How To Combine Foods For Best Health

A version of this article was first published on Eat Drink Better. It includes some key information on food combining, as well as three good food-combining plans to choose from.

combing food: strawberry and yogurt

Strawberries & yogurt via shutterstock.

Awhile back, I was planning to write a couple articles about two of my three favorite legumes this week — garbanzo beans and lentils (my other top legume is peas). I decided to delve into my favorite food book on the planet, Healing with Whole Foods, in order to learn more about them.

However, once I got into the book and got to checking out the sections that discussed these legumes, I ran across an interesting section on food combining and got pulled into reading it (as well as some other sections). What came out was this lengthy piece all about how best to combine (or not combine) various foods.

Too Much Is Generally Not Good

As an intro to food combining, the book’s first paragraph in this section nails it:

“Too much elaborate food encourages nearly everyone — even people who normally live moderately — to overindulge. The consequence is digestive fermentation, contaminated blood, and a confused mind. Common digestive disturbances from poor food combining include decreased nutrient assimilation, intestinal gas, and abdominal pain and swelling. If such eating practices continue over time, degenerative conditions can ensue.”

So, if you want to assimilate those nutrients and not run into certain chronic degenerative problems, food combining is important. (In particular, not combining the wrong foods too much is important).

However, there are some notable exceptions. (Make sure you check out the full post!)

The Key Element in Food Combining

The main issue here is digestive enzymes. Different foods require different digestive enzymes.

“When many different ingredients are eaten at the same meal, the body becomes confused and is not able to manufacture all of the necessary enzymes simultaneously,” Paul Pitchford, the author of Healing with Whole Foods, writes.

“At this point digestion still takes place, but partially through bacterial action, which always causes fermentation and the associate problems mentioned earlier.”

He goes on to discuss this in more detail, but the general point is just that the second option has clear downsides.

And, for anyone who is a fan of controlled, healthful fermentation of food (to make sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and such), note that this is a different thing — no worries.

Notice Who Doesn’t Want Complex Meals

Paul makes a few rather interesting points before delving into recommendations. These really stuck out at me.

For one, for tens of thousands of years (with one notable exception, Plan C below), our ancestors didn’t combine a ton of foods all in one meal or dish. Today, we obviously benefit from, but also run into some problems from, our overabundance of food options.

But even today, he points out that children, more in tune with their instincts, prefer to eat more simply. Additionally, think of the times when you are sick — when we are sick, our instincts often kick in more than our desires and we tend to look to simpler meals.

Again, there are exceptions, so make sure you make it to the end!

food combing minestrone soup

Minestrone soup via shutterstock.

So, a general rule you’ve probably learned by now is that, in general, simpler is better. But let’s get into some specifics….

I’m not going to cover everything Paul covers, of course. He’s written several pages on each of these “plans.” If you want to read more about the “why” of each, or to see more examples, check out the book. We bought ours at Whole Foods — you can probably even browse it there or at your local health food store if you wish.

Food Combining Plan A

So, basically, there are 4 rules to Plan A:

  1. “Place highest-protein foods at the beginning of the meal.” They are the most needy for stomach acids used in proper digestion.
  2. “Salty foods should be eaten before foods of other flavors. For example: “A small amount of soup can be eaten first if it contains salty high-protein and enzyme-rich products like miso or soy sauce, which activate and encourage digestion.” Otherwise, however, soups dilute important, initial digestive juices and should be saved for the end. Why eat salty foods first? Well, as I said, it gets a little technical and I’m skipping that part. However, one important exception Paul notes is that a small quantity of a salty food at the end of a meal (e.g. a pickle or salt plum) can help the stomach out (combating belching, vomiting, or heartburn). It helps due to the same properties that make salty foods (of larger quantities) more suitable for the beginning of the meal. Take-home point: salty foods at the beginning, except in the case of very small servings such as a pickle.
  3. “Proteins, fats, and starches combine best with green and non-starchy vegetables.” Overall, it would be best to not combine proteins, fats, and starches in a single meal. They each combine best with just green and non-starchy vegetables. But as a compromise for those used to such combinations (that would include me), he recommends eating the proteins first with “generous amounts of green vegetables.” Note on proteins: “In any meal, protein foods are difficult to digest completely. Excess protein, particularly that of animal origin, is the major dietary source of indigestion and sickness in the West and other areas of the world where it is consumed. The problem with protein in the form of animal products is that it nearly always contains substantial saturated fat. These and most other fats and oils greatly slow the digestion of protein. The situation is made even worse when animal products already rich in fat are fried in cooking oils.” Note on starches: different starches (e.g. rice, bread, potatoes, carrots, beets, winter squash) each require different digestive enzymes, which is why they don’t combine with each other very well. Best is to stick to one starch per meal, or at most a grain and a starch in vegetable form.
  4. “Fruit and sweetened foods should be eaten alone, or in small amounts at the end of a meal.” Bottom line: “When eaten in a meal, they digest first and tend to monopolize all the digestive functions; the other foods wait, and ferment.”

