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How do you typically feel after a meal? Mysteriously bloated and uncomfortable? Suddenly sleepy and cranky? If so, it’s possible that it’s not any one of the foods you’re consuming but their particular combination that’s causing you problems.

The idea that certain foods can optimize or hinder digestion and energy has been around for millennia. Ayurveda connects digestive power with one’s “gastric fire” — called agni — and teaches that consuming foods in certain combinations can strengthen or dampen that fire.

Traditional Chinese Medicine recommends eating some foods together and others separately, to help manage digestion and, by extension, one’s vital life force, called chi or qi.

Contemporary healthcare provid­ers — especially those treating people with metabolic syndrome, prediabetes, and type 1 and type 2 diabetes — may also suggest food combining to manage blood sugar. Here the focus tends to be on which foods to avoid eating in isolation (refined carbohydrates and even some whole-grain ones), as well as on those best eaten together (namely lean protein, fiber-rich carbohydrates, and healthy fats).

Some caveats are in order. Although some advocates (especially Ayurvedic practitioners) may embrace food combining as a strict practice, other healthcare providers worry that this attitude can backfire. Excessive scrutiny of one’s diet can lay the groundwork for disordered eating, or trigger it if those tendencies are already in place.

Since a positive, comfortable relationship with food is an important component of overall health, it’s best to approach food combining in the spirit of experimentation. Pay close attention to what feels right to your body, and if a new combination works for you (or doesn’t), take note of it. The goal, as always, is to find a way of eating that works optimally for you.

The digestive and the blood-sugar approaches to food combining share some basic principles but differ in other important ways. Sometimes they’re even diametrically opposed.

For that reason, we’ve split them into two categories that you can test out depend­ing on your goals. Read on to learn whether adopting a few food-combining principles might support you.

Food Combining and Digestion

Indigestion, also known as dyspepsia, can take several forms: discomfort or burning in the upper abdomen; feeling full after only a few bites of food; an uncomfortable feeling of fullness. It can also involve bloating, nausea, and acid reflux.

Most of us have experienced this misery at one time or another; some of us experience it chronically.

One contributing factor may be the standard American diet (SAD), which — in addition to its other problems — is rife with pairings that food combiners consider ill advised. The most problematic, in their view, is the tendency to eat animal proteins with starch.

Digesting proteins requires a healthy amount of hydrochloric acid (HCL) in the stomach; some food-combining advocates believe HCL may be diminished by the presence of starches and sugars. When proteins aren’t fully broken down before they leave the stomach, they can start to ferment in the GI tract, leading to uncomfortable bloating and other symptoms.

A food-combining approach may help explain why the SAD’s iconic meat-and-potatoes meal may not be ideal for our physiology, says nutritionist and Life Time master trainer Samantha McKinney, RD, CPT. “There aren’t many foods you’ll find in nature that are both high in fat and high in sugar and starch,” she explains, noting that, for some, these combinations can contribute to bloating, indigestion, and discomfort.

Cookbook author and nutrition consultant Megan Gilmore, CNC, has made food combining the centerpiece of her approach after using it for her own digestive issues. “When I first started using food combining myself, I felt better in just a matter of three days,” she notes. “My stomach was flatter and less bloated. It was such a relief.” (See “The Daily Detox” for whole-food recipes created by Gilmore.)

Ayurvedic practitioner Vanashree Belgamwar, BAMS, uses food combining as an integral part of her practice. Taking a technical approach, she disputes the digestibility of a popular breakfast: yogurt with fruit. “Fruit is acidic, whereas dairy is [more alkaline], so when you combine them, the fruit sits there in your gut and ferments until the dairy is digested,” she explains, noting that this fermentation can cause gas and other byproducts that tax the digestive system.

For other practitioners, transit time — how long particular foods require to pass through the digestive tract — is less important. “Your transit time is impacted by the cumulative meal, not by any individual food in that given meal,” says McKinney. “Your body recognizes the whole meal.”

One thing most proponents of food combining are likely to agree on, however, is the idea that nonstarchy vegetables (which includes most vegetables that can be eaten raw) combine well with just about everything.

This is the central tenet to ­Gilmore’s approach, not just for good digestion but to support everyday detoxification, which she suggests is easier for the body when the digestive system is working well.

Gilmore outlines four food groups that she believes are best eaten separate from one another: fresh fruit, starches, animal protein, and nuts and seeds. But they can all be combined with nonstarchy vegetables.

“This simplified approach is closer to the diet of our ancestors, who ate just one or two foods at a time as they came across them in nature,” she explains. (She offers a broad selection of simple recipes using this formula in her cookbook Everyday Detox.)

