Nutrition – Food as Medicine
“Let Food Be Thy Medicine and Medicine Be Thy Food”
This famous quote from Hippocrates (c. 370 B.C.E.) has been a favorite among foodies and nutrition conscious healthcare providers since its uttering a couple thousand years ago and it has become the battle cry of those who wish to find health outside of the typical healthcare fields today. This week, our exploration into the 8 branches of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has us investigating diet and nutrition.
We have all heard the story of the 3 Little Pigs who built their homes of various materials only to have them blown over by a wolf with excessive respiratory issues. The take-away from this story is that if one is going to build a house their choice of materials must be done so with a great deal of thought. In TCM, we believe that diet and nutrition is more crucial to long-term health than the medicine we take to achieve it. Taking a “water pill” to alleviate edema may help reduce the edema but changing the salt intake in your diet may help alleviate the problem from occurring in the first place so we can see the importance of choosing our building materials carefully. All too often we make a food choice based on our immediate need and fail to see the long-term effects it may have on our health. Doing this once in a while may not have much of an impact but making consistently poor food choices will ultimately lead to a health crisis.
Many people will wonder what kind of diet they need to achieve their ultimate goal of health, but the reality is that, from a TCM perspective, one’s ideal diet is based on so many individualized factors that it would be impossible to choose from a list. Such a thing is only accurately achieved by speaking with a TCM practitioner who can weigh everything from your personal constitution to the season to where you live, among many other factors. However, you can start with the basics of TCM in how we look at food, and that is nutrition is about eating wholesome, natural food that nourishes your body, feeds your mind and uplifts your spirit. Eating in this way, means eating as if you don’t have access to grocery stores, so nothing processed or packaged, avoiding chemicals as best you can and knowing where your food comes from, (CSA’s and farmers markets are a good start, this will also assure seasonal and local produce). I’m not saying this is easy in our society, but if you can aim for an 80%/20% goal, you’ll be in a good place. So, 80% of time you’re eating clean and only up to 20% of the time are you eating foods that don’t fit into that category. Beyond this, just like acupuncture prescriptions and herbal formulations, a healthful diet for an individual can only be found by looking at that individual’s needs and modifying it as the effect of the interventions changes those needs.
The Chinese diet looks at food as medicine in its flavors, seasons, actions and directions. The five flavors and its corresponding yin organ that it supports are sweet for Spleen, bitter for Heart, salty for Kidney, sour for Liver and pungent for Lung. The actions of food can be to disperse, gather, strengthen, soften or retard and directions being outward, upward, downward or inward. These qualities of the food have the ability to change the viscera organ to which they represent. For example, if someone has a tumor we might prescribe foods that are salty in nature and soften masses. If one has heartburn, we may prescribe foods with a downward direction and are cooling in nature.
How we prepare our foods as well as the way we eat them has as much impact on our digestion as the food we consume. We all have the traditional image of the family dinner. The house is filled with smells of food that has been cooking throughout the day, everyone is seated around a well-set table, everyone is washed and ready to eat. Internally, our bodies have been told that dinner is on the way and our digestive organs have been able to prepare for the food’s arrival and processing. Now let’s compare that with our reality. The sun has set, the parents are exhausted, and the best option for everyone’s sanity in the car is the closest drive-through. The body requires certain conditions to digest properly and if we don’t provide the proper environment for that to occur the process can become compromised leading to incomplete digestion and, subsequently, inadequate absorption. Eating while distracted (driving, arguing, working) leads to improper digestion but eating good foods prepared the wrong way can also be problematic. Eating in a loud, cold, or even windy place can have negative effects on digestion.
There is a lot to ‘digest’ when thinking about proper nutrition, but really if we go back to our roots it is intuitive and accessible. You can find a plethora of information from your local O.M.D. and/or books on Chinese nutrition.