I love watching twenty-something lifestyle vloggers on YouTube. I buy their product recs (I saw Gretchen Geraghty wearing tiny gold hoops, so I bought tiny gold hoops), stalk their socials (Greece looked great, Brooke Miccio), and never miss a “week in my life” video (keep ’em coming, Danielle Carolan!).
Recently, one of my fave vloggers, Maggie MacDonald, posted a video where she raved for 20 minutes about how an eating plan (“it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change”) called Food Combining made her feel less bloated and lose weight all while eating more food than ever. Um, okay? How?
Welp, turns out, the diet’s claims aren’t totally legit. (FWIW, Food Combining also has roots in Ayurveda, a system of traditional Hindu medicine. This story is not meant to be a critique of the spiritual practice.)
What is Food Combining?
A quick Insta search led me to Kenzie Burke, an influencer with 93,000 followers who MacDonald says introduced her to Food Combining. Her feed is filled with pics of plant-based meals that made me feel healthier just by absorbing their green hues with my eyeballs. There were also testimonials from clients writing things like, “I seriously feel SO much better. I have been raving about FC to everyone I know.” Then, there were the selfies showcasing her clear, glowy skin and abs, which she credits to following Food Combining. Gimme those abs, pls.
The theory behind the diet: Since your digestive system breaks down macronutrients at different rates (fats and proteins take longer to digest than carbs, per the University of California, Santa Barbara) and use different enzymes, or molecules that help us digest, you should only eat foods that process at the same speed in one sitting. Otherwise, the food rots or ferments inside your stomach and your body has to use extra energy to process your meal (though, that’s not a thing), leading to fatigue and bloat and possibly making it harder to lose weight (if that’s something you’re going for). Burke writes that the faster your food moves through your system, the more nutrients you receive from your meal (more on that in a sec).
How do I combine the foods?
In order to properly food combine, you need to follow a ton of specific rules. Though the stipulations vary depending on who you ask, and plenty of authors and influencers promote the diet, here are the basic principles, according to a manual Burke published on her website.
- You should only eat fruit on an empty stomach. Eating it with a starch (a term Burke uses to refer to simple and complex carbohydrates, like bread, oatmeal, or potatoes) or a protein (like yogurt or eggs) could cause a “traffic jam” in your digestive system as your body takes its sweet time processing carbs and/or protein. Apparently, this causes the fruit to stack up on top of the other food in your GI tract and ferment as it waits in line to be digested too.
- Mixing starches and proteins in the same meal (see: pasta and meatballs, pizza, burgers and fries, eggs and toast—essentially anything delicious) is also a bad combo, per the manual. Carbs are broken down by an enzyme called amylase, while proteins are processed by pepsin, another enzyme. Because pepsin and amylase have different pH levels (amylase being alkaline and pepsin acidic), Burke and other Food Combining fans theorize that neutralizes your digestive juices, so your body needs extra energy to digest them together.
- Eating two types of animal protein in one meal, like eggs and bacon, is also a major no-no because this macronutrient takes up to 12 hours for your body to digest. So when you double the protein, according to Burke’s manual, it takes even longer for your body to break down your breakfast. Burke writes that this causes the food to rot in your stomach, resulting in digestive issues like bloating as well as fatigue.
- Veggies are considered a “neutral” food you can eat with proteins, starches, and fruits. Praise be.
As obscene as it sounds, of course I wanted in (see: abs, glowy skin). And I’m not the only one. Actual dietitians with major Instagram followings say their DMs are blowing up with questions from followers about whether the diet, which first became a thing in the U.S. in 1951, when Food Combining Made Easy was published, is legit. “Honestly, I’ve had to dive in and research this because they didn’t teach this when I trained to become a dietitian,” says Rachael Devaux, RD.
Okay, but are these rules scientifically proven or nah?