For general digestive wellness, Gilmore suggests, combine foods in these ways:

  • If you’re planning a meal with meat or fish, replace the potatoes with any of an array of nonstarchy vegetables — leafy greens, summer squash, crucifers, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, and so on. They all play well together. If you really miss rice with your stir-fries, try cauliflower rice.
  • Likewise, pair grains, potatoes, or pasta with vegetables.
  • Beans are both protein and starch, so combining them with nonstarchy vegetables is the best route. A simple stew of garlicky white beans and greens is a testament to how delicious this can be.
  • The same goes for dairy. Enjoy cheese with leafy salads or melted into vegetable casseroles. Gilmore also recommends choosing cheese made from goat’s milk or sheep’s milk, which tends to be easier to digest for humans than cow’s milk.
  • Eat fresh fruits by themselves, though combining fresh fruit with leafy greens in a salad or smoothie is usually fine.

Any approach to digestion will be highly individual. You may find that some combinations don’t bother you, while others consistently cause discomfort. Experiment to see what works best for your body.

Food Combining and Blood-Sugar Management

There’s a reason many parents are afraid of Halloween — children can behave monsterlike after they eat too much candy. The same thing may happen to adults, who are just as ­likely to feel cranky and in need of a nap after an abundance of sugar, though they might not make the connection.

This type of crash-and-burn process is known as reactive hypoglycemia: low blood sugar (unrelated to diabetes) that occurs within four hours after a meal. Its symptoms include weakness, shakiness, lightheadedness, irritability, headaches, and nausea.

It’s not only sugar that may trigger it. Simple carbohydrates, such as white flour and white rice, are potential triggers as well, depending on how sensitive you are to carbohydrates. Our bodies break down flour and simple grains more quickly than complex carbs. Like sugar, these can quickly lead to a glucose spike and then a precipitous drop in blood sugar. (See “Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs” for more.)

So how can you use food combining to avoid these crashes?

“I recommend protein at every meal and snack, along with a source of healthy fat and a fiber, ideally from produce such as nonstarchy vegetables or berries,” says McKinney.

Protein takes substantially longer than glucose to break down, which is why it’s so helpful for managing blood sugar. The combination of protein, fiber, and healthy fats has a stabilizing effect.

“You can easily track someone’s blood-sugar response with a continuous glucose monitor or with postmeal finger-prick tests and observe the difference,” McKinney notes. “The fiber, fat, and protein take longer to digest, so when they’re combined with carbohydrate, the total time to break down and absorb is notably slower than eating the carb by itself.”

If you find that blood sugar is consistently an issue for you, it may be worth doing some research into your unique carb tolerance. We all respond to carbohydrates differently, McKinney explains, and this response depends on many factors: activity level, muscle mass, stress level, and even how well rested we are.

Genetics and the health of our microbiomes play their own important role in blood-sugar regulation. This is why you and a friend might eat exactly the same thing for dinner yet have entirely different glycemic responses — you’re falling asleep at the table and she’s ready to go dancing.

To get a rough sense of your blood-sugar sensitivity, observe how you feel after meals. Are you sleepy in the afternoons when you have pizza or pasta for lunch? Try having a big salad with some protein and fat instead and see how you react.

Irritable after a sugary dessert? Try something sweet that contains protein, fiber, and fat — like a bar made with dates and nuts.

Play around with varying portion sizes; adding protein, fat, and fiber; and trying lower-carbohydrate substitutions until you hit on the amount that you can enjoy without becoming tired or irritable. (Learn more about managing your unique carbohydrate tolerance at “What Is Your Unique Carbohydrate Tolerance?“.)

Finally, remember that not all carbohydrates are the same. Plenty of healthy foods — including lots of vegetables — are high in carbs, and our bodies need them to function. Carbohydrates provide energy, and food combining may be a key to including them in a way that’s easier on your blood sugar.

Some basic principles to follow:

  • Aim to combine protein, fat, and fiber with any carbohydrate you eat. Crackers with cheese and avocado; pasta with walnuts, broccoli, and olive oil; fresh fruit with a handful of nuts.
  • Add nut butter, flax oil, and chia seeds to your fruit smoothies.
  • Swap in fresh greens or vegetables for French fries when you order a burger.

Dietary Diversity

Depending on your individual digestive capacity and blood-sugar sensitivity, some of the principles outlined here may be more useful than others. But whether you’re using food combining to improve digestion or address crashing energy levels, the best thing about any food-combining approach is that it cultivates a more diverse diet.

“Food combining the right way, by its nature, brings in a greater variety of foods,” McKinney says. “Perhaps you love a sustainable, grassfed steak for dinner, and knowing you need to add a fiber source brings a pop of color and nutrients to your plate from a side of roasted broccoli, some grilled zucchini, or a fresh salad.”

This can quickly become habitual, and daily habits are the real source of most health improvements, she adds.

Gilmore agrees, noting that food combining also steers clear of some of the pitfalls of an elimination approach.

“I think that food combining works for me, and for many others, because it encourages you to make better choices without feeling restricted,” she says.

“When you’re choosing just one food category at a time, then filling the rest of your plate with vegetables, you’re bound to be making healthier choices. Food combining may just work because it encourages the consumption of more whole foods and simpler meals.”

And that is good for all of us.

This article originally appeared as “Great Combinations” in the December 2022 issue of Experience Life.

Helen
Helen Martineau

Helen Martineau is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

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