Food Combining Plan B

Plan B follows essentially the same principles as Plan A but is more restrictive. Basically, it’s for those with those with digestive problems, those who are sick, or those who want to be tip top or boost their overall vitality. One idea if you are intimidated by this one is to simply follow these suggestions one day a week.

Two basic rules with this one:

  1. “Eat protein and starchy foods in separate meals; each combines best with green and non-starchy vegetables;”
  2. Eat fruits alone.

To be quite honest, this sounds easier for me, barring some exceptions (like eating out).


However, there are actually several exceptions to these rules.

“The protein foods highest in fats — the high-fat proteins — include cheese, milk, yogurt, kefir, nuts, and oil-bearing seeds. These also combine best with green and non-starchy vegetables although they have an additional feature: they combine fairly well with (acidic) fruits. Thus almonds and sour apples; whole sesame butter and lemon sauce; yogurt and strawberries; and cottage cheese and grapefruit are all acceptable combinations of high-fat proteins with acidic fruits.”

Some more notes:

  1. Drink milk alone (or, leave milk alone).
  2. Eat melons alone.
  3. Lemons, limes, and tomatoes combine well with greens and low-starch vegetables (and high-fat proteins), due to their acidic nature.
  4. Celery and lettuce go well with fruit, even enhancing its digestion.

Plan C: One-Pot Meal

There is, apparently, an exception to many of these rules. Cooking a bunch of ingredients together with a good amount of water (i.e. soups, stews, and congees) can be fine.

“This plan differs from foods cooked with little or no water in that a slowly cooked watery medium allows the chemicals of all ingredients to interact more completely. In a sense, the foods re being predigested in the pot.”

Paul quotes a colorful line from Robert Svodoba’s Prakruit, Your Ayurvedic Constitution to make the point another way: “In a one-pot meal, ‘… the various foods have settled their differences in the pot, fought out whatever needed to be fought out, and come to some conclusion, which you then consume.’ ”

What to Remember

So, just to wrap up….

Here are some common protein-rich foods that should, ideally, be eaten alone or just with green and non-starchy vegetables (or, if combined with more than that, should be eaten first):

  • beans
  • lentils
  • peas & their sprouts
  • tofu
  • tempeh
  • miso
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • cheese
  • yogurt

Green & non-starchy vegetables such as the ones below can be eaten with proteins, starches, or fats and oils (something I didn’t discuss but which include olives, avocados, butter, cream, sour cream, olive oil, flax oil, sesame oil, etc.):

  • leafy greens
  • cabbage
  • cauliflower
  • broccoli
  • alfalfa sprouts
  • celery
  • asparagus
  • radishes
  • zucchini
  • onion
  • garlic
  • mushrooms
  • green beans
  • sweet peas
  • fresh corn
  • seaweed
  • micro-algae

Starches, like proteins, should just be eaten with the green & non-starchy vegetables mentioned above. These include:

  • grains & their sprouts
  • bread
  • pasta
  • potatoes & sweet potatoes
  • beets
  • parsnips
  • carrots
  • pumpkins
  • winter squash

And fruits, ideally, should be eaten alone. However, acidic fruits can be mixed with fats & oils. Acidic fruits include:

Any more tips or thoughts on all this?

Try this out and see how it changes your digestion and how you feel! 😀