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Food as Medicine
In TCM, we consider food as medicine, and diet as one of the key factors in balancing health. It’s so basic, yet it’s often ignored. Grains are used to feed the body, and fruits, meats and vegetables aid in this effort. To maintain a healthy lifestyle, we need to balance and properly nourish our bodies. Like duh!
Overexposure to unhelpful media influences, convenience food, and a lack of healthy choices, has taught us to look outward for nourishment instead of looking within. We’ve stopped asking our bodies what they would like to eat, and what they require from us. We’ve simply become disconnected. Our amazing bodies are capable of relaying all kinds of valuable information to us, if only we’d stop and listen! Instead we eat what we’re told to eat, or seek out the latest diet trend that promises to make us healthy and beautiful.
An abundance of over-processed food has facilitated a huge detachment from our neuropsychological functions, and our anatomy more broadly. The way we access our food and the way it’s distributed has become significantly different from how we used to do it in the past. Farming and sourcing from the land has been replaced with processed food, fast food and supermarkets. In evolutionary terms, it naturally takes our bodies far longer (if at all) to catch up to the rapid development of the way our nourishment is being processed. For example, rather than consuming high fiber, whole grains and complex carbohydrates, we eat significant quantities of white breads, empty calories and sugars. Instead of getting fresh meat that has been raised in favourable conditions, we are delivered mass produced meats that’ve been subjected to toxic environments. It’s certainly not a stretch to wonder whether this shift could be having an impact on our health.
Each flavour has a nourishing quality of it’s own, and moreover each organ has a corresponding taste that nourishes it. All of the 5 flavours (sweet, salty, bitter, pungent/acrid and bland) work together to supplement the qi and essence of the body. The spleen’s taste is sweet, pungent & acrid flavours belong to the lung, the liver is nourished by sour, salt is for the kidney, and bitter nourishes the heart.
A balance of these flavors, along with consuming clear, digestible food, are integral parts of healthy eating in Chinese Medicine. It’s important not to overemphasize any of the 5 flavours - too much salt damages the heart, too much sweet damages the kidneys, too much sour damages the spleen, too much bitter damages the lungs, and too much acrid damages the liver. Remember, it’s all about balance!
Cooked Vs. Uncooked Foods
Chilled and uncooked foods require more energy to digest: a fact in both Western and Chinese medicine.
Most people, most of the time should eat mostly cooked food. Cooking is predigestion outside of the body, and aids the system so that less effort has to be exerted by the stomach. All the extra processing that’s required to digest raw food consumes valuable qi.
So what about the destruction of enzymes and vitamins during cooking?
The key is not overcook food excessively, but to heat it lightly and steam it. This aids in the digestive process, and also retains most of the nutrients; which addresses one of the main concerns of raw food advocates. Many of us assume that because there are more nutrients in raw food, that the body is absorbing those nutrients. This isn’t always the case. Over digestion consumes qi energy to break down the food, and this use of extra energy takes away the benefit of the extra nutrients. It doesn’t matter if the vitamins are there if the body can’t break them down for absorption. Any undigested foods that go through the system don’t provide us with the benefit of the vitamins and minerals, because our bodies aren’t transforming and transporting them.
It’s best to avoid a lot of chilled foods and liquids. Choosing to eat heated foods and having a small amount of warm liquids with meals, helps our body’s digestion considerably. If our bodies fail to adequately transform and transport food or iced drinks/liquids, the sludge that accumulates can translate into stagnancy, dampness and turbidity.
The Sweet Craving Cycle
A deficient spleen craves sweet. Our ancestors would eat barley or rice as a means of nourishing the body with the sweet flavour. In today’s era of processed and over-sweetened foods, we’re often likely to grab a pastry, which is far too sweet and has the opposite effect. Some sweet supplements the body’s qi and blood, but excessive sweetness overwhelms and weakens the spleen. The spleen in turn craves the flavour that strengthens it. If the craving is indulged with concentrated sweets such as sugar, it further weakens the spleen and the cycle continues. We believe that dampening foods, like citrus & fruit juices for example, are good for us, when in fact they overwhelm our bodies. Eating an orange is one thing, drinking a full glass of orange juice is overpowering to the body, and contains mostly the sugars taken from the fruit, not the fibers.
A Basic healthy diet according to TCM
- Harmonization of the 5 flavours - that is to say, eating balanced meals. Eating a bowl of pasta or a slice of pizza would not be considered a balanced meal. Eating some rice with vegetables, and a little bit of chicken, etc. would be good.
- Clear, light easily digestible food - mainly vegetarian and a small amount of meat
- Primarily grains, beans, vegetables and fruits - only a small amount of greasy foods and alcohol if any
- Guarding against food cravings and addictions - eating too much of any flavour causes imbalance and accumulates in the body, causing organ imbalances over time
- Too much hot food damages original qi and body fluids and yin, and too much cold food damages spleen and stomach qi, including digestive ability
- Coffee, tea and alcohol can aggravate cholesterol as well
- Set times and set amounts - eating regular meals at fixed times is best and a good analogy is to eat breakfast like a prince, lunch like a merchant and dinner like a pauper.
- Avoid being starved or overly satiated – stopping eating when you are 70% full is a good general rule
It’s all about balance in TCM! Moderation in food, exercise, stress levels and general well-being is the key to good health and a happy body!