Food Combining For Better Digestion

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You’ve heard it before – “you are what you eat.” But there is more truth to that adage than you know. How we feel on a daily basis is a direct result of what we put into our bodies and how or when we consume it.

Improper food combinations in the short term can cause gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and stomach aches. In the long term, you may suffer from signs and symptoms of IBS and indigestion or dyspepsia.

Here’s the problem, even if you think you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet: getting five servings of fruits and vegetables, 25-30 grams of fiber, and drinking plenty of water, you still feel poorly. So why is this?

The answer may be in how you are eating and the food combinations that you are eating. The principles of food combining traces back to Ayurvedic medicine in ancient India.

Each food that gets put in the human body affects our digestive system in its own way. They each take a certain amount of time and certain types of enzymes to be properly digested. Combining certain foods can lead to inefficient digestion and a chain reaction of digestive discomfort.

This article will take a look at the rules of food combining for optimal health and the health benefits you get by following the food combining rules.

Digestion and Eating Behaviors

In order to adjust the combinations of foods that we eat, we first need to look at our eating behaviors. If we can correct our behaviors, using proper food combinations will become easier.

Eat Consciously. The first rule of digestion that almost everyone violates is over-consumption.

It may sound shocking, but you can survive on one-third of your daily food intake. Our eyes are often bigger than our stomachs and portion sizes in the U.S. are huge. The number one cause of indigestion and weight gain is over-consumption.

One problem is that our brains are about ten minutes behind our stomachs. This means that once our stomachs are full, our brains don’t give us that “full feeling” until ten minutes later.

To avoid over-consumption, you should stop eating before you get the feeling of fullness (go for half full or just feeling satisfied).

In order to be aware of when our stomachs are half full, we have to slow down and eat more consciously. This means being aware of the types of food we are eating, our portion sizes, and the speed at which we are eating.

Use your senses of smell, sight and taste to determine what foods are right to eat. And learn proper food combinations. This forces you to slow down and analyze what you are about to ingest.

Look at how much you have on your plate.  With each meal, decrease the size of your portions. A general and easy rule of thumb is a portion size should be no bigger than the size of your fist.

Lastly, it’s not a race. Slow down and enjoy your meal. Meals on the go are not healthy, so make sure you find time during the day to dedicate to eating and meal plans.

It may take some time to adjust to, but implementing these concepts will help relieve your digestive discomfort.

Timely Eating Improves Digestion

Everyone has an internal clock and this sets your body’s rhythm. It is important that you set a regular eating schedule so that your body can maintain this rhythm. Your body becomes accustomed to this schedule and starts producing digestive enzymes in preparation for food.

Your eating schedule should include both the times of day that you eat and the types of food groups that you eat. Eating odd foods or at odd times of day can disrupt your body’s rhythm. The result is digestive discomfort.

When you consistently eat at certain times of the day your body becomes accustomed to digesting at those times and starts to increase digestive enzyme production in anticipation of the meal. Your body is more ready to receive food and this helps complete the digestion process.

In addition to setting times for meals, you should stick to the same types of food on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean eating the same exact food every day, just sticking to similar food groups as often as possible.

You’ll want to set up a system where you have primary foods, secondary foods and exotic foods. Primary are those eaten every week, secondary are condiments to the primary, and exotic are those that you eat on rare occasions.

When you eat this way, your body will not only know when to expect food, but it will also know what type of food to expect. This leads to a more complete digestion of your food and in turn you’ll feel more energized and vibrant.

Food Sequencing: Organize Your Meals

A well ordered meal allows your digestive system to handle digestion more smoothly, with less time required for digestion and more absorption of nutrients. A well ordered meal is one in which you introduce different foods systematically for optimal digestion. 

You should start by introducing the easiest or quickest to digest foods first and work your way up to the more complex. By doing this, you keep foods that digest more easily flowing through your digestive system and prevent a “food traffic jam.”

Denser and more solid foods are harder to digest and take longer to pass completely through the digestive system. Therefore, you should consume foods in each meal in an orderly fashion.

