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Chinese Nutrition - The Energetics Of Food

by Neil Kingham(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 154 - January 2009

Energetics vs Chemical Constituents

It's pretty obvious that a chili pepper is a 'Hot' food, but would you have thought that lamb and trout are too? Or that seaweed and mango are very Cold?

According to the principles of Chinese medicine, all foods can be categorized according to their energetic temperature, whether they are Cold, Cool, Neutral, Warm or Hot. What this describes is the effect of the food on the body; quite simply, what it does to you when you eat it. This is in keeping with the holistic view of Chinese Medicine, but somewhat at odds with standard Western nutrition.

For instance, the fact that a banana is high in potassium, with abundant fibre and vitamins C and B6 is largely irrelevant to a traditional Chinese medical practitioner, as these concepts do not form a part of the medical framework in which he or she is working. However, the knowledge that bananas are Cold and Sweet and nourish Yin has immediate relevance – for a person who is on the Warm and Dry side, who maybe suffers from constipation, bananas would be an ideal food. On the other hand, for the Cold, Damp individual, bananas might aggravate an existing condition.

Yin and Yang symbol
Chinese medicine is a medicine of energetics. That is, it is concerned with our energetic body, our Qi. All the branches of Chinese medicine work primarily with Qi, and Chinese Nutrition, also known as 'Dietary Therapy' is no exception. In just the same way as with acupuncture, herbalism, tui na massage or qi gong, the treatment follows an individual Chinese diagnosis based on one or more energetic 'patterns of disharmony'.

This is not to say that knowing the chemical makeup of a food has no value, and indeed the modern practitioner will often make use of this information, but using the traditional energetic descriptions of food aligns the understanding of diet with the Chinese diagnosis and treatment plan – it makes diet an important and fundamental part of any treatment.

Foods are described not only by their temperature but also by their flavours, routes and actions. The five flavours of  foods relate to the five elements of Chinese Medicine, and also to different organs:
  • Salty relates to Water and the Kidneys. It regulates fluid in the body and encourages movement inwards and downwards. It softens and detoxifies;
  • Sour relates to Wood and the Liver and has an astringent effect, encouraging contraction and absorption. The sour flavour helps to overcome stagnation;
  • Bitter relates to Fire and the Heart, and has a draining and drying effect. It is of most use in excessive patterns and is reduced for those who are Cold and/or deficient;
  • Sweet relates to Earth and the Spleen. It is the most building and nourishing flavour. Note that this refers to the natural sweet flavour as found in root vegetables and grains – refined sweeteners such as sugar, although clearly very sweet, do not have the same nourishing effect;
  • Pungent relates to Metal and the Lung. It promotes the circulation of Qi and Blood, dispersing stagnation.
Finally, the route of a food is which meridian (channel) is effected, and the action describes any other therapeutic effect of that food, for instance if it tonifies Qi, clears pathogenic Heat, or aids Blood circulation. The combination of temperature, flavour route and actions gives us a complete overview of the energetic properties of a food.

By way of illustration, consider the Walnut. It is Warm, Sweet, and enters the Kidney channel. It tonifies Yang, Qi and Yin, counteracts Cold and clears Phlegm. This tells us that it is the ideal food for a dual deficiency of both Yin and Yang of the Kidneys (it is one of the few foods that can strengthen Yin and Yang at the same time) and as it has a Warm nature, especially for Kidney Yang Deficiency.

A Healthful Diet

When Hippocrates said "Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food" a few hundred years BC, he wouldn't have known it but he was saying the same thing as Chinese doctors of the time – who proposed that food and medicine share the same source.

In ancient China, dietary therapy was considered the first treatment of choice for most conditions, and only if this failed to have any results were other methods such as acupuncture, herbs or tuina massage administered. In modern China today the regular use of medicinal foods survives among the population in a far more sophisticated way than our 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away'! In fact, medicinal ingredients are regularly cooked into soups and other dishes to maintain health and wellbeing.

The Neijing talks of the four types of food, saying "the five grains are used to nourish, the five fruits to assist, the five animals to fortify, the five vegetables to fulfil".[1] This indicates that grains and vegetables should form the basis of our diet, with fruits and meat providing a supporting role. In the West we have got used to cheap meat, and tend to eat far too much of it – sitting down to a 12oz steak puts a massive strain on the digestion! Whilst meat is very strengthening, too much meat overloads the digestive system and can contribute to a variety of health problems.

Instead, the 'light, clear' diet recommended by Chinese medicine consists of whole grains and vegetables, lightly cooked (e.g. steamed or stir-fried) with a little meat, fruit and nuts and seeds. Heavy, rich and processed foods should be kept to a bare minimum, as they introduce pathogenic Heat and Dampness into the system.

