What's for Dinner?! Healthy Eating from a Chinese Medicine Perspective
In case the photo of my insanely delicious meal didn’t cue you in, this is a post about healthy EATING. And, despite its extensive length, it is in no way fully inclusive of all my thoughts about this practice we enjoy every day. I’m focused here on WHAT to eat, & have had to implement some serious discipline to keep myself from veering into the territory of how, when, why, & where to eat, not to mention the mental, emotional, & spiritual processes of digestion that parallel the digestive activity of our physical bodies. So, if you’re intrigued (& I know you are!), you might peruse my blog for posts that delve into that which didn’t make the cut here.
BTW, 99% of the ingredients pictured on my plate here came courtesy of the local farmers market or my own backyard, & it has the flavor & beauty to prove it. If you’re curious, it’s my version of a Fall salad, with a variety of salad greens & sprouts (warmed slightly by the cooked veggies & rice strewn atop), watermelon radish, roasted sweet potatoes & acorn squash, sautéed garlicky kale & swiss chard, sprouted red & black rice, roasted heirloom tomatoes, avocado, tangerines, fresh herbs, lemon juice, olive oil, tahini, coconut aminos, pink salt & pepper. The satisfaction & delight that comes with supporting the amazing farmers in my community & knowing exactly where my food comes from is REAL! And those COLORS!! It’s impossible not to smile while eating a rainbow…
Good health begins in the center, in the belly - with the Spleen and Stomach organ systems - referred to as the Middle Burner in Chinese Medicine.
Which means good health really begins in the Earth, the source of our sustenance. (Not surprisingly, in 5 Element Theory, the Spleen and Stomach correspond with the Earth element!)
There are SO many schools of thought out there when it comes to what we humans “should” be eating to achieve optimal health, & to be honest, many of them seem to have an abundance of fairly satisfying research & reasoning under their belts (pun intended)! This can make choosing what to eat a confusing & complicated task, especially when you are divorced from the culinary traditions of your lineage (as so many of us are), & instead have been indoctrinated into the literally & metaphorically toxic paradigm responsible for the SAD (Standard American Diet) all your life.
As a health care practitioner & proudly self-identified Foodie, I spend a great deal of my time & energy dancing around the realms of nutrition & food systems. Paleo/ancestral, vegetarianism, veganism, pescatarianism, keto, raw food, Slow food, Bulletproof, Whole 30, intermittent fasting, AIP, genotype/blood-type, FODMAP, low-histamine, medical medium protocol, cycle syncing diet, gluten-free, dairy-free, organic, local, seasonal, biodynamic, & so on & so forth adnauseum - I’ve dabbled in (or plunged into) most of them. And, while I take great pleasure in learning about food & nutrition from a wide variety of viewpoints, it sometimes lands me in that murky realm of “WTF” do I eat now?!?
I’ll get all worked up, & then I remember … Chinese Medicine.
Yeah, Hannah, that thing you’ve spent the better part of the last decade immersed in. That thing you practice on a daily basis in work & in life. No need to spin off in a million & one directions if you would simply remember (this is the sound of me talking to me ;)).
The esteemed acupuncturist and functional medicine practitioner, Chris Kresser, LAc prescribes the 80/20 rule to the majority of his patients. It goes like this: “80% of the time they should follow the [diet] guidelines very closely, and 20% of the time they’re free to loosen up and just eat what they want to eat. There’s a lot more to life than food, and in fact I believe (as did the ancient Chinese) that in some cases it’s better to eat the wrong food with the right attitude than the other way around.”
In our modern Western world, we are so obsessed with science, resting our faith in scientific studies that are all too often manipulated, biased, incomplete, & based on shaky methodologies. The principles & practices of Chinese Medicine, on the other hand, are based on the principles of nature, observed & understood over the course of thousands of years of humans living in sync with the natural world (of which we are a part).
Nature contains all the answers we are seeking, & since we are nature, that means WE contain all the answers!
It makes perfect sense, however, that in our sterile technocratic system, where we spend the better portion of our days separated from the natural world by boxes & screens, disconnected also from our inner knowing, we feel LOST (& not just in regards to what to eat).
Get to know your body through the lens of nature, as a microcosm of the greater landscape you inhabit, & you will surely come upon clarity.
