Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Chinese Nutrition vs. Western Nutrition

Just the other night I was discussing the topic of nutrition with a patient. This is a subject that comes up repeatedly during treatment sessions. It comes up because I ask about it at the first appointment and then again at subsequent appointments. Why, you may be thinking, does he ask about a person’s diet? The answer is because Chinese medicine demands that a practitioner evaluate all aspects of a person and one of the main influencing factors in a person’s life is the food that they eat. Chinese nutrition is vastly different from Western nutrition in many ways. In Western nutrition one size fits all (see the food pyramid below) - if your "healthy." Try and define that! You will need to drop your pre-conceptions and open your mind in order to read further.

It is funny to see all the self-confidence that my patients exhibit when they begin to tell me about all the salads that they eat and how they don’t eat red meat or any meat at all. It is sad to hear about all the store bought, pre-made and pre-packaged food that they do eat.
food pyramid

Chinese medicine views what we eat as a very important component to our daily health and well being and as such it categorizes food into areas of energetics. Namely it looks at - the taste of the food, the temperature of the food (not what you think) and the season that one finds oneself living in. It also considers the person’s energetics at the time. Then all those concepts need to be blended to best compliment the patient. Confused yet? It also considers the environment and way in which one eats.

Let me explain – for example as I write this it is winter time here in the Greater Washington, D.C. area. Yet, if one were to go into a grocery store one could find peaches, plums nectarines, grapes, strawberries, all looking ripe & yummy. So what’s the problem? The problem is that these are all summer fruit and have summer energies as they were grown in the Southern hemisphere and we live in the Northern hemisphere and are not having summer now. Your body is in winter mode and not summer mode. In Chinese medicine this means conservation of energy, eating hearty foods that will build a reserve within you that can be tapped for the seasons of growth and renewal, namely spring & summer. One needs, as I wrote earlier, hearty foods, warming foods, foods that will build you up and strengthen you in order to fight colds and flu’s. What you do not need are foods that are light and cooling, which summer foods are – as they should be, summer is hot and “heavy.”

In Chinese medicine we speak about energies and within the body there are different organs that govern the energies of the body (for an in-depth explanation of the theories of Chinese medicine there are many textbooks available). In the case of digestion, it is the Spleen. Chinese medicine says that the spleen governs digestion, rules the muscles, holds blood in the in the vessels, produces phlegm and is the main partner in producing De’ QI, the main energy that keeps the body functioning. It is said that the spleen likes warm and dry conditions and operates most efficiently in that environment.

According to Chinese medicine raw fruits and vegetables are cold & damp in nature and adversely affect the spleen’s energy & function if eaten in abundance. Dairy is considered a phlegm producer and is also tough on the spleen. Meat is said to build blood and strengthen the body. Vegetables and fruits are best if cooked somewhat – stir-fried, steamed or souped, well in the case of fruits – stewed.

Herbs and spices are also categorized into temperature and taste and can influence the foods we eat.

As you can see this is an involved topic that deserves its own lecture, a lot of time to digest (ha! ha!) and understand. There are many fine books on the subject as well.

Happy eating!!

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