The preparation and cooking of food is also important to its energetic qualities. One of the distinct contrasts to commonly held Western ideas is regarding the relative merits of cold, raw food. In Chinese thought, cold and raw foods such as salads, smoothies and raw fruit are considered Cold in energetic nature, and quite detoxifying. They are thus suitable for strong, robust, Hot natured people but not really recommended in large amounts for frail, Cold or weak people, or those with digestive difficulties.

Because it takes so much more energy to digest cold and raw food, anyone with digestive problems such as food intolerance, bloating, IBS, indigestion etc would be wise to move to more cooked and warm foods. Slow cooked soups, stews and casseroles are all excellent choices for most of us, as they are the easiest foods to digest, and reach the stomach in a state where their Qi can easily be utilized.

The way one eats is also important – we should eat in a calm and relaxed environment, enjoying and focusing on our food. If we are distracted; for instance if we eat in front of television or whilst reading, then our digestion suffers. Sadly, fewer and fewer of us really take pleasure in food, and modern life dictates that we must eat 'on the run'. However, if you can, eating sitting at a table and taking time to enjoy your food allows your Qi to do its work undistracted and your digestion will benefit.

In line with a slower pace of eating is the recommendation to chew your food '100 times' or 'until it is water'. Of course, it is the chewing of food and mixing it with saliva that is the first stage in the digestive process. Next time you have something to eat, count how many times you chew. While 100 chews may be a little extreme, the idea of chewing your food more is worth consideration.

Finally, the time we eat is important. The American nutritionist Adelle Davis came out with some controversial and possibly dangerous ideas in her time, but is best known for  her sound advice to 'eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper' which fits exactly with the Chinese view. The digestive system is at its strongest from 7-11am and at its weakest from 7-11pm, so it is wise to have a large breakfast and a small evening meal (ideally no later than 7pm). For those looking to lose weight, this is doubly important – if any further proof were needed, bear in mind that Japanese sumo wrestlers do the opposite and eat massive meals late in the evening in order to maintain their weight!

Putting It To Use

The newcomer to Chinese nutrition is often daunted by the amount of information about different foods, particularly if they have little background in Chinese medicine. However, it is quite easy to apply some of the basic principles. The basic guidelines for a healthful diet are probably the most important – eat plenty of whole grains and vegetables, opt for cooked and warm foods more than cold and raw, reduce refined and artificial foods, relax, chew well, eat breakfast, and enjoy!

Beyond that, making some adjustments to the specific foods you eat is fine-tuning, so don't get too caught up in the detail. The first step is to understand your energetic condition – your pattern(s) of disharmony. Self-diagnosis is very difficult, so seek out your local Chinese Medicine practitioner. Practitioners will be trained in dietary therapy to different degrees, with some having a lot of knowledge and offering it as a therapy of its own, and others only knowing the basics to complement their main therapy – be it acupuncture, qi gong or whatever.

Once you have your diagnosis, use one of the books on the subject (see recommended reading, below) to draw up a list of foods that will help your condition, and those that will make it worse. Now, the most difficult bit for some is not to panic or be too strict! Changes should be gentle, and always within a broad and varied diet that contains all of the flavours and temperatures of food. Chinese Nutrition writer Daverick Leggett refers to this gentle adjustment as the 'dietary tilt' [2] – a small but significant change to the diet that moves it in the desired direction for healing.

In this way you can enjoy eating a wide range of foods that will benefit your particular energetic state, improving your overall health and well-being, but without having to stick to a rigid regime. As well as the improvement in a specific condition, as your digestive system improves and you are able to obtain more Qi from your food, you may notice better energy levels, improved sleep, greater immunity and many other benefits, allowing you to discover for yourself that food and medicine truly do 'share the same source'.

References:

1. Ni Maoshing (trans). The Yellow Emperor's Classic Of Medicine. Shambhala. Boston. P94. 1995.
2. Leggett Daverick. Helping Ourselves. Meridian Press. Totnes. 1994.

Recommended Further Reading

1. Leggett, Daverick. Helping Ourselves. Meridian Press. Totnes. 1994.
2. Leggett, Daverick. Recipes for self-healing. Meridian Press. Totnes. 1999.
3. Ni Maoshing and McNease Cathy. The Tao of Nutrition. Seven Star Communications. California. 1987.

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About Neil Kingham

Neil Kingham LicAc LicTuiNa MBRCP MBTNC practises Chinese Nutrition, Acupuncture and Tui Na massage in Bristol and South Wales, having first become interested in Chinese medicine in the early 90s when he was introduced to T'ai Chi. He lives with his partner in the Brecon Beacons, Wales. He can be contacted via his website at www.neilkingham.com

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