Nutrition in Chinese Medicine – Food as Medicine
By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP
Nutrition and dietary therapy is an essential aspect of Chinese medicine. The Chinese have known for thousands of years the direct correlation between what we eat and our health. Even before the development of acupuncture and Chinese herbs, foods were used by traditional peoples to heal diseases and build immunity.
The Chinese medicine model of nutritional therapy, or using foods as medicine, is sophisticated and there are many factors that contribute to determining what to eat when trying to heal from certain diseases or imbalances. Below, I will attempt to explain some of those factors and the way they can be used to not only heal us when we are sick, but to keep up healthy so sickness never has a chance to develop.
One of the things we’ve lost in our modern society, is access to whole foods (not the grocery store) and an understanding of their value. We now live in a culture where refined foods such as white rice, white sugar, salts and processed oils (many extracted with chemical solvents) are ubiquitous and more desirable that their whole grain counterparts. What’s worse is that stores make these processed foods readily available to meet demand and whole foods become harder and harder to find. In many larger cities there may be access to health food stores, but even there, you’ll find scores of packaged foods with the same highly processed ingredients. Many people don’t realize that it is just as important to read labels in a health food store as it is anywhere else. Some of the worst offenders are foods sweetened with cane sugar. As an example, many products labelled organic use white sugar and various organic cane juices and cane juice powders – which are actually refined sugar. If you are striving for less processed foods in your diet, you should be looking for products that are specifically labelled unrefined. Alternatives to processed sugars include unrefined cane juice or powder, barley malt, rice syrup, date sugar or whole green stevia powder or green stevia extract.
Another unhealthy product which is difficult to metabolize and detrimental to our health is refined oils. Often these are labelled with words like “organic” or “expeller pressed” which are both desirable, but again, unless they are specifically labelled unrefined they are refined and best avoided. Refined oils and fats include canola oil, vegetable oils, margarine, shortening, virtually all oils used in restaurants, nearly all oils used in prepared foods in both supermarkets and health food stores and in things like breads, pastries, chips and soups. The healthy alternative is unrefined cold pressed flax oil, unrefined olive oil, unrefined sesame oil, and all other quality, unrefined and cold pressed oils. Below is a chart of the refined foods found in supermarkets and some healthy alternatives.
Refined, Unhealthy Food
- white sugar
- cane juice
- dried cane juice (often used in health food industry)
- cane sugar
- *all above items should be labelled “unrefined” on labels or they are refined
- *unrefined cane juice or powder
- barley malt
- rice syrup
- date sugar
- whole green stevia powder
- green stevia extract
Refined Oils & Fats
- canola oil
- common vegetable oils
- virtually all oils used in restaurants in fried and deep fried foods
- nearly all oils used in prepared foods sold in supermarkets and health food stores like pastries, cookies, chips, breads and soups
- unrefined and cold pressed flax oil
- unrefined olive oil
- unrefined sesame oil
The Thermal Nature of Foods and People
In Chinese medicine, all foods are seen to have a temperature, either hot or cold. Although this may seem overly simplistic, their actions on the body come from thousands of years of observation and empirical evidence and therefore have incredible diagnostic value in treating disease. What is also significant however, is the thermal temperature of the person eating the foods as there is an important interaction which allows foods to be used to heal disease. There are some theories that help to explain the warming and cooling properties of foods.
- Plants that take longer to grow, like cabbage, rutabaga, parsnip, carrot and ginseng, are more warming than foods that grow more quickly like lettuce, cucumber, radish and summer squash.
- Foods that are fertilized with chemicals, which causes them to grow more quickly are considered more cooling in nature. This includes most commercial fruits and vegetables
- Raw food is more cooling than cooked food
- Foods that are blue, green or purple in colour are often cooler than similar foods that are red, orange or yellow
- Cooking foods at a lower heat for a longer time are considered more warming that foods that are cooked for a short time using high heat
- Processes like fermenting and sprouting cause foods to be cooler in temperature
Of all the ways we manipulate foods, the most important is the method of cooking. This is why it is important to understand the ways in which different methods of cooking can change the thermal temperature of the foods we eat, especially when we are eating to help us fight disease. Cooking foods (as opposed to eating them raw) is a way for it to be more easily broken down and assimilated, and if the cooking time is short, few nutrients are lost and the ones that remain are more easily used by the body.
Imbalances in the body are what cause disease in Chinese medicine. Too much heat can be caused by too many heating foods, or not enough cooling foods. It can also be caused by excess physical activity, a high level of stress, long standing or intense anger (the Liver is prone to heat and its emotion is anger), or being exposed to extreme temperatures. Below are some symptoms of heat in the body.
- feeling of heat
- dislikes heat
- bright red tongue with thick yellow coating
- red face
- red eyes
- canker sores
- bad taste in the mouth
- high blood pressure
- very fast pulse
- local inflammations, swellings, rashes, sores or skin eruptions
- constipation (heat dries up fluids)
- dry and smelly stools
- dark yellow and scanty urine
- blood in the stools or urine
- desire to drink cold liquids
- if stools or urine are excreted forcefully or urgently or have mucus that is yellow or green
One of the best things that we can do when we have excess heat in the body is to eat more cooling foods. Some other things that will help are to take it easy and slow down. Also, expressing emotions like anger and frustration as if these are continually unexpressed they cause heat to build up in the body which can lead to problems. Also, meat is considered very heating to the body, so if you are experiencing a lot of heat, you might try cutting back on meat and adding more cold foods to the diet to balance things out. Below is a list of cooling foods.
- all citrus fruits
- bok choy
- summer squash
- soy milk
- alfalfa sprouts
- kelp and all seaweeds
- lemon balm
Too much cold in the body can come from a lack of physical activity, exposure to a cold environment or eating too many cooling foods such as raw foods which are considered cold. Internal cold can also arise from not eating enough warming foods, especially in the colder months. Below are some signs and symptoms of cold in the body.
dislike of cold
wanting to drink warm foods and liquids
copious, clear urine
watery, loose diarrhea
fearfulness (the Kidney is associated with fear and is particularly susceptible to cold)
pain that is fixed
- Chicken Livers
- Lamb Kidney
- Black Beans
- Pine Nuts
- Sunflower Seeds
- Mustard Greens
Food therapy in Chinese medicine is complex, but looking at how people and foods are seen to have a thermal nature is a simple way to begin to look at your body, its symptoms and the foods you eat so that you can begin to understand how you are reacting to certain foods, and potentially, how to add and subtract certain foods from your diet depending on the symptoms you are experiencing in an attempt to rebalance and stay healthy.
Food is something we eat every day and the Chinese knew this was (and still is) the best medicine we have at our disposal. Learning how foods can heal us and keep us in balance is the best and most efficient way that we can fight off disease and stay healthy for many years to come. And the Chinese weren’t the only ones who knew the value of eating well…
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