T’ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)
Ella Fitzgerald had it right, at least when it comes to diet – while what you eat is important, it is of equal importance how you eat it. Everyone knows that eating enough protein is good for you, but it two whole thanksgiving turkeys every day, and you will gain weight and have little to no energy. While that’s an exaggerated example, it goes to show that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Likewise, a “bad thing”‘s harmful effects can be minimized by eating it at the right time.
This post is largely based on Ukrainian and Chinese Medicine, two countries where they teach food combining in schools as part of nutrition classes.
Why Food Combining Matters:
If you spend extra energy digesting food, it is less energy that you have mentally, physically and emotionally to deal with anything that comes your way. Good digestion helps you feel more energetic and just plain better, for longer. Bad digestion, caused by poorly combining foods, doesn’t just lead to gas, abdominal pain and swelling, it also leads to decreased nutrient assimilation. This means your body doesn’t get the nutrients that you are eating. How does this happen? Your body uses different enzymes to process different types of foods. Sugars, proteins, and carbs/starches are of particular importance, because they require vastly different types of enzymes. If we eat different foods at the same time, the body cannot produce the exact enzymes required to break down the food. If a food isn’t broken down well, it isn’t absorbed well by the body, and doesn’t help you recover, and may leave you feeling hungry, leading to overeating and weight gain (your body missing nutrients –> hunger signal).
Proteins – require a ton of stomach acid to break down, especially if it is from meat or eggs. Carbs will have to wait. Ways to reduce the amount of energy spent by the body in digesting meat is actually to marinate your food!! Citrus, vinegar, and wine all actually predigest some of the proteins and make them more available to your body – they start the work of digestion for you. Another way to reduce the strain on your system while eating meat is to eat green vegetables during or after meat consumption. This is why Italian and French people always eat salad after a meal, not before. It helps you to digest rich/large meals.
Carbs – require different enzymes than proteins for proper digestion. Eating them separately is a good idea for those weak from illness, those trying to maintain energy levels immediately after the meal, or those trying to lose weight (better nutrient assimilation through better food combining –> less food you need to eat). However, it is not common for people to eat them separately, and this is not a big deal. If you would like to maximize nutrient absorption without separating proteins and carbs, just eat the protein before the carbs, or at least on top of them (I have seen plenty of rice and beans with the beans on top of the rice, but I have never seen the opposite!) Also, by cooking proteins and carbs in a soup or stew for a long time (>1 hour), each item begins to take on the flavors (and qualities, leading to needing similar enzymes for digestion) of the others, negating the need for a food-eating order. Many traditional dishes are cooked as stews/soups for a reason!!
Sugars – here’s where it gets tricky. Sugars (includes sweeteners, natural or artificial, and fruit) digest extremely quickly. To do this they monopolize digestion. That means if you eat a ton of fruit with a meal, everything will sit in your stomach (or en route) fermenting and collecting bacteria. Likewise, if you buy processed/refined food and sugars/sweeteners are one of the first few ingredients, the nutrients from this food will be absorbed neither quickly or effectively. Always read the ingredients!!! This is the reason a large dessert or a lot of fruit after a meal will often lead to a stomachache. It is much better for digestion and nutrient assimilation to have sugary foods on their own. This is why in many cultures, especially in Europe, the food cooked with the most sugar is consumed at breakfast, combined only with tea (British tea and cookies, for example). This can be a whole meal (preferably breakfast, as discussed below) or as a snack in between meals (30 minutes before, 1 hour after). Fruit is a better choice than refined sugars, as the fiber changes the way that your body utilizes the sugar that it provides.
Food Combining for Sleep Quality – Pav wrote a great article last week on insomnia. What can food combining do for insomnia? First, eating late at night (after 9, or within 2 hours of bedtime, whichever comes first) means that your body will still be digesting when it is supposed to be resting. The consequence of this is that the quality of your sleep suffers – for a few people it will mean a more difficult time falling to sleep, but for most it will mean that you need more sleep to get the same rest, since your body will not be able to get to its deepest levels of sleep (the ones that leave you feeling recharged) while digesting. Although you feel like you are passing out after a big meal and sleeping so well, it is actually similar to passing out while drunk – it isn’t real sleep. Most traditional cultures and many modern ones as well (Spain, for example) customarily eat the biggest meal of the day at lunch. Our health-ignoring American society has changed for the sake of productivity, but this has a negative impact on our health.
An anecdotal note on this subject is that if I have a dessert after dinner I have insomnia. Although for years I could not sleep well, since transforming my diet my sleep quality has been vastly improved. I have had insomnia less than a dozen times in the past year – all triggered by a heavy dinner with sugary dessert.
Never eating after 9 is advised by both Ukrainian athletic coaches and Traditional Chinese doctors because of its effects on the liver and other internal organs involved in digestion – the liver is what detoxes our body, it works all day when we digest, exercise, do anything – it needs rest! The entire digestive process requires many of your organs be active, you need to let them rest. The liver is especially active between 1-3 a.m. according to Chinese Medicine, cleaning itself – if it is being called upon to work while it should be recharging, it will not recover well.
Last thing: Digestion starts in the mouth. Chew your food!! If you are a “gulper,” you are much more likely to suffer from indigestion and nutritional deficiencies than someone who mindfully gets all the food into small pieces, easier on the internal digestive system.
Thank you to Alex Ponomarenko and Paul Pitchford for much of the information provided in this article!