What Is the Dissociated Diet?

disassociated diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

The dissociated diet essentially goes against everything we’ve been taught about nutrition for the last several decades. It’s based on the premise of food combining, which involves only eating certain food groups (for example, all starches or all vegetables) at a meal.

Essentially, on the dissociated diet, you’re discouraged from eating well-rounded meals that include a variety of food groups. This guide covers the reasoning behind the dissociated diet, and whether or not it is a viable or healthy option to try.

What Experts Say

"The dissociated diet suggests alkaline and acidic foods can't be digested together, but experts agree there is no scientific rationale for this. Eating only one food group at a time and limiting protein/fat increases the risk of nutrient deficiencies and is unsustainable."

Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

Background

Developed by Dr. William Howard Hay in the early 1900s, the dissociated diet is also called the Hay Diet or the Dr. Hay Diet. 

It’s a method of food combining, which involves creating your meals out of foods with similar properties. In the case of the dissociated diet, that means combining foods based on their digestive properties. That is, whether a food is acidic, alkaline, or neutral. 

Dr. Hay believed that eating multiple food types in one sitting causes the digestive system to overwork and slow down, effectively slowing down your metabolism and taxing your organs. His reasoning behind this assertion centered around the fact that your body must produce and secrete different digestive enzymes for alkaline and acidic foods.

His research led him to determine that the body digests carbohydrate-heavy foods with an alkaline process, while protein-heavy foods required an acidic process. 

Dr. Hay also believed that eating multiple foods at once causes a build-up of toxins, particularly too much acid in body fluids, or acidosis. Advocates of the diet claim that eating this way gives you more energy, satisfies you with smaller portions, helps you lose weight, and keeps your digestive system in peak operating mode. 

However, there’s not much science behind the concept, and of what little research there is, food combining doesn’t seem any more effective than an overall healthy diet.

How It Works

The primary rule governing the dissociated diet is to only eat one food group at a time. You can follow that rule in a variety of ways:

  • Only eat one food group per meal
  • Only eat one food group per day
  • Only eat one food group per time of day (split your day into chunks, wherein you stick to certain food groups)

The dissociated diet consists of three food groups: proteins, starches, and neutral foods. You can combine proteins with neutral foods and starches with neutral foods, but you should avoid combining proteins and starches.

What To Eat

Compliant Foods
  • Acid fruits

  • Sub-acid fruits

  • Sweet fruits

  • Melons

  • Non-starchy vegetables

  • Starchy vegetables

  • Carbohydrates and starches

  • Animal-based protein

  • Plant-based protein

  • Fats

  • Red wine, white wine, and cider

  • Beer and ale

  • Whiskey and gin

Non-compliant Foods
  • Refined carbohydrates

  • Foods with a lot of added sugar

  • Deli meats

  • Other overly processed foods

Compliant Foods

Acid fruits: Grapefruit, oranges, lemons, limes, pineapples, pomegranates, tomatoes. Combine with sub-acid fruits, nuts, and seeds. Don’t combine acid fruits with sweet fruits or other food groups, except tomatoes.

Sub-acid fruits: Apples, apricots, berries, grapes, kiwi, mangoes, nectarines, papaya, peaches, pears, plums, strawberries. Combine with acid fruits or sweet fruits, but not both at the same time. You can also combine sub-acid fruits with nuts and seeds. Don’t combine with other food groups.

Sweet fruits: Bananas, coconut, dates, dried fruits, prunes, raisins. Combine with sub-acid fruits, nuts, and seeds. Don’t combine with acid fruits or other food groups.

Melons: Cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon. Eat these alone, not in combination with any other food groups.

Non-starchy vegetables: Asparagus, artichokes, green beans, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumber, eggplant, garlic, lettuce, celery, carrots, onions, parsley, peppers, turnips, mushrooms, zucchini. Combine with Protein, fats, carbohydrates, and starches.

Starchy vegetables: Pumpkin, winter squash, yams, sweet potatoes, peas. Combine with non-starchy vegetables and fats. Do not combine with protein or fruits.

Carbohydrates and starches: Bread, pasta, grains/cereals, potatoes. Combine with non-starchy vegetables and fats. Do not combine with protein or fruits.

Animal-based protein: Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy. Combine with plant-based protein, non-starchy vegetables. Do not combine more than one source of protein at a meal. Do not combine with starches or fruit.

Plant-based protein: Beans, nuts and seeds, peanuts, soy beans, soy products, tofu. Combine with non-starchy vegetables. Do not combine with starches or fruit.

Fats: Avocado, olives, coconut, butter, cream, and olive, avocado, flax, sesame, and canola oils. Combine with non-starchy vegetables, carbohydrates and starches, and protein. Do not combine with fruit.

Red wine, white wine, and cider: Drink these beverages with a protein-based (acidic) meal.

Whiskey and gin: These are considered neutral beverages, so you can consume them with any meal.

Beer and ale: Drink with a meal of carbohydrate based (alkaline) meal.

Non-Compliant Foods 

Nothing is technically off-limits, but the diet encourages you to avoid overly processed foods and high-sugar foods.

Recommended Timing

You’re encouraged to wait at least four hours before eating an “incompatible” meal. For instance, if you eat a fruit salad with acid and sub-acid fruits, you should wait at least four hours before eating a meal of chicken and steamed non-starchy vegetables. Other than that, timing is entirely up to you.

But because of that recommended wait period, many people who follow the dissociated diet restrict their entire day’s food intake to one food group. For example, you might choose to eat only fruit one day; protein and non-starchy vegetables the next day; and starchy vegetables and carbohydrates the following day. 

