Did you know that some foods, although pretty on your plate and tasty to eat, might not mix well together once they get to your stomach? (Hello, gas and bloating!) In the right combinations, however, some foods not only digest easily but also pack a powerful nutritional punch.
Food combining can be a bit complicated, but it can also be really helpful, if you know what you want from it,” says New York City–based holistic nutritionist Peggy Kotsopoulos. One way of looking at this approach to eating is for better digestion. “This could be beneficial if you’re prone to indigestion, gas or bloating,” she says. The idea is that different types of foods require different environments and enzymes to assimilate efficiently. For example, if you mix protein (which needs an acidic environment) with carbohydrates (which require an alkaline environment), you run a bigger risk of stomach upset since they aren’t compatible. The other factor is the length of time that foods take to digest. Fruit speeds through the digestive tract within two hours or less, for instance, while a handful of nuts could be chugging along for as long as four hours. “Putting slowly digesting foods in front of quickly digesting foods is like driving a city bus in front of a Maserati,” says Kotsopoulos. The probable result is a pileup, which in digestive terms means tummy trouble for those with sensitive systems.
The other side of this story is one of enhanced nutrition. “Food synergy is what I call it when components of food work together in the body for maximum health benefits,” says Elaine Magee, a Boise, Idaho–based registered dietitian and author of Food Synergy. The nutrient profiles of certain foods can both complement and augment each other when eaten together. “So one plus one sometimes equals four when you’re putting various compounds together,” she says. A healthy-food aficionado, an athlete or someone with a chronic nutrient deficiency might be attracted to this way of eating.
Whether you’re looking to prevent digestive upset or maximize your body’s absorption of health-boosting nutrients, more mindfulness around your meals, including which foods you’re eating together, can help. Here’s how, with a little planning, you can make the most of the principles of food combining.
4 golden rules of food pairings
These mealtime guidelines will help you benefit from combining, or separating, certain foods for improved digestion.
1. Eat melons alone or leave them alone
If you love watermelon but have had tummy distress after eating it, it’s probably because melons are one of the quickest foods to digest due to their high water content. The different enzymes required to break them down, plus the speed at which they move through your system, can wreak havoc in your stomach if they’re combined with other foods. “I recommend eating melon by itself, then waiting 30 minutes or so before you have anything else,” says Kotsopoulos.
2. Skip beverages with dinner
“Don’t drink anything with meals—even water—because it washes away digestive enzymes,” says Kotsopoulos. Your stomach needs those enzymes to break down and assimilate your meal; without them, you’re more likely to experience digestive upset. This rule is especially important at dinnertime or when sitting down to a big meal.
3. Keep it simple
“Have the least amount of different foods on your plate to yield the best digestion,” says Kotsopoulos. “The body is not designed to digest more than one type of food in the stomach at a time, nor can it manufacture all the necessary enzymes simultaneously.” The components of a big green salad, for example, are digested at the same rate. Add a light protein, like a chicken breast, and you should still be OK, says Kotsopoulos. But if you mix in a protein and a starch, such as a grilled steak and a baked potato, you’re more likely to experience digestive upset.
4. Greens go with everything
In case you need more incentive to eat plenty of good-for-you spinach, kale and chard, those leafy green superfoods can be consumed with anything because they won’t interfere with the digestion of proteins, fats or starchy vegetables. In terms of food complements, they’re easy additions to every meal: Blend them into breakfast smoothies, layer them in salads at lunch and sauté them at dinnertime for the ultimate easy-going and nutrient-packed side dish.