SHOULD WE BE THINKING ABOUT THIS?
Victoria Cox, MSc, Registered Dietitians
In last month’s edition of Better Health, we examined a few “food rules” and were able to either bust them as myths, or confirm them as being of benefit. We saw that, thankfully, there is no need for us to eat our starchy foods and high protein foods at different times; healthy bodies are fully able to digest mixed meals – which is great news.
We also noted that there is no need to separate “acidic” or “alkaline” foods, as the foods we eat do not change the pH of our blood, and a healthy stomach is able to maintain its desired acidic range regardless of what is eaten.
And lastly, we saw that there is indeed benefit to combining vitamin C rich foods with food sources of iron, particularly vegetarian sources of iron.
Pairing food such as sweet pepper, rich in vitamin C, with a vegetarian iron source such as lentils, will help us to better absorb the available iron.
So…are there other food combination “rules” that we should be paying attention to? You may already be thinking of some yourself. Let us dive into a few more examples.
As more individuals are exploring the potential health benefits of a plantbased lifestyle, whereby they follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, we also increasingly hear about the potential for nutritional gaps. One such example is the idea that plant proteins, such as beans, lentils, soy products, nuts and seeds etc., do not provide us with all of the required “essential amino acids”.
What does this mean?
During digestion, our bodies break down protein – whether from plant or animal products – into units known as amino acids, which play many important roles in the body. There are many different amino acids, and some of them can actually be produced within body and these are therefore termed “non-essential” amino acids. On the other hand, there are amino acids which cannot be produced by the body and must be obtained from food; these are thusly named “essential” amino acids.
While animal proteins, such as chicken, fish and beef, provide us with all the required essential amino acids, we have learned that soy is generally considered to be the only plant-based protein able to provide us with all essential amino acids. This means that other popular vegetarian protein sources, such as chickpeas or kidney beans, are considered “incomplete” proteins.
The resulting concern is that someone following a fully vegan or vegetarian diet might miss out on certain essential amino acids.
In reality, these plant-based proteins all contain some of the essential amino acids in varying amounts, and so in order to meet our full needs comes the idea of “complementing proteins”.
This refers to actively combining one specific plant-based food with another, because the first food product is low in an essential amino acid that is found in large amounts in the second food. For example, beans (e.g. lentils) are generally low in the amino acid methionine; grains, however, are a good source of methionine and thus pairing beans with a grain ensures that we meet our methionine needs.
While this may sound complicated, thankfully we do not need to combine these specific vegetarian protein sources all at the exact same meal.
Protein complementation can be done throughout the course of the day, so the main takeaway for plant-based eaters is to include a wide variety of foods on any given day, ultimately ensuring that all amino acid needs are met. See the table below to help with knowing which food combinations function for protein complementation:
Drinking and eating… at the same time!
Another anecdote that is often floating around is that we should not drink water at the same time as we eat our food. It has been suggested that this negatively affects our digestion; perhaps a fear that the water will dilute our stomach acid or weaken digestive enzymes. This has also been said of water being consumed shortly before or immediately after eating. Similarly, it has been said that drinking will slow down the emptying of the stomach, leaving us uncomfortably bloated.
So…is there any truth to this? The short answer is – no. In a healthy body, digestion functions like a well-oiled machine, starting with enzyme activity in our saliva, continuing with stomach acid and digestive juices as food moves along the gastrointestinal tract. The notion that water will dilute digestive juices or stomach acid is entirely untrue. Firstly, water is absorbed in the stomach quite quickly, meaning that even if there was a dilution effect – it would be temporary. Secondly, the enzymes in our digestive system work on breaking down food particles regardless of the presence of water.
On follows the concern that water will affect the stomach’s pH level, weakening the level of acidity. The truth, however, is that our bodies are perfectly able to respond to different foods and beverages by re-increasing the acidity level if needed. Essentially, our body is paying attention and responding to the foods and liquids that we are consuming, so that we do not need to worry about things like water affecting our stomach acid levels.
The bottom line is this: while the rumours may be well-meaning, for healthy individuals there is no need to avoid drinking water during (or just before/after) our meals. This type of advice is likely to only increase the risk of dehydration, which we certainly do not want. Living in the Caribbean heat means that it is extra important for us to drink sufficient water throughout the day – and using meal times as a reminder to have a glass or two of water can be a very helpful trigger to meet our fluid requirements.
So, unless you notice that you personally do not tolerate drinking water while eating your meals – perhaps if you experience “heartburn” or reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease), stop worrying about whether or not you should combine food and water, and simply enjoy your boost of hydration mid-meal.
Overall, we see yet again that there may be some truth to these food combination “rules”, such as with complementary proteins; but misinformation and myths also remain present, such as with the idea that we cannot drink water while eating our food. Ultimately, we want to keep healthy eating as uncomplicated as possible, while avoiding unnecessary and non-evidence based “rules”. This is why it is always a helpful idea to discuss your questions with your doctor or dietitian – to learn which food combinations may be worth your while, and which can be thrown out of the window.