Food Combining: Is It Really Beneficial?

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Have you heard of “food combining?” It’s a wellness trend where one pairs certain foods to optimize health and wellbeing. It’s popular, but is it really beneficial, or is it just another fad diet?

What Is Food Combining?

The definition of “food combining” is not quite clear as this terminology can refer to a bunch of specific methods. The simplest way to explain it is to label it a diet wherein dieters restrict themselves to eating foods a certain way. 

Dietitian Jemma O’Hanlon told HuffPost Australia that “food combining theory refers to eating or not eating certain foods together in the same sitting in order to achieve optimal digestion.”

Its origins can be traced to ancient Ayurvedic practices. For instance, the Ayurvedic diet instructs one not to eat raw and cooked foods together, claiming this disturbs digestion. In the 1900s, physician William Howard Hay developed the Hay Diet, which advises against the simultaneous consumption of acidic and alkaline foods. Dr. Hay believed his approach gave way to a steady acid-alkaline balance and optimized health.

Over the years, approaches have changed to serve the needs of modern-day populations. Essentially, each approach involves categorizing foods into different groups with a basis of how those foods should be consumed. Individuals who support food combining believe that improper combinations of food lead to digestive distress. 

Related Article: The Flexitarian Diet: What, Why & How To Eat Less Meat

Why is Food Combining a Fad Diet?

One popular method involves separation by macronutrients, such as protein, carbs and fat. Proponents of this method believe it leads to weight loss, boosts digestion and improves overall health. 

“The truth is that [this] food combining [rule doesn’t] make much sense,” Cynthia Sass MPH, RD wrote for Health. “Your body supplies what is needed to accomplish the job of breaking down your food and absorbing the nutrients from your GI tract into your bloodstream.”

Food combining diets also restrict a lot of foods, since many foods overlap into different categories. 

“Many single foods contain a combination of macros; such as nuts, which provide fat and protein; and lentils, which provide carbs and protein,” Sass continues. “If the principles of food combining held true, your body would have a difficult time digesting these foods, even when eaten alone.”

A study published May 2000 in the International Journal of Obesity examined the impact of food combining on body weight and metabolic parameters. Researchers found that individuals who practiced food combining did not lose more weight or body fat compared to the individuals who consumed a balanced diet. This is attributed to the fact that food combining methods do not really focus on a calorie deficit, which is one of the only evidence-based ways to lose weight. 

Related Article: Myth-Busting Facts About A Plant-Based Diet

Beneficial Food Combinations

Some foods, when eaten together, can actually heighten the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream. Experts recommend eating evidence-based food combinations that have been studied to supply greater amounts of vitamins and minerals. Here are some food pairs that are sure to boost nutrient intake: 

Vitamin C and Iron

Iron is not made by your body, so it must be consumed from plant or animal food sources. Heme iron, found in animal products, is easier for the body to absorb compared to non-heme iron in plant-based foods, “but consuming a source of vitamin C increases non-heme iron absorption by as much as six times,” Sass wrote for Health. Try food pairings like dark leafy green vegetables with lemon, or dark chocolate with orange. 

Vitamin D and Calcium 

Calcium and vitamin D work together in your body to support healthy bones. “Vitamin D helps bring in more calcium from the foods you eat and the supplements you take,” Ginger Hultin, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics told NBC News. “The two work together, because the active vitamin D form causes a cascade of effects that increases the absorption of dietary calcium in the intestines.” For this food combination, try pairing mushrooms with soybeans, or fortified cereal with milk. 

Fat-Soluble Vitamins and Healthy Fats

Your body needs certain fat-soluble vitamins found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, best absorbed when eaten alongside high-fat foods. “Once absorbed, fat-soluble vitamins are stored in fatty tissue and the liver for future use,” psychologist Jennifer Mulder wrote for her blog, The Health Sessions. “Handy, but that also means you can consume too much fat-soluble vitamins, which could lead to toxicity. So instead of taking supplements, try to increase the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K by combining them with healthy fats.” Try having bell pepper with avocado, tomatoes with olive oil, or even nuts with leafy greens. 

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