This information aims to give a brief overview of healthy eating including Western nutrition and highlighting the perspective of Chinese medicine (specific terminology is in italics). Chinese medicine considers the spleen and stomach to be the key organ systems of the digestive process and are responsible for the transformation of food into qi or energy, and its distribution to all parts of the body. All these aspects are part of the earth element.
Modifying our eating habits
Perhaps the first thing to emphasise is major changes in diet and eating habits cannot and should not happen too suddenly. Food and drink have many social roles as well as having nutritional value. They are social lubricants, used in rituals and celebrations and for emotional comfort. Modifications, additions and subtractions take time to allow for physical and emotional adaption.
In the Western world, largely due to the influence of the Western naturopathic movement, a healthy diet has come to be associated with raw foods and juices and the avoidance of meat. As in all areas of Chinese medicine ‘one size’ does not ‘fit all’ and food is no exception. It recognises that people with different constitution, diagnosis and lifestyle require unique solutions. However in all situations there are two main areas to be considered: type of food ingested and the way it is consumed.
What to Eat
Broadly speaking there are three food groups which are recommended in order to make up a healthy diet recommended in varying proportions according to the individual but all are within the following range. Fruit & vegetables 40-60%, carbohydrates 30-40% and protein: beans, dairy, meat, fish, nuts, seeds 10-30%. In terms of specifics a Western approach will refer to the likes of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. A Chinese perspective will talk about energetic properties of food such as warming or cooling, or food possessing a certain flavour such as pungent or bitter. These energies and qualities affect the body in a certain way and needs vary according to constitution, condition and time of year.
Raw or Cooked?
Cooked foods and a minimal consumption of raw food are often recommended if a person has a deficient condition. The rationale behind this is eating foods which are already at body temperature or more saves the body energy for the demanding process of digestion, rather than using it to warm food before it can be processed. Digestive enzymes (or stomach and spleen qi) work at body temperature or warmer – and this is one reason why drinking iced water with food, or eating food straight from the fridge is strongly discouraged. The cooking processes also begin the breakdown of vegetable materials and softens tough cell walls to make their contents more easily available. Chinese medicine, however, does not prohibit raw food. Robust, hot yang constitutions require the cooling and cleansing actions of raw foods. And in hot weather most people will benefit from some cooling raw food.
Vegetarian or Meat?
It is generally agreed that the average Western diet is overly rich in animal protein and that this is detrimental to health. In term of Chinese medicine it is considered to be too supplementing and can generate or aggravate dampness and phlegm conditions. A vegetarian diet may be recommended to those with a hot or damp-heat constitution or condition. For those with a deficient condition a modest amount of animal protein is recommended to build qi and blood. For those who wish to be purely vegetarian close care and attention is required to meet all nutritional needs. Chinese herbs and a vitamin B12 supplement may be recommended.
Choose fresh colourful vegetables such as watercress, broccoli, spinach, sweet potatoes, beetroot and carrots. Seasonal and locally grown food is always better than that gown artificially in hot houses or in distant countries. It is preferable to buy smaller amounts of fresh produce frequently rather than larger amounts that wilt in the fridge. Choose meat that is chemical, hormone and antibiotic free. Avoid excessively processed, chemically preserved or irradiated food.
To support our qi we need to eat foods which release their energy steadily into our system over a long period of time. This quality is partly described in Western terms as complex carbohydrates, examples include brown rice, oats and whole wheat. Beans, pulses and quinoa also contain complex carbohydrates as well as protein. All release their sugar content gradually which helps keep blood sugar balanced. This is an important factor in maintaining even energy levels.
Fruit is high in sugar and tends to be eaten raw, it is for these reasons more than two pieces per day are not recommended. Fruit is best eaten on its own as a snack when you need an energy boost.
Reduce sugar and refined carbohydrates (i.e. white flour products: pasta, bread, cakes, pastry) because they creates a state of stress in the body by releasing their sugar fast. A surge of energy is followed by a drop as the body scrambles to balance blood sugar levels. When blood sugar is low we are more likely to experience fatigue, poor concentration, irritability, nervousness and depression.
Limit tea, coffee and alcohol. They are diuretic and their excessive use deplete the body of water and valuable minerals with it or, to use the terminology of Chinese medicine, leak qi through urine. In addition they are stimulants which trigger the release of adrenalin, destabilise blood sugar levels and disrupt sleep. The best thing to drink regularly is water and herb teas.
