It’s now been well over half a year since I wrote my original food combining post . Since then, I’ve gotten a great deal of positive feedback from some of you who decided to give combining a try! I’ve also gotten a flood of questions about the specifics of food combining, which isn’t a bad thing, but worries me a little. So many of you seem to be fretting over the nuances of food combining, when in fact, you could afford to be a lot less stressed.
Let me repeat something that I’ve said before: food combining isn’t a religion. In fact, I realized the other day that quite a few recent nibbles or meals (such as fig spread on Ezekiel toast, or nut butter on toast, or cranberries in quinoa) were miscombined. These miscombos didn’t cross my mind when I was preparing my food, because I take it as a given that I don’t combine strictly all the time. I combine most of the time when I’m in my own kitchen; I usually don’t stress much about it when I’m at restaurants or traveling.
One observation I’ve made about my own body is that I don’t feel my best when I eat dense proteins with starches. Keep in mind that by dense proteins, I really mean animal fleshes (which I don’t consume at all) and soy dishes like tofu and tempeh (which I don’t eat often), so I don’t have much occasion to eat the two groups together. But I do know that if I eat tempeh and bread together, for example, I tend not to feel my best. From my clients, I often hear that eating animal fleshes with grains can cause some discomfort.
It’s not really surprising that the protein/starch combination might disagree with me, or with others. It’s the most basic and fundamental suggestion underlying food combining. Dr. William Howard Hay, who is considered by some to be the “father of” food combining, posited in the 1920’s that combining proteins, which necessitated an acidic environment for assimilation, with starches, which necessitate an alkaline environment, would lead to a neutralization of the PH conditions that allow for the proper breakdown and assimilation of food. The upshot, he thought, was that starches would be improperly digested, and would begin to ferment in the gut. With this theory, food combining as we know it was born (though it’s worth noting that the idea of eating foods in simple combinations and fruits alone is also found in certain models of Chinese medicine and Ayurveda). Since Hay’s time, models for food combining have become increasingly complex. Today, most food combining proponents isolate 3-7 major groups that shouldn’t be combined (in my last post , I spoke about a popular 5 froup model).
The question for those of us who are interested in food combining is this: how valid were Hay’s original claims? Sadly, Hay’s theories haven’t stood up well to science and medicine. There’s little or no medical literature or evidence that starches will ferment when consumed with proteins (and doctors typically claim that fermentation in the stomach or is impossible because of its acidic environment).
So where do I stand? I guess I’d say that I stand someplace between evidence and observation. My thinking is this: food combining isn’t so much a necessity because of foods’ relative acidity or alkalinity, but rather because eating overly complex combinations of food–especially slow and quick digesting foods at once–is taxing for sensitive digestive systems. I’ve worked with many people who suffer from IBS, Crohn’s, bloating, and other stomach complaints. For people whose digestive systems aren’t in fighting shape, it can be hard to break down fruit, protein, and starch all at once. This was true for me at one point in time, when my IBS was acute, and eating simpler combinations of food helped me to bounce back. Was it an approach that I could substantiate with an article from the New England Journal of Medicine? Nope. It’s wasn’t. But it was a habit that seemed to work, and which jived with common sense. And it still does: eating relatively simple meals seems to work best for many peoples’ digestion. So the idea isn’t to get obsessive about what exactly pairs with what, but rather to avoid throwing in every food group and the kitchen sink at every meal — unless that works for you already.
Now that my digestion is more efficient, I can combine more loosely. If you’re educating yourself about food combining, keep this in mind: it’s possible to imagine food combining as a therapeutic practice. If you have IBS or another GI irritation and want to get better, see if combining works. One you’re digesting more efficiently, you can certainly afford to ease up. If you’re just starting out with the idea of food combining, I have this suggestion for you: don’t begin with a complex model. Don’t, in fact, begin with my 5 group model. Instead, give a simplified food combining model a try.
One simplified food combining model might look like this:
1) Avoid proteins + starches together when and if you can. Proteins include animal fleshes, dairy, soy products, and nuts + seeds. Starches include grains, root veggies, and avocados.
2) Try to eat fruits alone, with the exception of bananas, which you can eat with proteins or starches (though I would advise you to avoid mixing bananas with meat or poultry).
Vegetables, oils, and most condiments are neutral, and can combine with either proteins or starches. Dried fruits would work better with proteins, but won’t be the end of the world with starches. And beans, as usual, work in either category.
Of course, some exceptions to this simplified model are OK! I enjoy nut butter on toast or oats, and I also love nuts and dried fruit in grain salads. These preferences work for me. It’s also important to distinguish between degrees: eating a steak with rice is probably more likely to upset a sensitive stomach than eating nut butter with a sweet potato.
Food combining pros and devotees will find this model far too reductive, and that’s cool: if food combining is something you really believe in, then there’s no need to stop doing it. I’m just offering this model as an option for people who want to explore combining, but don’t want to get caught up in an overly complicated process. I know from experience that eating fruit on its own and avoiding dense protein and starch together are the two tips that seem to work for me. But they won’t work for everyone.
Is this helpful for you all? I hope so! It’s important to remember that food combining isn’t a medical injunction, nor even a common holistic practice. It’s a set of tips about how to eat that tends to help people who have a hard time with digestion. But it’s open to constant modification and scrutiny, and I invite you all to experiment and find your own way.