Forgotten rules of food combining that make plant-based and keto work.
I’m always questioning what’s on my plate and why it’s there, how it makes me feel today and what macro effect it has on my life.
As a nutrition coach and a curious foodie I’m leaving no stone unturned — why keto works and sometimes it doesn’t, when plant-based works and when it’s a total disaster, why some bread works and some causes gut issues and gluten sensitivities, why some call fruit poison and some thrive on it like supermen, why as a society we cycle through different diet fads and what withstands the test of time?
I’ve been changing the way I eat since I was a teenager — it started with an auto-immune condition and grew into a lifelong passion, a career, into a lifelong quest to inspire a world where food makes us better instead of feeding sickness and the worst “angels” of our nature.
While cycling through different diets — keto, plant-based, low fat, low carb, whole 30, paleo, raw vegan … — sometimes years at a time, I started to see the patterns, that worked no matter what diet I was on, that didn’t work no matter what diet I was on.
And then a few days ago, after finishing 3 books on food combining and putting it into daily practice — it dawned on me.
It’s all about optimizing for human gut, for human digestion isn’t it?!
Intermittent fasting works so well because it gives a rest necessary for recovery to our digestive organs, allowing our gut to rebuild the lining, promoting gut microbiome balance. Also studies show, eating earlier, eating on schedule, in alignment with sun cycles and “biorhythms” of our planet that we inhabit allows all of our metabolic and digestive systems to work in synchrony.
Keto, plant-based and many other diets work because they eliminate the worst possible for our digestion and our gut combinations, very often supplying the most beneficial for our good gut bugs foods, improving the quality of food overall, eliminating toxic substances and complicated food formulas with out-of-a-science-lab ingredient lists.
We obsessively count calories, or grams of carbs, or fats, when in reality, it seems, this isn’t what matters the most. What matters is eating practices that are compatible with our human gut, practices that nourish our human gut. And it’s not surprising, when I think about it, after all, bacteria, that live in our bodies outnumber human cells 10 to 1, and it seems from all the scientific evidence, when that 3-pound kingdom is out of balance our health starts to crumble, mental and physical well-being suffers.
What are those foundational practices that make many popular diets and eating patterns so healing?
· Food combining
· Intermittent fasting
· Eating simple foods, not complex food products with advanced formulas
(Let’s not forget about sleep, exercise and taking care of our mental health — all that influences and being influenced by our gut microbiome health just as much.)
Why does it still surprise me that food combining works?
That if I want to feel the best after my meals, that if I want to get the most benefits out of my food — I need to respect the rules of how our digestive system works, the system that includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder? The system that’s for the most part abused by our modern food manufacturing? (I bet most of the food scientists wouldn’t be able to name all of the organs of our digestive system for which they design products. It’s like our taste buds and brains are the only “food organs” that matter.)
The more I respect food combining rules VS carbs, calories, amount of fats in my diet — the better I feel every day, the more energy I have, the better my brain works, the happier I feel for no reason.
And when I decide to forget about food combining, that’s so easy in our modern food environment, the worse I feel and it doesn’t matter how many grams of carbs I eat on that day or how many hours I fast.
The worst possible food combinations
These combinations also happen to be the ones that are eliminated by our favorite diets — starch/high carb + animal protein, starch/high carb + lots of added (mostly industrial) fat.
Fish and chips, potatoes and meat, pasta and meat balls, sandwiches, ice-cream, French fries, cookies, peanut butter jelly sandwich, pizza.
Keto? No starch, no high carb anything.
Plant-based? No animal protein.
And when cheat days happen, and we feel all awful, what do we usually cheat with? Loads of sweet potatoes ALONE? Loads of salmon or steak ALONE? Of course not! We throw it all in — sugar, fat, protein, starch, fruit, nuts and dairy — our food industry makes it all possible, sometimes even in one food!
Even someone’s favorite gluten-free almond cooking with some organic coconut sugar — it isn’t made human-gut-compatible! Nuts and sugar just don’t work well together! No matter how organic it is.
The best possible combinations
Quite boring actually. Most non-starchy veggies work well with anything protein or starch separately. Like salmon with spinach or steak with asparagus. Like beans with broccoli or potatoes with salad greens, rice and quinoa with veggies.