Minimise fried food and margarine. In terms of Chinese medicine they create damp-heat and phlegm. In Western terms they contain oxidising free-radicals which cause oxidisation of molecules and can lead to cell damage which triggers inflammation and degenerative disease.
How to Eat
Chinese medicine recognises the way food is consumed is as important as the food itself. Eating a nutritious and well balanced diet will not guarantee healthy qi if the spleen and stomach are compromised by other factors affecting their performance.
The spleen and stomach work best with regular routine. If meals are frequently missed or are erratic the function of the stomach and spleen can be severely compromised. The optimum time for eating will vary from person to person, however the optimum time for larger more carbohydrate meals is earlier in the day, between 7am-11am. This provides a steady supply of qi (energy) for the days activates which should be followed by smaller meals later in the day. People whose qi is deficient may find that they need to eat small amounts more frequently, every two to three hours.
Eating more, earlier in the day goes against the grain for many people in the UK where the main meal tends to be eaten in the evening. However eating late is particularly taxing on the system because it is the time when the body is naturally slowing down and doesn’t have the energy to digest a big meal properly. Instead food can easily stagnate in the digestive tract which may disrupt sleep, cause abdominal pain, nausea and reduce appetite for breakfast. A perverse cycle can be created where the digestive system is being asked to work hardest when it is naturally slowing down, and not supplying it with energy when it needs it most.
Digestion is an energy demanding process. If the body’s qi is diverted from the stomach and spleen into some other activity while eating there is less qi available for the transformation of the raw material. Even seemingly benign activities like reading or watching TV while eating can have an impact on the digestive function. Energy intensive activities such as working breakfasts, working though lunch and eating on the run do not support smooth efficient digestion
An essential element of good digestion is enjoyment: flavours, textures, aroma, colour, variety, presentation and environment all contribute to this. A healthy diet should not be a chore. Very rigid or restrictive diets feed a spleen imbalance creating a cycle of food obsession and further weakness. In these cases it may be more important to heal the relationship with food than it is to change what is eaten. Pleasure in eating a fine healthy meal settles the liver, eases the stomach and facilities the whole digestive process.
Chewing warms cold food and gives the digestive enzymes in saliva a chance to work making it easier for the digestive organs to receive and supports smooth digestion. Did you know complex carbohydrates become sweeter the more they are chewed? Be interested! Savour it.
In the Western world we tend to eat too much for our predominantly sedentary lives. It is estimated that on average 30% excess calories per day are consumed hence the obesity epidemic, currently reported at 22% in the UK (with 75% over weight). It was traditional wisdom to leave the table feeling you could eat a little more. For those with excess patterns (heat, damp-heat, phlegm, qi or food stagnation) reducing the amount of food eaten can be helpful. This can be achieved by having smaller portions, having two meals per day rather than the usual three or by an occasional fast. On the other hand people with qi deficiency patterns generally need to have small but more frequent meals.
Obesity aside overeating is undesirable because it creates stagnation - a temporary queue of food waiting to be processed. In the short term stagnation results in feeling tired because the body’s energy will be occupied dealing with the excess food. If it happens regularly the digestive system becomes strained and its function impaired
Under Eating & Dieting
Skipping meals or severely restricting calorific intake in an attempt to lose weight can easily damage spleen qi and yang. The quick rebound gain of more weight than was lost when normal calorific intake is resumed is evidence of this. Chinese medicine advocates eating sufficient quantities of the right food at the right time, in combination with appropriate activity, to maintain ideal weight which support overall health and wellbeing. When spleen qi is strong, good metabolism will help guard against weight gain.
Fasting in this context is defined as the consumption of vegetable juices and broths but with no intake of solid food. This can be beneficial for excess conditions one day a week for a few weeks, or in severe cases slightly longer periods of fasting (2-3 days) may be beneficial at greater intervals, say every 3-4 weeks. Fasting is not recommended at all for deficiency patterns, and can in fact contribute significantly to aggravate the problem. Fasting is not recommended during cold weather, for children, during pregnancy or when lactating.
Compiled by Sally Lancaster using the following sources:
Helping Ourselves: A guide to traditional Chinese Food Energetic. David Leggett
Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition. Paul Pitchford
Clinical Handbook of Internal Medicine: the treatment of disease with traditional Chinese medicine. Maclean and Lyttleton
The Optimum Nutrition Bible. Patrick Holford
Savour: Mindful Eating Mindful Life. Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr Lilian Cheung
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/4667826.stm accessed Feb 2013