While Chinese Medicine does not prescribe a one-sized fits all approach (because after all, we are all unique snowflakes & what works for one does not always work for another), it does offer some insights that we can all benefit from. For instance, we will all feel our best when we shift our diets with the seasons & consume foods that are grown locally in any given season. Most of us can also benefit from avoiding too much raw, cooling food and drinks in our diets, especially in the cooler seasons. “While our bodies are able to extract more nutrients from slightly cooked foods rather than raw foods, this also refers to the energetics of food or its post digestion temperature. Eating too many cooling foods such as lettuce, celery, cucumber, mango, watermelon or tomato can chill or damage the middle burner or spleen-stomach; if these foods are consumed raw or chilled, this further intensifies their cooling effect. The stomach & spleen are most affected by diet as the stomach receives the food, the spleen transforms food into Qi & blood, improper food means insufficient raw material reaches the spleen causing Qi or blood deficiency.” (Note: cooling foods do have their place in Chinese Medicine - for instance, on hot summer days or for those folks with an excess & hot constitution, cooling foods may help, but overall it is best to opt for slightly cooked & warming foods, & skip the ice cold water with meals.)
Why cooked food is preferable to the body…
“Chinese Medicine sees life as a series of warm transformations – the underlying philosophy of Daoism where change & transformation are natural processes that, given the right environment, will happen on their own (ziran – nature, zi-oneself, ran-correct).
The process of digestion is seen in the same light. Give the body proper food & liquid, a proper environment & there will be abundant Qi & Blood. The Stomach is viewed as a pot that needs to ‘cook’ the food in order to extract the nutrients. The ability to transform food into useable nutrients for the cells is dependent on the ‘digestive fire’ to ‘cook’ the foods to ensure this transformation is completed…
We are indeed warm-blooded creatures & optimal digestion occurs at a slightly higher temperature than body temperature (about 100°F is preferable). For this reason, most of the people, most of the time should eat mostly cooked & warming foods. This is also partly due to ‘civilized life’ where we do far less physical activity & more mental processing than our body was designed for – the energy is in our head rather than our digestive organs – the fire rises upwards, rather than staying down below where it should be fueling the furnace under the pot, down in the kidneys.
If excessive amounts of cold or raw foods are eaten, the body has to waste valuable energy raising the temperature of the food to allow the digestive processes to work. Prolonged or excessive use of chilled or raw food weakens the ‘digestive fire’.
The Energetics of Food:
“In the East, food is described as acting on the body in a certain way (warming, cooling, salty, sour etc), by observing the energetic action inside the human body & the behavior of the body after a food has been consumed.” While the properties of any given food or drink can be manipulated through preparation (cooking & spicing), in their natural state:
Most fruits & veggies are cooling or even cold in nature & have a cooling effect on the body.
Grains tend to be cool or neutral.
Fish can be neutral or cooling.
Poultry & red meats tend to be warming or hot. Wild game tends to be more warm or hotter than domesticated.
Dairy varies depending on the type. Sheep milk is warmer than cow’s, while goat’s milk is warmer still.
“You can change a foods’ properties by cooking & adding spices. For example, cooking vegetables can be thought of as a form of pre-digestion that helps break down the food before we eat it so that our bodies can more easily assimilate its nutrients. Cooking also warms & helps lessen the cooling effects of foods. Adding spices or fresh ginger (which is considered hot) to cooling or cold ingredients can help neutralize a food’s cooling nature.” We can see examples of this in traditional cuisines - for instance, when eating sushi, pickled ginger cleanses the palate, but (perhaps more importantly) also helps to neutralize the cooling nature of raw fish. As a general rule of thumb, “cook or warm ‘cold’ vegetables by adding spices to keep your middle burner warm (& digestion strong).“
As mentioned earlier, the Chinese medicine diet is not a one-sized fits all, nor is it a fixed thing.
Stay flexible & in tune with changes in your body & your environment, & adjust your diet accordingly.
Feeling overwhelmed or a bit confused? Help is never far away. Your acupuncturist can help you come up with a diet that’s tailored to your unique needs, & guide you in making changes as you change. After all, the only thing that is constant in this life is change (and Love)! In the meantime, you can find some yummy healing recipes (& order some epic & delicious Chinese herbal formulas, like this Digestive Harmony formula for short & long-term digestive needs; use code hannah for 10% off!) here.