Here is the list of fastest to slowest foods to digest:

  • Juices and Water: 20-30 minutes
  • Soups, Fruits, or Smoothies: 30-45 minutes
  • Vegetables: 30-45 minutes
  • Grains, Starches: 2-3 hours
  • Beans, Poultry, Meat, or Fish: 3 or more hours

Think of your digestive system as a highway; if the slower vehicles are allowed to go first, the result will be a traffic jam. If the slower vehicles follow the faster vehicles, the highway will run smoothly and efficiently.

Below is a sample of how a day of meals would look by following the proper sequence of foods and avoiding a “food traffic jam.”


  • Water/Juice
  • Fruit
  • Cereal/Bagel/Muffin/Meat


  • Beverage
  • Salad, Fruit, or Vegetable
  • Sandwich, Grain, Bean, Fish, Meat, Poultry


  • Beverage
  • Salad
  • Vegetable
  • Main Course (Bean, Grain, Poultry, Fish, Meat)

It is important to note that when choosing a beverage, milk or milk products are hard to digest and should be taken alone. The easiest type of beverage to digest is water or one high in water content, like tea.  

There are Seven Food Groups

Different kinds of foods require different digestive enzymes and different amounts of energy for digestion. There are seven different food groups and each group has its own unique digestion system. It is important to identify the makeup of these food groups, so we can better understand how to combine them.

1. Proteins

While protein is essential for human life, too much of anything isn’t good for us. We need to eat protein in moderation. Because of their complex nature, proteins can take up to 3 hours or more to fully digest. 

Proteins are acidic foods and are comprised of 5 categories, with each group digesting differently:

  • Meat protein
  • Egg and nut protein
  • Proteins from grains
  • Proteins from beans
  • Dairy protein

Each of these protein categories requires different digestive enzymes to properly and fully digest. Whenever you eat something, hydrochloric acid is released into the stomach to create a very acidic environment to digest the food. 

You can only combine  proteins from beans and grains, but none of the other types of protein should be combined with each other.

A meal containing a lot of protein combinations results in your digestive juices becoming depleted and your food is not fully digested. This may result in feelings of fullness, fatigue, heartburn, gas, bloating, and nausea.

Proteins are best digested when combined only with non-starchy vegetables (further below) to avoid digestive issues.

2. Starches

Starches are alkaline foods and the most common food group diets, belonging to the carbohydrates family. They are the best source of fuel for our muscles, but they are the most complicated to digest and can take two or more hours for full digestion.

In order for carbohydrates to be digested properly, they must first be broken down into byproducts (maltose, glucose, and fructose) in your mouth and then further processed in your stomach and small intestine. These byproducts then enter the bloodstream where the liver will either store the glucose for later or use it immediately as fuel.

Starches should not be combined with acidic foods, like proteins or acid fruits. When combined, the production of digestive enzymes for starches will stop. Therefore, starches will only be partially digested when they leave your stomach, which can lead to digestive discomfort.

Furthermore, you won’t be able to reap the benefits of “the fuel” for your body from starches when they’re combined with protein or acidic fruit.

Carbohydrate-rich foods are best combined with non-starchy vegetables (further below).

3. Sugars

Sugars also count as carbohydrates and are some of the simplest foods to digest. Water will even dissolve them. For proper digestion, vitamins and enzymes are needed to digest them, so they spend little time in the stomach.

Combining sugars and starches together isn’t a great idea. Sugar inhibits the production of enzymes in our saliva that start the digestion of starches. Therefore, if you eat something containing both starches and sugars at once, then they won’t be digested for quite some time (Example: sugar on your morning cereal). 

Starch delays the digestion of carbohydrates by slowing down their absorption into the bloodstream. If left alone in the stomach for long periods of time, sugar breaks down into alcohol and carbonic acid (carbon dioxide). You may end up experiencing bloating and gas.

Combining sugars and proteins also isn’t a great idea. Proteins will take 3+ hours to digest, so sugars are then forced to wait until after the proteins are digested before they become fully digested. This leads to the same fermentation problem, and bloating and gas, when combined with starches.

Artificial sweeteners are also not easy to digest because they are made up of preservatives. The sweeteners will not dissolve easily in the stomach. They can slow down your entire digestive system, for example is sucralose.

