Recently, I suggested a client trade her usual cookies for some fruit with her lunch. She looked surprised and replied, “Don’t I always have to eat fruit on an empty stomach — otherwise it will rot and ferment in my stomach, right?” She probably got that idea to skip fruit with a main meal from some fad diet book. I hear wild theories about combining certain foods all the time. So are there really foods you can’t eat together?
Q: What is the idea behind food combining diets? Do they work?
A: Toss out the complicated charts and diet books that promise weight loss if you eat foods in a certain order or not mixed with others — they ignore many basic principles about the way your digestive system works.
So here’s what food combining gurus claim: If you only eat certain foods in a set order or enjoy them separately from other foods, you’ll have optimum digestion. Some common “rules” of proper food combining theorists include:
- Eat protein and fats at separate meals.
- Eat fruits and proteins at separate meals.
- Don’t ever combine acidic foods (i.e. citrus and tomatoes) with starchy foods (i.e. beans and potatoes).
Ignoring these guidelines allegedly causes your body to not properly digest food, creates digestive distress and can lead to weight gain (but how can you gain weight if you’re not digesting anything?!). There are some people that stick to these rules and lose weight, but that’s probably because they’re following a more calorie-restricted diet now that many foods they once ate are off limits.
In reality, our bodies digest mixes of food very efficiently and at different points along the digestive track. The digestion of carbohydrates (including fruit) actually begins in the mouth! When you eat something, the food travels down our digestive tract, where a combination of stomach acid and pancreatic juices that have specialized enzymes breakdown the food’s carbohydrates, protein and fat. Once broken down, food gets absorbed in to the blood stream via the small intestine (it’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea).
When considering how we absorb nutrients in food, there is some truth to the benefit of combining certain foods. Fat-soluble vitamins (that is, vitamins A, D, E and K) need fat in order to be most beneficial. Drizzling olive oil on wilted green leafy veggies helps you absorb the vitamin K in the veggies.
- Here are some more winning combinations:
- Lemon Chicken: Vitamin C in the lemon enhances our absorption of the chicken’s iron; having an iron-fortified cereal with a glass of OJ is another good example.
- Rice and Beans: Together, grains and legumes (peas, beans and lentils) have all the protein building components that your body needs for strong muscles.
- Sautéed Veggies: Vitamin A and many of the other antioxidants in vegetables need some fat for optimal absorption; salad with vinaigrette dressing is a good choice, too.
- Trail Mix: Made with a combo of dried fruit, nuts and whole grain cereal, this mix has healthy carbs, protein and fat to satisfy immediate hunger; the protein and fat keep you full for the long haul — it’s also high in fiber, which keeps hunger bands at bay.
Bottom Line: Don’t believe the hype. Eat a wide variety of whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, seafood, legumes and low-fat or non-fat dairy products. Eat them alone or in combination — just eat (and enjoy) them.