A Critical Lens on Food Combining
Disclaimer: the following article neither attempts to debunk or prove the validity of food combining. Rather, it is meant to encourage each reader to do his due diligence, ask the appropriate questions, and continue the exploration of food combining and its potential benefits.
You may have heard of food combining. It's actually a rather controversial trending topic, and the whole idea is that avoiding certain food combinations and eating certain foods only at certain times helps regulate the digestive system and also helps avoid digestive upset such as bloating, gas, etc. If you Google "food combining," most of the articles that pop up are those that advocate for its efficacy based on personal experience, or that attempt to debunk the theories behind food combining, claiming that it is unscientific.
The idea of food combining and compatibility is not new. The Ayurvedic texts line out in detail what types of foods should not be eaten in combination, as well as a long list of other incompatibilities relating to the time food is ingested, how it is cooked, and much more. For example, it is well known in Ayurveda that honey should never be cooked, nor should it ever be eaten with ghee in equal amounts. Similar to more modern takes on food combining, it also advocates against the consumption of concentrated carbohydrates such as bread in combination with heavy-to-digest foods such as cheese or meat (good-bye sandwiches?).
I have great respect for both ancient wisdom and modern science. Overall, ancient wisdom is time-tested and often reflects a more harmonious way of living with nature and with the self. Modern science has made amazing advances and has really helped explain many of the mechanisms by which nature operates. However, adhering strictly to the philosophy of one over the other, whether one accepts blindly something as truth just because it is ancient or just because it was "proven" in a controlled scientific study, both point to a tendency towards dogmatism that lacks discernment and critical thinking.
The truth is never black and white. There is always some nuance, some exception to the rule. In Ayurveda, suffering from incompatible food combinations is more easily avoided when your agni (digestive fire) is adequately strong. For the sake of discussion, let's take a look at one of my favorite foods - pizza.
The combination of cheese, bread, and tomatoes (a nightshade) is generally considered incompatible because it considered heavy to digest. Moreover, cheese and bread are both fermented foods that have a sour rasa (taste), which in combination with tomatoes (another fruit with sour taste), leads to somewhat of an overload of the sour taste, which brings heating and heavy qualities to the body. If you don't eat pizza every day, and your digestive capacity is robust because you lead a healthy lifestyle and usually eat balanced meals, chances are when this acidic combination hits your stomach, your body is able to handle it because the gastric mucosa has not been compromised. Keep in mind that the pH in the stomach must lower to below 3.0 in order for pepsinogen to activate and become pepsin, the enzyme that helps digest protein. In addition, once the food hits your small intestine, which cannot handle the acidity of the stomach contents, the pancreas secretes bicarbonate to raise the pH back up to a manageable level.
You might be thinking - well, that means that my body should be able to do what it should and I can go about my merry way and eat all the pizza I want, right? However, I would encourage you to pay more attention to how you feel when that pizza hits your stomach. What Ayurveda is really great at explaining is that health is an individualized experience. What is medicine for one person can be poison for another. In Ayurveda, hyperacidity is described as amlapitta and is a condition caused by vitiation of pitta dosha in the stomach along with a weak agni. What causes amlapitta can be a combination of factors such as the excess intake of oily foods, sour and salty tastes, as well as lifestyle factors such as staying up late at night. Sour, salty, and oily - sound familiar? That's the pizza you're eating! If you find yourself with heartburn and loose stools after having a slice, that indicates that your digestion is compromised and the pizza is only aggravating your stomach.
Even Western medicine cites certain dietary and lifestyle choices as risk factors for hyperacidity. I think it is more productive to regard food combining as a systematic way to mitigate some of the risks of developing or worsening digestive disorders, rather than as strict rules that you must follow in every situation. If you do have stubborn digestive symptoms that have not been alleviated by implementing general proper eating habits and cleaner food choices, you may want to consider the compatibility of the foods you are having in each meal. For a fairly simple and comprehensive article on Ayurvedic food combining, I recommend Incompatible Food Combining by Dr. Vasant Lad.
When I first learned of food combining, I admit I was very skeptical. After all, in my culture, we often eat fresh fruit right after the meal to "help digest," which in Ayurveda is cited as a no-no. However, one of the considerations of food compatibility is the concept of satmya - where if you or your ancestors traditionally ate a certain otherwise difficult combination, you would not be adversely affected. In fact, there are many other different factors to consider with regards to food compatibility when it comes to Ayurveda. Certainly, there is much more complexity to the subject matter than meets the eye. I also find that certain classically cited difficult combinations are oddly specific, such as honey and rainwater, and are perhaps reflective of a time and environment in the past where those combinations were commonly known to cause problems. I personally don't believe it is a sign of disrespect if we made the effort to dig deeper and research the reasoning behind such combinations in more detail. After all, Ayurveda is a living science whose purpose is to serve humanity, and the more effort we make towards understanding the science of life, the more empowered we all are in living vibrant, healthy lives.
In conclusion, I believe that it is important to take into consideration that certain food combinations can be more deleterious or more beneficial than others. How and why these food combinations may have certain affects on our bodies is also worth exploring. Afterall, Ayurveda teaches us that no medicine is one-size-fits all. And by all means, eat your pizza and enjoy it. As you start to focus your attention on your food and the effects on your body, you will become more sensitive to how certain foods affect your digestion, mood and function.
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 Loomis, Howard F. Digestion in the Stomach - Food Enzyme Institute, www.foodenzymeinstitute.com/content/Digestion-in-the-Stomach.aspx.  Hegyi, Péter, et al. “Pancreatic Ductal Bicarbonate Secretion: Challenge of the Acinar Acid Load.” Frontiers in Physiology, vol. 2, 2011, doi:10.3389/fphys.2011.00036.
 Ranade, Subhash. Kayachikitsa: a Text Book of Medicine. Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan, 2001.
 “Top 5 Reasons for Acidity and Heartburn.” Top 5 Reasons for Acidity and Heartburn: Health One Family Medicine: Family Medicine, www.healthonemedicine.com/blog/top-5-reasons-for-acidity-and-heartburn.