say, lactose and gluten, and in so doing we can see human evolution in progress. What strikes me most about the contrast between the evolutionary and the modern is the hike in energy density of the aggregate components. Surely the modern diet is far higher in aggregate glycaemic load (GL) than in any subsistence diet and surely the modern diet is likewise deplete of sufficient plant (non cereal) fibre.

    The ethnographic atlas surely does not support the assertion that remaining peoples exist on diets of narrow macro-nutrient profile. Likewise, if hunting live food is a major strategy it is a mistake to assume that the kill provides protein exclusively. Meat (muscle) provides carbohydrate too and the composition of a carcass would provide fats and carbs in addition to the important protein. Do not certain of hunter societies prize non muscle parts of a carcass above flesh – such as blood perhaps and liver? Inuits prize whale skin.

    The distant forest habitat almost certainly provided resources replete with protein, carbohydrate, fats, and fibre, and while nature may vary the composition it does not often render any one of the macro-nutrients exclusive to a given food and for that reason alone should we regard combining as unnecessarily fussy?
    Perhaps troupes of early humans may have consumed the proceeds of a kill separately from plant derived foods? The thought brings me around in part to your way of thinking.

    Can the fossil record provide unequivocal insight? I doubt that it can as yet and so the best indicator would be the habits and practices of the few remaining modern practitioners of subsistence living around the world. Do they separate their meat from their greens? I haven’t had time to explore the question. I hope someone has or does soon because numbers of such practitioners are in decline.
    What is apparently quite clear is that when such peoples abandon their native diets and adopt diets with components of modern western diets incidence of the diseases which concern us in our times rise in them:- Weight gain, cancers, diabetes, heart disease etc. They were once referred to as so called ‘diseases of civilisation.’ How was the term dropped?

    ‘The Quest for Food, Ivan Crowe, can be hard to source as Ivan has the remaining available copies. Can any interested persons register their interest by email to you, John?
    Human Diet; Origin and Evolution; ed. Ungar & Teaford is an investment at £45.00

    Apologies for commenting at length. I hope the submission is pertinent and interesting.

  3. Hunter Lewis 7 October 2009 at 7:46 pm #

    But if low stomach acid could be the problem, why not just take betaine HCL tablets to lower stomach pH? I was reading about this in Jonathan Wright’s new book, Your Stomach: What is really making you miserable and what to do about it. If what he says therein is correct, low stomach acid can cause other health issues as well as heartburn and indigestion.

  4. Dr John Briffa 8 October 2009 at 4:49 pm #


    Yes, you could do this, and I quite often use this approach in practice. However, acid supplementation needs to be handled with some care, particularly as those with low stomach acid can have reduced levels of protective mucin, which can make their stomach sensitive and prone to damage from acid supplements.

  5. Dennis Mullins 8 October 2009 at 9:07 pm #

    Surely HCL supplementation for stomach issues should be an absolute last resort and one should first try eating natural wholefoods while avoiding refined/processed foods, moderately sized meals with not too much carbs, lemon juice, digestive enzymes, food with digestive enzymes (such as pineapple and papaya), B vitamins supplements, drinking liquid between meals rather than at meals etc., even exercise and maybe even probiotics

  6. simona 9 October 2009 at 11:23 am #

    I am happy that this issue came up as I heard about it a while ago from my father and I was curious to hear more opinions on it. Proponents of food combining add another element to it, which is that the fruit should be consumed on its own. Can anybody comment on this? I haven’t found enough arguments for the yes side to do so myself. Thank you.

  7. Antje 9 October 2009 at 1:02 pm #

    Thanks for this report!

    I am a big fan, it works for me, but i still need confirmation like this from time to time to keep me going with this eating pattern that is complicated sometimes especially when not at home.

  8. Rox 9 October 2009 at 11:03 pm #

    I feel less bloated when food combining and since lowering my carb intake recently. Hoping that stubborn abdominal fat will start to budge. Haven’t read True You Diet, but recently got Genotype Diet and Eat Right For Your [Blood] Type by D’Adamo. Has anyone found benefits from this way of eating? How easy is it to banish gluten?

  9. Cristina 15 October 2009 at 2:06 pm #

    You are wrong and I suppose it is cultural or just habit and taste that makes you dislike carbs. First of all there are very big differences in between carbs. You make it sound that sugar or white wheat products are as bad as beans or whole grains. It is not true.
    You also suggest that meat. But I would like to see the investigation you rely on saying this as most of the studies show the opposite. No one needs meat 3 times a day (this is the most common), not even every day! I don’t suggest that everyone should be a vegan but I do say that meat maximum 3-4 times (including the bacon or ham in the morning) is more then enough.
    If you, as an important informer (top nutrition doctor you call yourself) also take in consideration that it requires 100% more veg. protein (amino acids) to produce 1kg meat-protein. It is important to inform about the land required (mostly rain forest) to produce meat so that you and others can eat meat 3 times a day. And also inform them that subventions are much higher to meat producers (making meat too cheap) than to vegetable producers. Why? Pure ingnorance, taste and cultural habits.

  10. Joanne of Open Mind Required 16 October 2009 at 9:00 pm #

    As to eating fruit alone: Fruit takes anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour to leave the stomach. If you eat a meal of meat, which takes a few hours to leave, and then top it off with fruit, the fruit is held in the stomach until the meat passes. At 98.8 degrees, the fruit ferments in the stomach, poisoning the body. This is the reasoning of the natural hygienists who originally taught food combining.

    Here’s a personal example. I had a big meal of meat and vegetables. Then I made some “ice cream” from frozen bananas and blueberries through my Champion juicer. I had the worst case of gas and bloating. I will NEVER do that again.

  11. Chris 18 October 2009 at 5:54 pm #

    “If you eat a meal of meat, which takes a few hours to leave, and then top it off with fruit, the fruit is held in the stomach until the meat passes. At 98.8 degrees, the fruit ferments in the stomach, poisoning the body.”
    Expressed like that it seems worthy of further interest and explanation. Are you able to expound on this or suggest a work of reference?

  12. Christine So 4 November 2009 at 10:45 am #

    I am definitely a big fan of food combining. Regardless of eating meat or protein, I have consumed more veggie and fruit before. My digestive system keeps running smoothly since I stick to food combining principles!

  13. Maya 18 January 2010 at 11:00 pm #

    I am also a big fan of food combining, as it really helped me to eat more healthy, loose weight and in getting more active again. However I do not see this as a diet, more as a way to eat better. I do often combine protein with fresh veggie, that is light and also tastes well. However it is hard to find recipes on the net, I tried some of these Food Combining Recipes. Best, Maya

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