Turns out, your body IS a wonderland and digestion is more complicated than the Food Combiner community suggests. Let’s say you eat a burger (protein), with cheese (fat), on a toasted bun (carb) *chef’s kiss.* As you down it, your mouth releases amylase, an enzyme in your spit that breaks down carbohydrates, like starch. Once the food enters your belly, your stomach emits pepsin, the enzyme responsible for processing proteins. Then, the food travels to the small intestine, where the enzyme lipase works on the cheese before your meal moves on to the large intestine to be broken down even further.
So, no, food does not digest in a stack, says Devaux. Our bodies are designed to process different macronutrients, as in carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, in the same meal.
And that whole pH situation in your belly? Also NBD, says Rachel Paul, PhD, RD, and founder of The College Nutritionist, a site to help students and recent grads understand nutrition. “Any part of your digestive tract wants to stay at its desired pH level, no matter what food you eat,” says Paul. So if the digestive enzymes in your stomach make the environment too acidic or too alkaline, your body will just add more or less digestive juices in order to maintain the necessary pH level, she explains. Basically, your body is already on top of keeping its pH level, uh, level, so this process doesn’t require any extra energy.
As for the idea that food combined improperly will take longer to digest, depriving you of maximum nutrition and rotting or fermenting in your stomach (like that double protein rule), that’s just not true, says Wendy Leonard, RDN, founder of Rhode Island Nutrition Therapy. “Just because a meal moves quickly through your system, it does not necessarily mean that you will receive more nutrients,” says Leonard. Also, food doesn’t rot in the digestive system, she adds. Instead, it’s broken down, digested, and absorbed.
And, in fact, dietitians (you know, the people who actually have degrees in nutrition), recommend eating a variety of macronutrients at once. Combining carbs, protein, and healthy fats prevents your blood sugar from spiking and crashing (aka a food coma), keeps you fuller longer, and helps you stay energized, says Leonard.
Plus, most foods contain more than one macronutrient anyway, says Leonard. Chickpeas have lots of carbs and protein. Ditto quinoa and nuts. Go figure.
So why are people so excited about Food Combining?
The reason fans of Food Combining might experience less bloating and feel leaner is because they’re following a diet, period, says Rachel Paul, PhD, RD, Founder of The College Nutritionist, a site to help students and recent grads understand nutrition. When you follow any eating plan, especially one that makes veggies the simplest thing to eat at every meal, you make healthier choices, she explains. So you’ll likely cut out some of the processed foods in your diet and, *boom*, less bloating and maybe some weight loss.
But research published in the International Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders, the only study to investigate the merits of Food Combining thus far, concluded that people following the Food Combining plan didn’t lose significantly more weight than those eating the same number of calories and similar proportions of macronutrients in whatever combinations they wanted.
Even if users do see results, they aren’t likely to last since the time-consuming process of planning meals and snacks according to the restrictive rules of Food Combining isn’t something most people can stick with long-term, says Leonard.
Is food combining dangerous?
The plan could encourage disordered eating in those prone to obsessing over food, Leonard says. And Burke has received backlash from commenters suggesting she’s promoting restrictive eating. In July, the influencer took to Instagram to explain:
“If you have my reset [program] you will see that after 21 days I suggest you still have fun and indulge when you would like as it is a lifestyle but remind you to always have a healthy base. An eating disorder is a serious thing and not a word to be thrown around and I just wanted to address that.” Burke did not respond to requests for comment on why she chooses to promote Food Combining.
What’s the TL;DR?
That said, this style of eating alone isn’t likely to hurt you, says Devaux. But you might waste a lot of time and energy just deciding what to eat for lunch. If you’re looking to beat bloating, try downing more water, since dehydration can cause you to retain fluids, or cut back on salt, another culprit of extra fluids in your bod. If you’re still bloated, talk to your doctor about a possible intolerance to dairy, gluten, soy, or eggs, as those often can lead to bloating, suggests Leonard.
But, yeah, count me out for this one. Pasta and meatballs are one celebrity couple I refuse to unship.