Food Combining for Optimal Digestion

Proper and complete assimilation of food is a result of the action of digestive enzymes, molecules that help break foods down into smaller components so their nutrients can be absorbed through the intestinal lining and into your blood. When too many different types of foods are eaten at the same time, the body is unable to manufacture all of the different types of enzymes needed at once, so some food is then digested by the bacteria in our gut instead. This also happens when we combine foods that digest quickly, like fresh fruit, with foods that take a longer time to digest, like red meat.

Unfortunately, the bacteria in our intestines digest foods by fermentation, excreting toxic by-products such as ptomaines, leucomaines, alcohols, lactic acid, and carbon dioxide. Common symptoms of excessive bacterial fermentation include decreased nutrient assimilation, intestinal gas, abdominal pain, bloating, and heartburn. This process can be minimized or even prevented by what is referred to as food combining, a way of intentionally eating foods in a certain order and in certain combinations that promote the most efficient digestion. The following information is a synopsis on the topic found in Paul Pitchford's book, “Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition,” a book I highly recommend for anyone interested in learning more about Chinese medicine dietary therapy and how to use it to improve health.

Food Combining

Plan A - Guidelines For Individuals with Normal Digestion and No Serious Health Conditions

  • Salty and fermented foods should be eaten first. These types of foods stimulate the production of gastric juices which are beneficial for digestion, so they should be eaten first. For example, in many traditional diets, a small amount of miso soup or pickled vegetables are eaten at the beginning of the meal to get the digestive process going.
  • Eat high-protein foods at the beginning of the meal. Because high-protein foods take longer to digest and require lots of hydrochloric (stomach) acid to break them down, they should be eaten first. This ensures that they enter the stomach before other foods have a chance to absorb the stomach acid. It also allows the digestive enzymes time to start working on them before the more easily digested foods enter the intestines. High-protein foods include legumes, nuts, seeds, and animal products.
  • Proteins, fats, and starches combine best with non-starchy vegetables. Always eat proteins, fats, and starches first, followed by generous amounts of non-starchy vegetables. The high fiber and easy digestibility of these types of vegetables will help move the other foods through the digestive tract before they have time to ferment. Examples of non-starchy vegetables include leafy greens and juicy vegetables like cucumber, celery, eggplants, tomatoes, and bean sprouts. 
  • Concentrated proteins digest more easily if they are eaten in small amounts. Because they are so dense and take so long to digest, concentrated proteins are best when eaten in small portions. This is especially true of animal proteins, which naturally contain saturated fats that slow their digestion down even further. The process of digestion will be slower yet if the animal proteins are deep-fried, prepared with fatty sauces, or are particularly high in fats themselves (like bacon). Ideally, you should minimize the consumption of fats and oils, especially in protein-rich meals.
  • Fruits and sweets should be eaten either alone or in small amounts at the end of a meal. These types of carbohydrate-rich foods tend to be simple structurally and break down very quickly. When eaten with starches and proteins, which are made of more complex molecules and take longer to digest, the body tends to focus on breaking down the simple carbohydrates first. Meanwhile, the starches and proteins sit and wait their turn and wind up being fermented by the bacteria in our guts instead. For those with normal digestion, fruits and sweets are okay when combined with non-starchy vegetables. Still, for optimal digestion and assimilation, fruits and sweets should be eaten either alone or at the end of a meal.
  • Don't drink iced beverages or excessive amounts of fluids with your food. It is good to drink some fluids with meals because they help liquefy and dissolve your food, making it easier for your organs to handle and digest. If you drink too many fluids, however, they can dilute your stomach acid and digestive enzymes, inhibiting proper digestion. Ideally, eight ounces or less of fluids should be taken with a meal. As with most things, food dissolves better in warm liquids, so the ideal thing to drink with a meal is something like tea or hot water with lemon. When you drink iced beverages your body has to expend extra energy heating it up to the optimal temperature for dissolving food, which takes energy and time away from the digestive process. Iced drinks can also chill your stomach tissues, making them less flexible and less able to mix your food around.

Plan B - Additional Considerations For Individuals with Poor Digestion and/or Serious Health Conditions

  • Acidic fruits combine well with high-fat proteins and fats and oils. Acidic fruits can help break down certain foods, especially proteins, making them more digestible. Marinating proteins like meat and beans with acid fruits or vinegar can help tenderize or predigest these foods, dismantling protein chains into simpler amino acids. Fats and oils also combine well with acidic fruits, such as in oil and lemon juice dressings.
  • Proteins and starches require different digestive enzymes. Simplify the load on your organs and reduce the potential for bacterial fermentation by simplifying your meals. Eat either a protein or a starch at your meals, not both. Since each type of starch requires different digestive enzymes to break them down, it is also helpful to eat just one type of starch per meal. For example, avoid combining starchy grains with starchy vegetables like potatoes, beets, squash, or carrots.
  • Drink milk alone. When milk is consumed with solid foods it tends to curdle around them, insulating them from digestion. However, milk products that are already curdled (fermented), such as cheese and yogurt, do not cause this problem.
  • Fruit juices should only be taken between meals. Unlike whole fruits, fruit juices do not contain much fiber, meaning that they break down even faster. Because of this, they should ideally be taken on an empty stomach, either between meals or after. For meals that contain starches, it is recommended that fruit juices be taken two hours after, for protein meals the recommendation is four hours after.
  • It is best to eat fruits alone. Fruits digest the fastest of all of the whole foods so they are best eaten alone. For those who could benefit from fruit's cleansing and detoxifying properties, it is better to have one completely fruit or fruit-juice meal, preferably the first of the day, instead of eating them with other types of foods. Melons, in particular, should always be eaten alone. For those with poor digestion and/or a serious health condition, melons should not even be combined with other types of fruits.

Plan C - For the Weak, Convalescent, or Chronically Ill

  • Eat one-pot meals. For those who are particularly depleted, foods like soups, stews, and porridges are the best. Cooking foods in plenty of water on low heat over a long period of time is equivalent to pre-digestion, making these foods perfect for those who are weak and depleted. Nutrients are extracted but not lost because they stay in the pot, and the tough fibers of vegetables are broken down. Another great benefit of eating this way is that the foods harmonize in the pot, making it easier for individuals to eat a mix of different types of foods at the same time. Because this method of cooking is so harmonizing, these meals need not be as restrictive and can even be made following the guidelines in Plan A.
"Experienced numbness in two fingers on left hand and atrophy in muscles between thumb and forefinger . Diagnosed as ulnar nerve blockage. Using acupuncture and massage, was able to eliminate numbness and return normal sensation to left hand, and avoided the surgery my primary physician recommended." ~Dan C.
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