Is Food Combining Just Another Diet Culture Hoax?
Every single day and from multiple sources, we are told what we should and should not eat. One minute carbs are the devil, the next it’s caffeine that’ll kill you. It’s hard to keep up, and even harder to extricate fact from fiction. Social media, of course, has only exacerbated the problem. Suddenly, diet trends spread like wildfire and everyone has a platform to spout their philosophies. Because of this, misinformation is running rampant — and it’s seriously dangerous.
If you’re tuned into wellness trends, you might be familiar with “food combining.” For those who aren't, it's a nutritional approach that suggests eating specific combinations of food will optimize digestion. For example, food combining says to only consume fruit on an empty stomach and to avoid eating carbs and protein together, among other similar rules. The idea is that because foods digest at different rates, mixing food groups will cause a “backup” in the digestive system.
In addition to reducing bloating, food combining alsoclaims to aid in weight loss, clearing acne, and preventing disease. Though it was first mentioned by alternative medicine advocate Herbert M. Shelton in 1951, food combining is having a major resurgence among lifestyle influencers. (It’s worth noting that Shelton did not have a medical license and was jailed several times for practicing without one.) But since its inception, there’s been very few scientific studies about food combining. The results of one study published in 2000 found that food combining “did not bring any additional loss in weight and body fat” when compared to a normal, balanced diet.
Despite the lack of research surrounding food combining, it’s currently making the rounds on social media. At the forefront of the trend is Kenzie Burke, a 20-something YouTuber and “health coach” with nearly 90,000 followers on Instagram. Burke not only preaches the benefits of food combining, but also peddles her diet plans to her viewers via her health coaching business, Kenzie Burke Health. In a YouTube video explaining her experience with food combining, Burke claims that the digestive system is “a one-way street” and that if you eat different food groups together, they can’t digest properly because they have “nowhere to go.”
To find out if there’s any legitimacy to food combining, I reached out to Abbey Sharp, a registered dietitian and blogger atAbbey’s Kitchen. “The evidence suggests that food combining is not any more beneficial than consuming a balanced healthy diet containing whole grains, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean sources of protein in combination,” Sharp tells GLAM. She also points out that because of the restrictive nature of food combining, participants risk missing key nutrients from their diets and simply not getting enough calories. In a recent YouTube video, Sharp condemns Burke and the food combining fad in general, saying, “These food rules seem really arbitrary at best and really faulty and problematic at worst.” She continues: “Our digestive system is not a one-way street — it’s more like a six-lane highway. When we eat something, the food finds a lane, and our body sends out messages to get the appropriate enzymes needed to help break it down.” Sharp attributes any potential weight loss or boost in energy associated with food combining to eating healthier foods. Sharp also says the rationale behind food combining is not just questionable — it’s factually incorrect. Not only does she call out the peddlers of this particular diet, but she also points out the larger problem with pseudoscience in the wellness space. “Misinformation on the internet (especially by self-professed wellness ‘experts’) can be incredibly damaging to the average person trying to make sense of all of the information they find online,” Sharp says. “Most of these people are not trained or educated in nutrition, and for that reason, are able to dole out dangerous misinformation without any recourse.”
Another major concern is that if a young, impressionable person comes across an influencer’s health testimonial, they might apply it to themselves. The trusting relationship between a social media star and their followers is the reason that influencer marketing is so effective. Influencers are not far away celebrities to whom you can never relate. Through their platform, influencers take you inside their homes, their families, and their relationships. Maybe you’ve even met them at a meet-up or they’ve responded to your DMs.
There’s a level of accessibility to influencers that can seduce fans into believing they are a real, trusted friend. So, when Kenzie Burke looks into her camera and tells her followers how food combining has benefited her life, they’re likely to believe her. And they have no reason not to when she appears healthy and happy.
And therein lies the main problem with diet culture. All of these methods claim that their specific plan (which often comes with a price tag) will remedy whatever problems you have. But in reality, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What’s more, restrictions around food can easily lead to an unhealthy mindset. Sharp says, “By creating and following strict rules, we assign moral value to our diet and ourselves that kicks off a restrict-binge-regret-repeat cycle that is very hard to get out of.” Orthorexia, or an obsession with healthy eating, is often the result of attempting fad diets and can lead to more dangerous eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
Kenzie Burke’s 21-day diet plan claims to shepherd clients toward their “best body.” But what does food combining suggest makes for the “best” body? Apparently, one that follows a strict, potentially isolating set of guidelines, one that is denied things it wants (and maybe even needs) in favor of a flat stomach, one that tries to override the natural functions of the body. This doesn’t sound like wellness to me, but then again, I don’t have 90,000 Instagram followers.
I reached out to Kenzie Burke for comment, but at the time of publishing I have not heard back from her. In the meantime, click play below to watch Sharp's take on food combining.
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