I Tried This Weird Diet From The 1900s & It Kind Of Worked

Hey, it’s me. The girl who tries terrible fad diets and writes about them. You may remember me from the time I ate Halo Top ice cream and nothing else for a week. Or the time I accidentally set off a war in the Whole30 community. Or you don’t understand either of those references and are just here today to learn about the confusing and scientifically unfounded lifestyle that is Food Combining. Regardless, welcome.

A few weeks ago I found myself at a happy hour discussing, what else, fad diets. Usually once people hear that this is something I do willingly, they start throwing out wild suggestions that only lead me to believe that they are hoping I die in the process of attempting. May I present to you, a shortlist of diets that have been suggested to me by friends and strangers alike:

  • The Potato Diet in which you eat, you guessed it, plain cooked potatoes and nothing else
  • That insane Vogue diet that circulated Twitter and allows you an entire bottle of wine, three hardboiled eggs, and one steak a day (still not off the table tbh)
  • The sushi and Jamba Juice diet, which is less a fad diet and more the very real eating habits of my suburban Californian high school self
  • “Just like…eggs?” – a man who wasn’t even involved in the conversation but had to stop and offer his two cents
  • “Vegan!!” – any Vegan in a two mile radius

But this particular happy hour was different, because a woman there offered up a viable and interesting option that I actually hadn’t heard of before: Food Combining. In its essence, Food Combining is driven by the principle that the less energy your body exerts on digestion, the better. To achieve that, the goal is to eat food in a certain order or in certain combinations to aid digestion and promote weight loss, better nutrient abruption, increased energy levels, and various other benefits.

While the origins of Food Combining are a little cloudy, like most modern wellness trends it can be traced back to the Ayurvedic medicine practices of ancient India. Shout out to the ancient Indians for providing 90% of my subject matter. I can never thank you enough for the Golden Milk.

Food Combining reemerged into public consciousness in the mid-1800s and then again later in the early 1900s, rebranded at those times as Tropology and the Hay diet, respectively. But no matter what you call it, the sentiment is the same: different foods should be combined in different ways for optimal digestion.

It became immediately clear in my initial research that scientists do not agree with the logic behind Food Combining. The theory is this: different enzymes in your intestines digest different food groups, so by eating those groups separately you are creating the most optimal digestive environment. If you were to combine those groups, the digestive process would take longer, giving the food in your stomach time to rot or ferment, which leads to bloating. It’s not the most insane thing I’ve ever heard, but that probably shouldn’t be the litmus for effective diet practices.

It turns out digestion is an incredibly complicated scientific process that can’t just be hacked by eating foods in certain orders. In fact, digestion starts in the mouth, which kind of negates the entire idea that all the food you eat is sitting wholly untouched in your gut waiting to turn you into Violet Beauregarde if those enzymes don’t get working ASAP.

All that being said, just because Food Combining’s principles may not be entirely based in scientific reason doesn’t make the diet unhealthy by nature. In fact, I found it to be helpful for kickstarting a cleanse that I’ve been trying, and failing, to get after for weeks now. At its heart, Food Combining is just a process that promotes clean eating and mindfulness, because you have to think exceptionally hard before you eat anything. It wasn’t so much that I found myself unable to eat things I wanted, just that I had to plan when I could do so effectively. In fact, I had to create an Excel sheet just so I could plan out my meals, which, tragically, is my most efficient use of Excel to date.

I would like to make it clear that even after 10 days, I am not an expert here. In fact, I think I merely scratched the surface of what I believe to be the Titanic-sized iceberg that is Food Combining. If you are someone who follows it religiously or, better yet, grasps anything beyond the basics, you’re probably going to be annoyed from here on out. My sincerest apologies.

There are many nuanced rules to this diet that, to be completely honest, I do not understand. While there are many articles about why Food Combining doesn’t actually make sense, there are very few that offer hard and stringent rules to follow. I am but a simple girl looking for a Buzzfeed list of recipes to follow, but no such thing existed, apparently. So without any official (reputable) source to go off of, I found myself cobbling together bits and pieces from various blogs, one poorly designed website, and information shared with me by the woman who turned me onto Food Combining in the first place. This, combined with a general sense of disregard for anything that would complicate my life more than necessary, led to 10 fairly regimented days of vegetable-laden salads with varying bits of protein, because previous fad diet endeavors have left me with what I now believe to be a pathological fear of ingesting carbs.

The first thing you need to understand about Food Combining is the food groups, which are broken out as follows:

  • Protein – any meat (red or otherwise), dairy, or eggs
  • Starches/Carbohydrates – any kind of grain, bread, legume, pasta, or starchy vegetable like potatoes, squash, and corn
  • Neutral Vegetables – pretty much any vegetable that isn’t a starch
  • Fresh fruit – self-explanatory perhaps, but this encompasses all fruits

There is much dissent amongst the Food Combining community about where certain foods belong—the one with the greatest effect on my daily life being avocados. After much deliberation and a little bit of self-interested research, I decided avocados were neutral. It was a controversial move, but I stand by it, because a vegetable sandwich without any kind of dairy or avocado attached to it is a sad site to behold.

From there, you have one cardinal rule that you must follow: you cannot mix protein (meat, eggs, dairy) with carbs (all the things you love). Ever. There are about 100 other limitations or regulations stemming from that, but this mantra is the foundation upon which your new life is built.

 

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After ample research, I landed on a few other rules that I thought gave me an authentic enough experience for the sake of this experiment. So for the past week and a half, these are the guidelines that have dictated my life:

No combining carbs/starches and proteins: This is the single phrase you will find yourself repeating ad nauseam to friends, family, and coworkers when they inevitably ask what half-cocked diet you’ve decided to take up this time.

