Q: I keep hearing about the “food combining diet.” Is it true that eating foods in certain orders or groups helps them be better digested? Will this also help with weight loss at all?
A: The idea behind food combining diets is that different foods digest at different rates and require different digestive environments, thus foods need to be eaten in groups that compliment these factors. While this sounds good on paper, it appears to be more of a misuse of biochemical information than anything else, as there is no real evidence to show that food combining diets improve digestion or enhance weight loss.
A guiding principle of this diet is to avoid eating protein and carbohydrates together since different enzymes digest each. Proponents say that eating the two together leaves you with partially digested food in your system that waits around while the other foods are being digested. During this waiting period, supposedly the partially digested food will rot or ferment, causing bloating, gas, and all kinds of other problems.
Another rule of food combining diets is that fruit should be eaten alone because it’s digested faster than protein-based or other carbohydrate-based foods and could also lead to rotting and the resulting upset stomach.
The problem with these guidelines is that there is no proof to show that this gut rot happens. In fact, the antioxidants in many fruits are absorbed better when part of a whole meal, so feel free to enjoy your high-protein fruit smoothies. And it’s nearly impossible to eat proteins and carbs separately since grain-like foods such as quinoa and even brown rice are packed with essential amino acids (protein) and carbs.
One big error with this food combining line of thinking is that in our body’s digestion is a process—that’s why we have a digestive tract, not a digestive sack. It starts in your mouth, continues in your stomach, continues some more in your small intestine, and even occurs to some extent in your large intestine. Your body has evolved the flexibility to handle the digestion of different types of foods at the same time over the course of this whole process. It is not as simple as saying that protein requires an acidic environment for digestion and carbohydrates require a more basic environment for digestion, thus when combined they cancel each other out and nothing gets digested (think of it like -5+5=0).
When people come up with diets that hinge on very specific events in the body, they often forget that the human body is amazing and adaptive. Digestion is a well carried out biochemical symphony that occurs in multiple areas of your digestive tract over several hours. This process has been optimized over the years to extract every nutrient possible from the foods we eat, despite their combination.
If you want to lose weight, stick with tried and true methods: Replace the sugars and some starchy carbohydrates in your diet with vegetables so you’ll eat less calories, eat a little more protein, and exercise almost every day.