What Is the Food Combining Diet?

In This Article

Healthy lunch with different foods
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Some people change what they eat to lose weight. Others modify the amount they consume to slim down. But followers of the food combining diet change how they eat to get results on the scale. This diet's rules allow certain food combinations and forbid others.

What Experts Say

"The food combining diet forbids eating carbohydrates with protein and requires fruit be eaten alone. Many health experts suggest eating protein with carbohydrates to stabilize blood sugar and provide satiation. This diet promotes distrust of our bodies and foods, and overly complicates eating."
Willow Jarosh, MS, RD

Background

This diet is not a new weight loss fad. The ancient Ayurvedic diet includes some principles of food combining, and the macrobiotic diet, developed during the 1920s, also aims to provide balance in the body through diet. (Neither of these is designed specifically for weight loss.)

Physician William Howard Hay described his version of the combination diet in the 1920s. The Hay Diet separated food into three groups: acid, alkaline, and neutral. Acid foods (meat, seafood, and other protein-rich foods) and alkaline foods (carbohydrates and starchy foods) were never to be mixed. Dr. Hay believed that his combination diet would allow the stomach to maintain the correct acid/alkaline balance, therefore improving health and creating weight loss.

How It Works

If you eat a standard North American diet, you typically pair meat and starch at meal time. For example, you might have a turkey sandwich for lunch, or eggs, bacon, and toast for breakfast. On a food combining diet, you never eat protein and carbohydrates together.

Followers of the food combining diet believe that when you eat the wrong foods together, digestion is impaired. As a result, undigested food is left in your stomach and it rots or ferments. This condition, they believe, can lead to illness and/or weight gain. Instead, they design food combinations for weight loss and better health. There are different variations of food combination diets. In general, however, the rules stay quite similar.

What to Eat

Compliant Foods

  • Meat, fish, poultry, and eggs

  • Grains and starchy vegetables, such as squash

  • Non-starchy vegetables

  • Sour or low-sugar fruit

  • Alcohol

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Sweet fruit

  • Refined sugar and products that include it

  • Processed foods

Protein

Never eat protein (including eggs, meat, cheese, and seafood) with starchy foods like bread, rice, squash, or grains.

Grains and Starchy Vegetables

Consume starchy vegetables and other carb-heavy foods, like grains and bread, with cooked non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens only (not proteins).

Fruit

Avoid sweet fruit as much as possible. Choose sour or low-sugar fruit instead. Eat nuts, seeds, and dried fruit only with raw vegetables.

Alcohol

Some alcohol can be consumed on a food combination plan. Dry red and white wines are considered in the protein category (so consume them only with other proteins). Beer and ale are considered starchy, so drink them only with other starches or cooked vegetables.

Sugar

Avoid refined sugar and products that include refined sugar. In general, avoid processed foods, as these contain sugars and fats.

Neutral Foods

Certain foods, including dark chocolate, almond milk, egg yolks, cream, coconut water, lemons, butter, and oil, are considered "neutral" and can be eaten in combination with any foods.

Recommended Timing

In addition to keeping proteins and starches separated, food combining diet rules also say that if you do consume sweet fruit, you should do so on an empty stomach (a few hours after or 20 minutes before a meal). Drink plenty of water—but not at mealtime.

Modifications

This diet's rules are pretty strict and its believers are unlikely to support modifications to its basic principles. It could, however, be adjusted to accommodate some dietary needs, such as celiac disease or gluten intolerance. It would be hard to follow as a vegetarian, because plant-based proteins, such as legumes and quinoa, also contain carbs.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Emphasizes whole foods

  • May promote weight loss

Cons

  • No scientific evidence

  • Many foods are "mixed"

  • Risky for some people

  • Not sustainable

Pros

Whole Foods

Following this diet will likely lead to more consumption of whole foods. First, it bans any foods with added sugars, which eliminates a lot of processed foods (such as sauces, granola bars, and cereals). Second, it's easier to keep different types of food separate from each other if they are eaten closer to their natural state. Processed foods are usually a combination of protein, carbohydrates, and different kinds of fat.

Weight Loss

These strict rules require you to be thoughtful about your food choices. When you eliminate empty calories and you carefully plan each meal or snack, it is very likely that you will reduce your caloric intake and lose weight. Plus, having to follow these rules and separate foods could lead to eating less of them. Eating a piece of chicken without any sauces or side dishes is boring, so you probably won't eat as much of that chicken.

If you've tried following a food combining diet and it works for you, great. But be aware that it's probably not because of the food combining rules.

Cons

No Scientific Evidence

Only one randomized clinical trial has been conducted and researchers were not able to find that combining foods had any impact on weight loss or reduced body fat.

Proponents of this diet say it's necessary for two main reasons. First, they believe that proteins and carbs are digested at different rates, so it's harder for the body to handle them when they are consumed together.

Second, followers of this diet believe that different foods require different pH levels in the digestive tract, so if two foods requiring different levels are combined, they can't be digested together.