And then any food alone is an awesome food “combination”.
My sister recently, watching me unpack salmon for lunch, said to me, “Salmon never works for me. I feel heavy and bloated.”
I proposed to try it by itself, or with a salad. She loved it!
A few details worth mentioning:
Added fat tends to complicate anything — don’t add too much of it to anything except non-starchy veggies, veggies that make everything work better due to high water and fiber content. Although, some oils and fats seem to be more compatible with different foods, like olive or avocado oil, coconut oil.
Different proteins together is not a great idea — eggs and fish, bacon and eggs, steak and eggs, fatty fish and meat. Proteins are the most difficult foods to digest by themselves — different nature of them, different fatty acids make them even more so complicated. It’s like trying to assemble 2 different jigsaw puzzles at the same time.
Acids, like lemon juice or vinegar, despite our popular cooking trends, seem to complicate digestion. My digestion, energy after meals, how fast my meals move through improved a lot when I stopped adding lemon to my tuna/sardine salads.
Tomato is not a non-starchy vegetable. It’s a very acidic fruit.
Cooking/processing might complicate or improve digestion of certain foods and food combinations.
Food combining rules should be applied having your eating schedule in mind. Eating food on an empty stomach is not the same as eating it a couple of hours after a complex protein and fat-rich meal.
Only works on an empty stomach. Empty stomach for most people means first meal of the day. In half an hour you can eat other foods. Fresh fruit is different from dried fruit or fruit juices. Sweet and starchy fruit like bananas do not mix well with acidic fruit like oranges or kiwi. Melons are best eaten first and separately from other fruit, in about 20 minutes after eating melons you can eat something else.
All these rules have to do with how our digestive system works — the enzymes needed, the part of our digestive system where most of the digestion of any specific food happens — digestion of certain foods starts in our mouth, some require strong acids of our stomach, some can only be digested by our gut bacteria and need no time in the stomach.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds vary greatly between each other — their fat and protein content, other nutrients, amount of anti-nutrients, different fatty acids, some are not even nuts — they belong to a complex food group, best eaten by themselves or with non-starchy veggies, in small amounts can be added to some protein or starch dishes, seem to combine well with some cheeses. Soaking, sprouting, lightly dry-roasting nuts and seeds make them easier to digest.
Cow, sheep, goat, buffalo milks are all different, some are better than others but best to be avoided by most adults.
Fermented dairy, different yogurt-like products, cheeses — different products, where pre-digestion is made by different kinds of organisms added to them, changing their nature and nutritional properties. There are a lot of different brands and each has their own features, unique blend of bacteria but as a general rule of thumb fermented dairy is tolerated much better by most people and might be beneficial.
Yogurts might mix well with sour fruit like fresh berries.
Cheeses go well with non-starchy vegetables and some nuts.
Fiber and resistant starch
Fiber, naturally occurring in foods, like vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains seem to make everything better but doesn’t cancel rules above. Resistant starch, a kind of starch that resists digestion, especially high in legumes, seems to be especially loved by our gut bugs! But you have to combine that starch well — with other non-starchy veggies, and cook it the right way to remove all the not-beneficial to our digestion substances like lectins (through soaking, sprouting, pressure-cooking).
Long and complicated ingredient lists
No matter how healthy any food or ingredient seems to be, we always need to ask ourselves — what will combining this food/ingredient with something else do to my digestive system? And in most cases, we just don’t know. How can we test all the possible ingredient combinations that are available in our food products? Their short and long-term affect? We can’t. We don’t. It’s a gamble.
You might say, Angela, but all these rules, it steals the fun, it makes eating boring and restrictive — I can’t eat all these new food products!
What can I say?
Our digestive system is not a burner, not a trash bin where we can mix anything with everything and the end result is the same. It never was. Now more than ever we disrespect and ignore the nature of our digestive system. Now more than ever our health on all levels suffers. We might think it’s not related. But how can it not be, when every single process in our body highly depends on our digestive system doing its work well?
*For a while I couldn’t lose a couple of kgs and get my top energy levels back — that came seemingly out of nowhere. It all went back to normal in a week of combining foods well. I’m not saying it’s gonna immediately solve all of your problems. But what do you have to lose? Couple of pounds?