Resources and Tips

Perhaps the best thing you can do to make the dissociated diet easier is to meal plan. To be successful on this diet, you’ll need to know what to eat and when to eat it. Meal planning and preparing food for an entire week can help you adhere to the diet’s rules with less effort or mental strain. 

Modifications

If you’re interested in the dissociated diet but think it sounds a bit too confusing and restrictive, you can try a softer introduction to food combining. For example, the dissociated diet rules that you can’t combine carbohydrates and starches with fruit. But a bowl of oatmeal with sliced bananas and berries is a hearty, healthy meal and there’s nothing wrong with combining those foods into a yummy breakfast. 

Essentially, you can place foods into less restrictive categories, perhaps something like “starches, fruits, and grains” and “proteins, dairy, and vegetables.” Having just two groups to think about can make the dissociated diet less restrictive and easier to adhere to.

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Focuses on nutrient-dense food

  • May help you eat less

Cons
  • Confusing

  • May be overly restrictive

Pros

Focuses on nutrient-dense food: Perhaps the best thing about the dissociated diet is that it teaches people to choose whole, nutrient-dense foods. There isn’t much room for processed food within the food groups that Dr. Hay developed, because processed foods often contain multiple properties and macronutrient profiles that would fit into more than one food group.

For instance, you may think of a box of crackers as a starch, but crackers often contain high fat content because they’re made with oils. And you may think a protein bar fits into the protein category, but many protein bars contain carbohydrates and added sugars.

May help you eat less: A concept called “sensory-specific satiety” states that food becomes less appetizing when an entire meal consists of similar flavor profiles and textures. So separating your food into the dissociated diet groups may make you feel satisfied with smaller portions, thus helping you eat less and aiding in weight loss.

Additionally, some of the food groups, including all of the fruit and vegetable groups, have a pretty low calorie density. This means you can eat larger quantities of food for fewer calories. For example, 100 calories worth of melon looks like a lot more food than 100 calories worth of cashews.

Cons

Confusing: It might take a while to get the hang of the dissociated diet — it’s quite a hassle to learn and memorize which foods can and cannot be eaten with other foods. This confusion might cause some overwhelmed dieters to drop the diet completely. 

May be overly restrictive: According to the limited research on food combining, there’s really no reason to eat your meals in the fashion dictated by the dissociated diet. This type of eating plan does not allow you to listen to your internal hunger cues or practice mindful or intuitive eating.

For some people, the three food groups and limited combinations might feel overly restrictive. Food restriction can lead to feelings of guilt and shame around food, and eventually can lead to disordered eating. If you’re trying the dissociated diet and feel restricted, it might be best to try a different healthy eating plan.

How It Compares

If you’re searching for a new diet to try, you probably want to know how all of your diets of consideration compare to one another. In this section, learn how the dissociated diet compares to the US federal dietary recommendations, as well as three other popular diets: the macrobiotic diet, the alkaline diet, and the Suzanne Somers Diet.

USDA Recommendations

The federal dietary recommendations include five food groups: fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy, and protein. The key recommendations in the federal guidelines include:

  •  A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils
  • Limited saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars and sodium

The dissociated diet recommendations are pretty cohesive with the federal guidelines in that the dissociated diet encourages whole foods. However, the USDA recommendations encourage you to eat balanced meals with foods from multiple groups, whereas the dissociated diet encourages you to avoid meals with multiple food groups.

In order to reach your weight loss (or weight gain) and fitness goals, you must know how many calories you need to eat each day. Our Weight Loss Calorie Goal Calculator can help you with that.

Most people need around 2,000 calories per day, but keep in mind that everyone is different and there’s no “correct” amount of calories you should be consuming. Women and children may need fewer calories while men and people with very active lifestyles may need more calories. Many factors, including age, height, weight and activity level all play a role in your caloric needs.

Similar Diets

Several diets share features of the dissociated diet. 

Alkaline diet: The alkaline diet is another method of food combining that focuses on restoring your body’s pH level. The concept? People eat too many acidic foods, which alters their body’s pH and causes unfavorable health outcomes. Eating more alkaline foods, such as fruits and vegetables, is supposedly the road to better health according to alkaline diet advocates. Fruits and veggies are certainly healthy, but you shouldn’t risk missing out on important nutrients from grains and proteins. Fats are also an important nutrient and are needed to absorb fat-soluble vitamins.

Suzanne Somers Diet: Actress Suzanne Somers published her diet in her book Suzanne Somers' Eat Great, Lose Weight, which details this low-carb, low-sugar food combining plan. Somer’s food group rules may be even more confusing than the dissociated diet’s rules, and the diet is very restrictive when it comes to refined carbohydrates and sugar. Like the other food combining diets, there’s little to no evidence to support the efficacy of this eating plan.

Macrobiotic diet: This diet actually follows the opposite protocol of the dissociated diet: On the macrobiotic diet, you eat acidic and alkaline foods together to balance your body’s yin and yang. The whole concept of macrobiotics focuses on balancing your yin and yang, and some research shows that a macrobiotic diet can have good health outcomes (although that’s likely due to the types of food eaten, not the manner in which they are eaten).

A Word From Verywell

Choosing a diet is a personal decision that involves many considerations, including your dietary needs and preferences, your current relationship with food, your health goals, and more. Before attempting any diet, make sure to consider those factors and ask yourself questions like, “Do I have enough time in my schedule to commit to this diet?”

The dissociated diet, while not backed up by science, may appeal to you as a new, non-traditional way of eating that doesn’t necessarily feel like a diet. However, the risk of nutrient deficiency is present, as is the risk of a restrictive mindset about your meals. If you’re curious about the dissociated diet, talk to your doctor about whether it would work for you.

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