Welcome! I am excited to be sharing with you some of the information that I’ve been learning in my Nutritional Therapy program! The topic for this post was requested by my wonderful mother (hi, mom!). Let me start by saying that I am not an expert on this subject, but I have read enough about it to convince me that there’s something to it. Here’s what I make of it:
Here in the good old US of A, we are very used to eating a “balanced meal”, including a protein, a starch, and a veggie (or at least a protein and a starch). We are very efficient. We can pile a lot onto one burger (or sub….Frito-stuffed chicken enchilada sub, anyone?). Unfortunately, eating this way is not optimal for our digestive system, and impairs both proper digestion (and, thus, nutrient absorption) and the health of our digestive tract itself.
Glad you asked!
Different types of food get digested by different types of enzymes. These enzymes don’t always have the same pH preferences. Protein-digesting enzymes require highly acidic stomach juices (low pH) in order to be properly digested, whereas starch-digesting enzymes need a more alkaline environment. When starches and proteins are eaten in the same meal, the chemical environment in the stomach is not ideal for either one. The starches may begin to ferment rather than be digested, causing gas, bloating, heartburn, and general discomfort. Also, if the food (especial the proteins) are not properly digested, they can irritate the intestines further down the line, leading to inflammation, possible food sensitivities, and imbalanced gut flora.
Simple sugars, starches, proteins, and fats all get digested differently, and take different amounts of time to be fully processed.
- Simple Sugars – digested and absorbed in the small intestine
- Starches – digestion begins with saliva, continues in stomach, finishes in small intestine
- Proteins – digestion begins in the stomach, then continues in the small intestine
- Fats – digested in the small intestine
Foods that take different lengths of time to digest don’t do well in the stomach together.
When it comes to food combinations, it’s helpful to know that leafy greens and low-starch veggies pair well with pretty much everything!
A technical note on Starchy vs. Non-Starchy veggies: In my research I found some really helpful information about starchy vs. non-starchy vegetables. The distinction is that in “starchy” foods, a significant portion of its carbohydrate content is starch, which is a polysaccharide (many individual sugar molecules bonded together), whereas non-starchy or low-starch vegetables have little to no polysaccharides. A vegetable may have a relatively high sugar or total carbohydrate content, but that doesn’t mean that it is “starchy”, if the carbs are mainly simpler sugars and fiber. A good example of this is the beet. The simple, non-starch sugars are digested in your intestine, while the starches get broken down in several steps, beginning with the salivary amylase in your saliva.
Guidelines for Food Combining:
Food combining breaks foods into the following categories:
- non-starchy veggies – leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, summer squash, cabbage, peppers, celery, mushrooms, asparagus…
- starches – potatoes, corn, winter squashes, pumpkin, parsnips, peas, grains, legumes…
- First of all, rule #1 is to CHEW YOUR FOOD. Chew it up reeeeal good. It should be liquid when you swallow. Seriously. Starches begin their digestion with the salivary amylase in your saliva, so if you’re not chewing, digestion is already impaired. (more info here!)
- Eat fruits by themselves* — The sugars in fruit digest very quickly, Eaten with other, more slowly digested foods, the sugars may begin to ferment before they reach the intestine. Similarly, eat melons alone, not even with other fruits.
- Don’t have sweets with or even soon after meals – not even fruit! The fruit will digest quickly and then sit in your stomach while the slower-digesting foods finish digesting. The sugar in the fruit will ferment and cause issues.
- Don’t eat starches and proteins in the same meal. — I already explained this one.
- Don’t eat two different types of protein in the same meal. — Different types of proteins require different enzymes, and combining them in the same is not ideal. Choose meat, dairy, egg, or nuts, but not a combination.
- DO eat starches with veggies
- DO eat proteins with veggies
- Fats combine with carbs better than with proteins.
- DO wait at least 3 hours between meals of different types (i.e. a carb meal and a protein meal)
*Fruits are categorized as “acid”, “sub-acid”, or “sweet”, and the acid and sub-acid are ok to combine, and sub-acid and sweet, but not acid and sweet)
Here’s another diagram:
Also, drink most of your water in between meals, not during meals, or else you may dilute your stomach acid too much for optimal digestion. A small glass of water can aid digestion, but don’t have too much. Also, while we’re on the subject, don’t drink soda with a meal! The phosphoric acid shuts down your digestion by switching your nervous system into sympathetic mode (fight-or-flight), rather than the parasympathetic mode (relaxed) that enables digestion.
This may all sound silly, but I think it’s worth trying! Especially if you are buying good quality foods, like grass-fed meats and free-range eggs that you want to get the most bang for your buck from!
If you’re worried that this plan doesn’t sound “balanced”, try thinking in terms of a balanced daily diet, rather than “balanced” at each meal. You can meet your body’s macronutrient needs over the course of a day, or even a few days, as long as you are eating a generally balanced and nutrient-rich diet.
Here are some ideas for combining nice non-starch veggies with your protein or starch:
- Spaghetti squash or Zucchini noodles instead of pasta
- Cauliflower “rice” instead of actual rice
- Steamed veggies
- Stir fry
- Roasted veggies
- Omelets and frittatas
- Lettuce wraps
- Soups (be careful to not combine starches and proteins in your soup)
- Poached eggs over sautéed veggies
You get the picture! 🙂
Let me know if you want more information. Also, there are a variety of helpful infographics and articles out there – I just used the ones that I found most helpful.
- Staying Healthy with Nutrition by Elson M. Hass p. 395, 498-9 (where I first read about food combining)
- Dr. Mercola on food combining
- My New Roots blog has a great article
- Food Combining Principles (acidalkalinediet.com)
- Ascension Kitchen blog
- The Chalkboard Mag blog