I’m always experimenting with foods and recipes. I eat mostly fresh foods in their natural packaging, or paleo if you’d like a use a catchy, esoteric label, biasing my caloric intake toward fats and protein most of the time. Tonight I made some almond meal pancakes that I ate while snacking on a green apple. A few minutes later, I ate a chicken breast I grilled up. While this is well and good, the fact that I ate all three macronutrients together, after 6pm no less, should have me packing on fat like mad. This isn’t the case and the theory that your body can only digest specific foods together, or that specific food combinations reduce fat storage and increase nutrient use, is nonsense.
The origins of the food combining theory, as far as I could find, comes from the book “Fit For Life.” The idea of food combining is twofold: one, our body has certain enzymes for digesting certain macronutrients and combining all the macros at the same time slows and impairs digestion, and two, if we raise free form fatty acids (ffa’s) and insulin together, we’ll merely store the fat since insulin is a storage hormone. This idea is one of the cornerstones of the low carb movement: lower insulin and you won’t store that fat floating around from the bacon or whatever greasy meat you’re abusing for the sake of being low carb. Only that’s wrong as well; let me start with the combinations.
Unless you ask a hardcore vegan, who might conveniently ignore these canines and incisors shoved in the front of our palate, anyone will tell you that we’re omnivores. Historically we ate anything we could get our hands on as our diet (which pretty well mauls the idea of only one paleo diet…that’s for another post). Feasting on a leg of game was as likely as crunching on some nuts with our berries. Hell, if we killed the game on top of some spinach that magically was under a magic apple and almond tree, we would have eaten all of it together. We’ve evolved to take nearly anything we shove down our necks and turn it into whatever we need, hence our title.
So what about the avoidance of raising insulin and ffa’s together, so that we avoid fat storage? Someone forgot to tell the talk show experts about a little protein known as Acylation Stimulating Protein (ASP). Produced in the adipocytes, ASP will trap FFA’s in a total absence of insulin. Let us pretend that beef doesn’t stimulate insulin (it does) and you consume a big, fatty, tasty steak. Those calories will be stored by ASP, perhaps not as efficiently as your body would like, but it will get the job done turning FFA’s into triglycerides. Of course, beef raises insulin, so ASP takes a backseat for the more efficient insulin to do its job.
My previous examples referred to relatively lean individuals with good insulin sensitivity, so what about those who are obese or have poor insulin sensitivity (around and over 20% body fat with a visceral fat tendency will get the job done)? Well pity the poor fatty as impaired glucose and fatty acid uptake means that both ASP and insulin are acting in a synergistic manner to send those mixed meal calories on the fast train to fat city. ASP and insulin are elevated during a fast, especially for obese individuals, making fat loss a rather challenging proposition. If you minimize or eliminate one half of the equation, especially the most efficient half, you’re going to make your fat loss endeavors a lot easier.
So why have so many people lost weight with the idea of food combining? The most obvious answer is that eliminating an entire macronutrient from your meal can go a long way toward calorie control and this should be the main reason for such a scheme.
So what’s the take home message?
1. We’re omnivores and can digest just about anything we shove down our necks.
2.Your body is totally capable of storing calories in the absence of insulin, no matter what Gary Taubes might tell you.
3. Food combining for reasons of avoiding fats, carbs, and protein being digested together at the same time is misguided. If you’re eating as often as you should be you’ll still be digesting your last meal; there is an overlap.
4. Most foods are a macronutrient mix naturally, for example the nut.
5. Lowering your bodyfat to increase insulin sensitivity through a reduced calorie eating plan goes a long way toward increasing your tolerance of carbs.
To paraphrase a quote from my friend Dr. Doug McGuff: “Assuming you’re meeting your true nutritional needs of essential fats, essential proteins, fiber, vitamins and minerals, you could get get lean on a diet of skittles.” Good eating.