FOOD

We Found Out What 'Food Combining' Is (And If It Actually Works)

The diet reportedly helps with weight loss and digestion.

06/09/2016 8:30 AM AEST | Updated 06/09/2016 12:03 PM AEST
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One of the diet's principles is to not combine fruit with vegetables.

There are so many diets and eating 'rules' out there that it's entirely impossible to keep up with them all.

Drink one glass of water before a meal. Don't drink any water before or during a meal. Start your morning with apple cider vinegar. Only eat one type of fruit at a time. Don't eat carbs after 5 p.m. Don't eat two hours before bed.

WHOA.

One more to add to this confusing list is 'food combining'. Because it's a good idea to learn about a diet principle before rejecting it, we spoke to a few health experts to find out: a) what food combining actually is, and b) if it really works.

What is food combining

"The idea behind 'food combining' diets is that different foods digest at different rates in the body and require different digestive environments. And, therefore, that foods need to be eaten in groups and at specific times that compliment these factors," Robbie Clark, dietitian and sports nutritionist, told The Huffington Post Australia.

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"The food combining theory refers to eating or not eating certain foods together in the same sitting in order to achieve optimal digestion," accredited practising dietitian Jemma O'Hanlon added.

The basic food combining principles are to avoid combining starches and protein in the same meal, and to always eat fruit before a meal, not after. People who follow the food combining diet claim this is because proteins need an acidic environment to be broken down, whereas carbohydrates require an alkaline environment.

"At its basics the main rules are to eat fruit on an empty stomach to allow for efficient digestion, and don't combine protein (meat, poultry, eggs, cheese and fish) and starches (oats, rice, pasta, bread, potato, corn etc) at the same meal," nutritionist and celebrity chef, Zoe Bingley-Pullin, told HuffPost Australia.

The guiding claim here is that because there are different enzymes in the body that digest protein and carbohydrates, if you eat them together it will cause digestive issues.

"Advocates say that if you eat the two together, it will leave you with partially digested food in your system that just sits there in your gut while the other foods are being digested," Clark explained.

"During this waiting period, supposedly the partially digested food will rot or ferment, causing bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhoea."

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According to the food combining principles, spaghetti with meatballs is a no-no. Sigh.

"Advocates of food combining believe proteins are not digested well if they're combined with starchy foods, and that starch isn't broken down properly if combined with protein," Bingley-Pullin added.

Other basic principles of food combining include not consuming fruit and vegetables at the same meal, and not drinking cold water during meals, or for at least one hour.

"The theory here is that fruits and vegetables have different biochemical structures and therefore breakdown at different stages of digestion," Clark said.

The proposed benefits

The proposed benefits of food combining include weight loss, good digestion, improved energy, reduced acne and skin blemishes, better absorption of nutrients and improved detoxification.

"The proposed benefits of food combining or eating foods that combine together efficiently is that it will assist digestion so that your digestive tract does not have to work as hard to absorb the nutrients your body requires for energy, as well as alleviating any symptoms associated with poor digestion such as gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, reflux and fatigue," Clark said.

Trinette Reed
The rule is to have fruit on an empty stomach, and not to eat it with other vegetables.

Does food combining work?

"While all of this sounds good in theory, it appears to be more of a misuse of biochemical information than anything else, as there isn't any sufficient evidence to show that food combining diets improve digestion or enhance weight loss for that matter," Clark said.

One major flaw with the food combining diet is that digestion doesn't happen only in the stomach -- it's much more complex than this diet proclaims and actually begins in the mouth.

"One big error with this food combining way of thinking is that in our bodies, digestion is a process. Hence why we have a digestive tract, not a digestive sack where everything is dumped and expected to undergo all processes of digestion," Clark explained.

"Our digestion starts in our mouth, continues into our stomach, continues further into our small intestine, and even occurs to some extent in our large intestine.

"Evolution and the introduction of different foods and cooking methods has allowed our body the flexibility to handle the digestion of different types of foods at the same time over the course of the digestive process."

The best diet we can eat combines a wide variety of nutritious foods from all the food groups, and there's no reason why we shouldn't enjoy foods together in the same sitting.- Jemma O'Hanlon

Our digestion isn't as black and white as saying that 'protein requires an acidic environment for digestion' and 'carbohydrates require a more basic environment for digestion', and that if combined they cancel each other out and nothing gets digested.

"Our bodies contain all the necessary enzymes to break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates at the same time," O'Hanlon explained. "For example, amylase found in our saliva breaks down carbohydrates while pepsin and trypsin in our stomachs break down proteins.

"When it comes to our meals, we need to get a healthy balance of carbohydrates, good fats and protein containing foods, and there's little scientific evidence to support the theory of not combining specific foods or food groups."

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Following any diet or eating principle too strictly can take the joy out of eating.

Although food combining's guiding principle is flawed, Bingley-Pullin admits that -- if done in a non-restrictive, relaxed way -- the diet can encourage one extremely helpful eating practice: mindfulness.

"What I like about the principles of food combining is that it's not about restricting food itself. Food isn't taken off the menu, it's simply about being mindful of the composition of meals," she told HuffPost Australia.

"If people make a change to their diet or become more mindful of their diet, they are more than likely going to experience improved symptoms, so it's hard to say if the improvement is based on following such principles or eating better generally.

"This diet regime also takes a lot of 'unhealthy' bloat promoting foods off the menu (such as hamburgers and takeaway food) and is a way of simplifying the diet and removing common foods tied to digestive complaints so again, likely to promote reduced bloating."

Basically, food combining is definitely not essential for good digestion or health, and isn't scientifically backed up, so take the claims with a big grain of salt. However, if integrating some principles encourages you to slow down, eat mindfully and eat more healthy, that's great.

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Find what works for you and your lifestyle.

"Nutritional science has taught us that digestion is a well carried out biochemical process that occurs in multiple areas of your digestive tract over several hours," Clark explained. "This process has adapted and been optimised over the years to extract every nutrient possible from the foods we eat, despite their combination."

"The best diet we can eat combines a wide variety of nutritious foods from all the food groups, and there's no reason why we shouldn't enjoy foods together in the same sitting," O'Hanlon said.

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