4. Fats

Fats are one of the most difficult nutrients for us to digest because they’re so large and bulky. If you choose wisely which oils you use and balance them with the rest of your foods, fat can actually be good for you. 

There are two types of fats: saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and contain no double bonds between the atoms. Unsaturated fats have double bonds between the atoms and are liquid at room temperature.

To determine which type of fat you’re consuming, look at whether they appear solid or liquid when at room temperature. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, while unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature.

The amount of fat in your meal determines how fast the rest of your meal gets digested. The body digests fats before any other food group, so they can separate the nutrients. It takes at least three hours for a high-fat meal to be digested by the body.

When combining fats with other food groups for meals, it is good to avoid as many saturated fats as you can because they take the body longer to digest. Natural fats such as unsaturated fats are essential for providing us with the necessary nutrition without causing the digestion process to slow down.

Fats are an essential part of any healthy diet, but too much fat can be harmful for some people. Eat fats in moderation. 

5. Fruits

Fruits are next to liquids the easiest for our bodies to break down into energy. Fruits are made of up to 90% water and water digests the quickest. 

These fruits below are made up of mostly water and will take about 30-45 minutes to fully digest.

  • Apples
  • Berries
  • Cherries
  • Citrus
  • Melons
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Plums

Bananas, coconuts, and dried fruit are not included in any of the lists above. Bananas and coconut contain lots of carbs, proteins, and fats—all of which require time for digestion.

Dried fruits are high in fiber and sugar, and low in water content, which makes them harder to digest. In all three of these cases, you complete digestion will take around 45 – 90 minutes.

Before eating protein and starches, you should try to let fruit fully digest first. Protein and starch foods take longer than fruits to be digested; therefore, when combined with fruits they’ll slow down their digestion.

You shouldn’t combine acid fruits with protein or starch foods at all. These fruits contain acids which prevent the production of digestive enzymes required for protein and starch digestion.

6. Vegetables

Many vegetables can be just as easily digested as fruit because they too contain a lot of water. As the proportion of water decreases and the proportion of starches and fibers increases, vegetables become less easily digested.

Green leafy vegetables contain the most water and are the easiest to digest. They need approximately 45 minutes to be digested.

However, if you add dressings that are high in saturated oils or cream, the digestion time will increase. You’re better off going for an oil and vinegar salad dressing than any creamier ones.

Some vegetables like cabbage, carrots and beet may take some time to digest because they contain lots of fiber. Steaming them may help speed up their digestion slightly, but they’ll still be digested faster than starches and proteins because of their high water content.

In general, starchy vegetables like potatoes need at least 2 hours before they’re fully digested. They include potatoes, rutabagas, squash, and yams. Baking vegetables can help quicken digestion, but steaming increases water content and will allow vegetables to digest even more quickly. 

7. Non-Starchy Vegetables

You may eat non-starchy vegetables (such as broccoli) with any other foods group. That’s because they’re quick to digest and don’t contain any neutralizing acids.

Be sure to eat the vegetables before the starches or proteins because they go through the digestive system faster than the others. Remember the “food traffic jam.” Eat the fastest digesting foods first.


Combining foods together can be an annoying experience for some people with all the Do’s and Don’ts. You might want to consider asking yourself whether the combinations that you’re consuming are slowing down your digestive system.

Digestive issues from food combining happen when your digestive system slows down and food goes undigested. Improper digestion is the number one cause of digestive ailments.

You cannot avoid all bad combinations of food, but the key is moderation. If you consume more good food combinations than bad ones, you should see an improvement.

For other articles on digestion and digestive issues, check these out: 

Written and Medically Reviewed By

  • Chelsea Cleary, RDN

    Chelsea is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) specializing in holistic treatment for chronic digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), SIBO, and Crohn’s disease. She educates patients on how they can heal themselves from their conditions by modifying lifestyle and dietary habits.

  • Julie Guider, M.D.

    Dr. Julie Guider earned her medical degree from Louisiana State University School of Medicine. She completed residency in internal medicine at the University of Virginia. She completed her general gastroenterology and advanced endoscopy fellowships at University of Texas-Houston. She is a member of several national GI societies including the AGA, ACG, and ASGE as well as state and local medical societies.