Fruit on an empty stomach only: Fruit takes the least amount of time to digest and thus should be eaten first, lest you fall victim to bloating.

You must wait three hours between meals when switching food groups: No one offered any real logic here, so I’m going to go ahead and assume it’s because the enzymes are tired.

But if you do get hungry between meals, eat neutral vegetables: Apparently the enzymes are never too tired to digest a leafy green composed of nearly 70% water.

Drink lots of water, but not while you’re actually eating: Hydration is a pillar of most diets, but what’s wild about Food Combining is you’re not actually allowed to drink anything during meals. The idea is that doing so will dilute the enzymes and stall digestion. So guess what happens when you eat something exceptionally spicy at the beginning of a meal?? You suffer.

No nuts/legumes in the first week: Both of these groups have long digestive periods, so most followers of Food Combining recommend forgoing them during your first week as your body adapts to its new lifestyle.

Start every meal with some kind of raw vegetable/leafy green: This supposedly kickstarts the enzymes and/or wakes them up from their nap. Idk.

No added sugar: The digestive period of sugar was never mentioned, but I think this aligns more to the general idea of eating healthy than anything else.

A couple of blogs also recommended that you pair your regimen with Intermittent Fasting, something that I attempted with varying degrees of success throughout the 10 days. Sometimes you’re on top of your sh*t, and sometimes you go to a work dinner and the entrees don’t even arrive until 9:00pm. Sue me.

 

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Days 1 – 3

The only way I can describe the onset of this experience was overwhelming. If you were to have come across me while I was researching this diet, you’d probably have thought I was studying for a test. I had notebooks out. Word docs up. More tabs than I’m comfortable with open on my computer. I was manically highlighting things without reason. It was like finals week all over again, but without the Adderall or sense of impending doom. But once I took a step back and really thought about it, I realized that Food Combining was less a diet and more of a lifestyle. That sentence in itself makes my skin crawl, but bear with me here.

Food Combining isn’t meant to restrict what you can eat, rather it’s just there to make you think about what you’re eating. By slowing down and actually recognizing each individual ingredient, I found I was able make better decisions than if I had just ordered something at a restaurant and assumed it was all healthy. It was tedious, but….rewarding? I don’t even know who I am anymore.

Day 4 – 7

The enlightened wisdom of days 1–3 slowly waned as I realized that I hated salads without cheese. Food Combining isn’t a fan of premade dressing and highly recommends a combo of olive oil and lemon juice, which while light and refreshing, isn’t exactly packed with flavor. But then it was like God heard my cries for help and threw down a single olive branch in the form of this list that I found online of neutral cheeses.

Listen, I know this website looks like it was created on a word processor in 1998. I know that some of the info on it directly contradicts rules that I’d already established for myself above. And I know that you shouldn’t blindly trust things you read on the internet, but none of that mattered. Suddenly I could have feta on my salads and ricotta on my avocado toast, and I was a woman renewed.

Day 8 – 10

After my first week, the routine of Food Combining was so completely ingrained in me that I didn’t even realize I was still following it. I had abandoned the Excel spreadsheet long ago, and no longer eagerly counted down the seconds until noon when Intermittent Fasting allowed me my first meal. The sight of the rampant baked goods in my office didn’t send a painful jolt through my chest like they had a mere few days ago. I was drinking water without setting reminders for myself to do so. In short, I was behaving in the ways that I think a functional human being might, and it felt good.

But then, on the eve of my last night, disaster struck in the form of a fancy work dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant full of fancy pasta and fancy desserts and the social expectation that you eat those things to avoid looking like an asshole.

Food Combining is a proponent of moderation, and so I thought, why not? I’ve worked hard, I’ve been diligent, what’s the issue with one little bowl of pasta, even though I had a meat entrée on the way? What could one tiny dessert hurt, after already having combined the cursed carbs and protein? What could possibly happen to me and my pristine, temple-like body at this point?

Uh, everything could happen, it turns out. I learned this on the drive home, at which point my stomach expanded to what I can only describe as a second trimester level of bloat. I waddled into my apartment and threw myself onto my bed, immediately passing out from what I’m assuming was the over-exertion of my sad stomach enzymes. I woke the next morning to find myself still in terrible shape, and dug out the loosest possible outfit to wear to work. I continued to feel like sh*t for the rest of the day, eventually going to bed without dinner because the thought of eating anything at all made me nauseous.

While I’d been lulled into a false sense of security by the serenity of my new routine, in the end Food Combining ended up being like every other lifestyle/diet I’ve tried thus far. Sure, you feel great in the moment, but one misstep sends you on a downward spiral of shame and despair that leaves you feeling slightly betrayed and with a lingering sense of guilt.

Over the 10 days I tried Food Combining, I lost about five pounds. Over the course of a single Italian dinner, I gained two of them back. Nearly half my progress, erased by a moment of weakness. This isn’t an experience exclusive to Food Combining, but indicative of the fallout of any drastic lifestyle diet. You feel invincible during the highs, but you have to remember that there will be lows. The honest truth is that most of these regimens are not sustainable. You know what is? A healthy lifestyle of moderation and exercise. That’s it. That’s the secret.

Eat healthy. Be active. Treat yourself on occasion. Don’t rely on scientific hacks to fool your body into weight loss. Your enzymes know what they’re doing without your help, I promise. But most importantly, be kind to your body. It endures all the stupid sh*t you inflict upon it on a daily basis, the least you can do is put up with a little weight fluctuation here and there.

Have any fad diet ideas that eclipse the stunning suggestions above? Leave them in the comments section and maybe I’ll find myself feeling brave enough to try them out in the future.

Images: Giphy (2); Amy Shamblen / Unsplash; dietstartstomorrow / Instagram

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