Neither of these beliefs is based in fact. The body's whole digestive system (i.e., saliva in the mouth, acids in the stomach, enzymes in the small intestine, bacteria in the large intestine) works together to digest food and make it usable for the rest of the body. It is very capable of doing its job on any kind of food in any combination. And consuming foods that are more alkaline or acidic does not significantly affect the pH level in the body.

Most Foods Are Mixed Foods

Most foods can't be categorized as simply acid or alkaline. For example, spinach is an alkaline, but it also provides the body with protein (most proteins are considered acidic). Grains like quinoa provide both starchy carbohydrate and protein. It is nearly impossible to neatly categorize foods according to the rules of this eating program.

Can Be Risky

If you are following this diet and you have certain health conditions, you should use caution. For example, for people with diabetes, it is usually not a good idea to consume carbs alone. They need some protein or fat along with carbs to keep blood sugar levels from spiking.

Not Sustainable

Diets like these are very hard to follow. For that reason, it is not likely that you will be able to stick to the food combining diet for the long-term. Once you return to your old eating habits, you're likely to gain back any weight that you lost and possibly even more. So while you can use food combining to lose weight, the results are not likely to last.

How It Compares

There are several other eating plans that consider acid and alkaline levels in food as part of their philosophy. But nutrition experts say this isn't necessary.

USDA Recommendations

Food Groups

The USDA MyPlate guidelines suggest filling your plate with a balanced combination of protein, grains, fruit, vegetables, and dairy. While these guidelines don't specify including every item at every meal, they do suggest that this is a good goal. So that runs counter to the food combining diet's principles.

Calories

There are no calorie targets in the food combining diet. It's all about what you eat and when, not how much. This may work for weight loss in some people, but others will need to limit calorie intake in order to lose weight. The USDA recommends cutting your intake by approximately 500 calories per day to promote weight loss. This calculator can help you determine a goal that's appropriate for you, because the target will vary based on factors such as your age, sex, and activity level.

Similar Diets

Other diets share some of the same features as the food combining diet.

Food Combining Diet

  • Theory: Eating certain foods separately from others helps the body digest them better, leading to weight loss and health benefits.
  • Scientific evidence: The diet's principles are counter to basic biochemistry.
  • Practicality: There's no need for calorie or carb counting, or portion control, which simplifies the diet. But otherwise, its rules are complex and could be hard to follow.
  • Sustainability: That impracticality, along with having to give up a good deal of convenience (in terms of timing of meals and using prepared foods), makes this diet hard to comply with.

Alkaline Diet

  • Theory: Proponents of the alkaline diet believe that eating too many "acid-producing" foods changes the normal pH level in the blood. That leads to an imbalance that could cause illness, a lack of energy, and weight gain. On this diet, acid-producing foods (meat, fish, legumes, even whole grains) are not eaten at certain times or in particular combinations. They are simply avoided.
  • Scientific evidence: A plant-based diet like this one could have health benefits. But they are not necessarily due to pH levels in the body.
  • Practicality: This diet eliminates many foods and types of food. Even though counting calories or carbs isn't necessary, it's still hard to eat this way.
  • Sustainability: Since it's low in protein, calories, and other nutrients, adhering to this diet would be difficult.

Macrobiotic Diet

  • Theory: On the macrobiotic diet, foods (and other practices) are used to help balance the body's yin and yang. But in this case, acidic and alkaline foods are eaten together to create that balance.
  • Scientific evidence: A few studies have shown that a macrobiotic diet might help with some risk factors for diabetes, and promote weight loss. This is likely due to the types of foods eaten (whole grains and lots of vegetables) vs. the acid/alkaline balance.
  • Practicality: This diet has complicated rules and eliminates a lot of foods. It also needs to be customized for each user and requires a lot of planning and preparation time.
  • Sustainability: Its proponents would say that this is a lifelong diet, but its restrictions could make it a challenge.

Suzanne Somers Diet

  • Theory: On her diet, celebrity Suzanne Somers also advocates not eating carbs and protein or fat at the same meals, and eliminating sugar. She says that this will help burn fat faster, balance hormones, and boost metabolism.
  • Scientific evidence: As with the food combining diet, there is no research to show that these food combinations are necessary or useful.
  • Practicality: Although there's no need to count calories, carbs, or portion sizes, it's tricky to learn which foods fall into which categories and therefore should not be combined.
  • Sustainability: Somers suggests that this is a long-term lifestyle, but following the diet's rules and giving up certain foods forever is tough.

A Word From Verywell

Food combining (and other eating plans with unique guidelines) appeal to many of us because they are a departure from traditional diet rules. Sometimes these plans provide interesting routines or a novel approach to weight loss that sounds easier than the plans that have often already failed us. But the bottom line is that they usually don't work for successful long-term health or weight loss and they distract us from the healthy eating and exercise programs that are likely to yield real results on the scale.

If you would like to lose weight, focus on making small, reasonable changes to your food plan and increasing your daily activity level. Work with a health coach, a registered dietitian, or your healthcare provider to set goals and monitor your progress. You're much more likely to see results that last if you follow plans that are supported by science.

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