What is “Food Combining” and Why Does Your Gut Care?

The holidays are rife with opportunities to upset our tummies – especially the older we get.

As the gut microbiome ages – and absorbs assault after assault from stress, poor sleep, processed foods, binge-drinking, etc. – it becomes less robust and flexible. What that means is, where a super-heavy gluten-dense cream-laden meal (plus leftovers) used to just put us to sleep…

It now causes discomfort and agitates underlying conditions that are more susceptible to inflammation than they once were. 

Now, there are a million ways to hack holiday meals and train your brain not to eat until you feel sick – even if that just means smaller portions and more helpings eaten over a longer period. 

One such method for improving digestion and preventing discomfort is based on an Ayurvedic principle. It’s called “food combining.” 

The basic principle is that different foods digest at different speeds. Those calculations can become even more nuanced and personalized by basing them on any one individual’s constitution and gastric characteristics.

Ideally, every person should eat foods that break down in the body with similar timing and share common expressions in these three formats:

  • Taste (rasa)
  • Energy temperature, hot or cool (virya)
  • Post-digestive effect (vipaka)

Why bother tracking all of this?

Because ultimately, those three expressions combined determine how the gastric fire, or agni, is impacted. 

The study of the microbiome has revealed it to function much like an uncounted “organ”, connecting with all other organ systems and affecting them in turn. Thus, we know that bloating and gas isn’t just bloating and gas, but rather a symptom of maladaptation and a harbinger of other far-reaching issues.

How the Three Measurements Interact

Simplified, we can understand the principles of food combining as: if the rasa, virya, and vipaka of the foods you’re eating together are compatible, the resultant effect on your agni will be positive.

If, however, they’re too different, you run the risk of overloading the agni. 

The same is true for overeating and eating foods with too many types of ingredients. 

Unless you’re working with a practitioner, actively healing it with clean food and supplements, and running regular tests to track your progress. 

You can pretty much count on your microbiome being overburdened and under-equipped to digest the barrage of food we send it every day. If you think about the design of the human body, and how little it has changed over the millennia we’ve been up and walking, no one predicted we were going to be able to eat a cinnamon bun in the morning, Thai food for lunch, and chicken wings with blue cheese and fries for dinner.

Not that we should be doing that, but the fact that it’s even a possibility – and that there are generations being raised now who won’t remember a time when it wasn’t a possibility – means our gut microbiomes are struggling to keep up.

A great example of an ill-fated match would be bananas and milk. While they’re similar in taste and both have cooling energy, their post-digestive effects are too different – bananas (because they’re fruit and fruit ferments) are sour and milk is sweet.

According to Ayurveda, combining them can lead to changes in the gut flora, sinus congestion, and the production of toxins.

There are ways around this toxicity, of course. 

For example, the use of cooling spices in hot food – cilantro, for example – can avoid an agitated agni. Or eating “bad’ combinations sparingly – one bad combination won’t give you leaky gut. Changing the ratio of foods that don’t combine well can also be effective – for example, ghee and honey are not recommended to eat together, unless you use a 2:1 ratio and not a 1:1.

What’s Your Microbiome Got to Say?

The principles in food combining make sense – but they’re also pretty subjective.

The level of discomfort experienced tends to depend on the existing strength of the agni (or for the purposes of this discussion, microbiome), the combinations it has grown accustomed to, and other lifestyle factors that may impact the ongoing health of the microbiome (frequency of alcohol drinking, smoking, exercise, level of nutrition, etc.)

Let’s say your mom was a huge fan of cheese and apple slices as a snack combination and you’ve been eating that your entire life. 

Your system is probably pretty good at digesting dairy and fruit at the same time, while someone who has never combined the two casually might feel bloated or uncomfortable afterwards.

Furthermore, most foods are a combination of several macronutrients – like beans being a source of protein and carbohydrates – so it may prove to be prohibitively difficult to measure the combinations of rasa, virya, and vipaka in your diet.

Perhaps most importantly, if your stomach acid levels are appropriate and you’re being careful about eating processed and/or synthetic food items, the stomach is designed to handle the breakdown of different matter through a sophisticated network of digestive enzymes.

There is an important takeaway from the “food combining” world, and that is…

Eat plant-based foods as much as possible. They’re generally compatible with each other. If you’re eating plant-based, make sure that you’re getting plenty of vitamin C to help with nutrient absorption. 

But as for following the system to the letter to avoid poor gut health… 

Food combining won’t necessarily cause gut problems on its own. It’s always a better idea to be mindful of how many different kinds of ingredients you’re eating at once, though!

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