Natural Foods Merchandiser

The return of the combo plate

Low-carb dieting may have waned, but obesity hasn't. Consumers looking to drop a few (or more) pounds while still maintaining their commitment to eating natural, healthful food may feel overwhelmed in their search for their next diet. After discarding those that seem unbalanced or dependent on processed foods—think Slim-Fast or grapefruit diets—they may resort to an old standby in the naturals world: food combining. Actors Marilu Henner and Suzanne Somers are vocal advocates of this eating method, and Gwyneth Paltrow followed macrobiotics, one of the oldest food-combining diets, until she became pregnant. But not everyone's a fan.

Known for its digestive benefits as well as its weight-control properties, food combining is central to many cultures and religions. Ayurvedic health practitioners believe that some foods are anathema to certain body constitutions, or doshas, and that certain food combinations are unhealthy. Likewise, kosher laws prohibit Jews from eating milk-based foods and meat at the same meal.

Today's diets go beyond ancient strictures. First advocated by Dr. William Hay in the 1930s, the food-combining approach to eating maintains that the human body was not meant to digest more than one or two types of macronutrients at a time. "Some people can tolerate it," says Dina Khader, a certified dietitian-nutritionist and author of The Food Combining/Blood Type Diet Solution (Keats Publishing, 2000). But people who have a more sensitive or smaller digestive tract will have trouble, perhaps in the form of bloating, gas or acid reflux disease, Khader says. Improper food combining can also lead to poor nutrient absorption, she says.

In addition to the digestive benefits of food-combining diets, some proponents say they alleviate symptoms of chronic conditions such as arthritis and migraines, and also reduce stress and related illnesses. Khader says food combining promotes weight loss, and she's seen a resurgence in the method's popularity. "More and more people are tired of having to weigh and measure their food out," she says. In food combining, people can eat what they like in the amounts they like, as long as they eat it in the proper combinations.

If your store's demographics include old hippies or new nutrionistas, you may find yourself answering a lot of questions about food combining. It may even be to your benefit to set up displays with foods that combine well together. Just be sure to be familiar with the pros and cons of food combining.

R and R (rules and rationale)
The basic premise behind food combining is that proteins require an acid environment for digestion, while starches require alkalinity. "When you combine an acid and a base you get a neutralized effect and digestion slows down considerably," Khader says. "The longer [food] sits around, the more likely it is to get stored as fat." Therefore, proteins and carbs should never be eaten at the same meal. While that means some favorite combinations such as pizza or rice and beans are off-limits, it's all for the best. "This way you're not putting as much stress on the digestive organs," Khader says.

    Beyond that, the rules get even more specific:
  • Don't combine acidic foods (such as citrus fruit) with proteins. Because they have their own acids, citrus fruits inhibit production of the acids required to digest protein. This combination may even result in rotting within the stomach. So forget about having OJ with your morning eggs.
  • Don't combine fats with proteins. Fat delays the production of digestive juices that the proteins require.
  • Vegetables are considered neither acid nor alkaline and may be paired with either proteins or carbohydrates.
  • Don't drink water before a meal. It neutralizes the stomach's hydrochloric acid and, if it's cold, anesthetizes the stomach cells that secrete the digestive enzymes.
  • Don't eat two proteins at the same meal. Each protein requires digestive juices in a specific strength and at different points in the digestive cycle.
  • Don't eat starches and sugars together. It will result in fermentation.
  • Do eat raw fruits on an empty stomach, and definitely don't eat melon with any other foods. The sugars in fruits—and especially in melons—are digested very quickly; if they're mixed with other foods, digestion of these sugars will slow and possibly ferment in the stomach, causing indigestion.
  • Milk should be drunk alone. Because it breaks down in the small intestine, not the stomach, the stomach doesn't respond to its presence with any secretions.
  • Tomatoes should be eaten only with leafy greens or fats, and never with carbohydrates, such as pasta. The acids in tomatoes intensify during cooking and interfere with the alkaline environment that carbs need to be digested.

Not everyone believes it's necessary to go to such lengths to have healthy digestion. "While there may be some grain of truth behind some of these individual statements, the fact is that our bodies are remarkably adept at handling a wide variety of foods and combinations of foods," says Dr. Lawrence Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. "If we needed to adhere to these complex food combining rules for good health and digestion, we would certainly not have a major obesity problem today. In fact, if we were as delicate digestively as this diet seems to indicate, we would never have survived this long as a species."

The restriction on combining protein and starch also concerns some nutritionists. "When protein and fats are combined with starch, the absorption of starches is slowed. This helps to maintain stable blood sugar and insulin levels and prevent cravings," writes Cathy Wong, N.D., on the alternative medicine section of

And with so many constraints, adherents can become deficient in vitamins B12 and D, as well as calcium, zinc and iron, unless they take precautions, some nutritionists say. And when given a choice between protein and carbs, most people will choose carbs, so protein deficiency is also a concern.

In macrobiotics, the rules are slightly less complex: Food is said to be either yin or yang—that is, having the quality of either expansion or contraction, cold or hot, sweet or salty. Foods on either extreme are to be avoided, in order to maintain one's balance, but whole grains and vegetables, which are thought to be the most balanced, should comprise the majority of the diet.

In practicing food combining, Khader says she's not quite so strict with her clients. "I usually focus on the basics, like not having protein and starch at the same meal … and not having fruit at the meal."

Critics, however, also cite the current lack of any scientific evidence to support any of these food-combining theories. "The only science is really [understanding] the enzymes produced to digest proteins and the enzymes produced to digest starches," Khader counters. "It's pretty hard to do research with this sort of thing—internal breakdown chemistry."

No one is saying that food combination diets are harmful, though, as long as consumers take supplements, eat fortified foods or otherwise assure their nutritional well being. It may just be a matter of personal constitution, of determining which food combinations work best for a given individual.

After all, even noted holistic physician Andrew Weil has said, "For some people, combining fruit with starches causes flatulence." Forewarned is forearmed.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 2/p. 24, 28

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