There are a number of healing practices that are included in Chinese medicine. You may be familiar with acupuncture and Chinese herbs, but many people are unaware that food therapy is an equally important healing tool in this medicine. The Chinese say that practitioners should first try to heal by prescribing the right foods, and only if that fails should they turn to acupuncture and herbs.
It’s difficult not to notice how differently we think about food in the Western culture compared to the theories behind Chinese food therapy. Many of the ideas behind healing with food fly in the face of what we think we know as good nutrition or eating well according to Western traditions. Here are some examples:
- It’s all about energy in Chinese medicine. From a Western perspective, we tend to count calories in order avoid eating too many. However, in Chinese theory the reason for eating is to gain energy for your body to function. The calories you eat are a kind of Qi, or life force, which are needed to fuel all of the things your body does, including immunity, the ability to heal, movement, digestion, breathing, temperature regulation, and metabolism.
- How you cook your food matters. This is also about energy, but also about your digestion. According to Chinese theory, you need an adequate amount of digestive fire, or energy, to digest your food completely in order to derive the energy and nutrients from it that you need for your body to function. However, raw vegetables and fruits take more fire than cooked foods to digest completely. Simply put, cooking your food is a little like pre-digestion. If you’re having digestive problems, are ill, or are fatigued, eating a lot of raw foods may only aggravate your condition. According to Chinese theory, you’ll get more overall energy out of your food if it’s cooked.
- Foods aren’t considered to be good or bad in general. One of the foundations of Chinese food therapy is that foods are chosen based on your specific needs. What’s good for your best friend may not be what’s healthy for you. In Western culture however, we’re quick to look for superfoods that are a panacea for everyone, or to eliminate whole categories of foods that might only be a bad choice for some people. For example, in the past fats have been labeled as foods to avoid without making the distinction between healthy and unhealthy fats. Today, carbohydrates are labeled a food culprit, when in fact there are many healthy carbohydrates. The end result is that we’ve eliminated potentially healthy foods from our diets and are eating a lot of foods that might not be optimal for everyone.
- In Chinese medicine, eating too many of the wrong foods aren’t necessarily considered to be fattening, but instead are dampening. Dampness occurs when you eat too much of the wrong food for you, combined with poor digestion or metabolism. Your body gets bogged down and moisture accumulates, causing “puddles” of dampness to build up in the form of edema, yeast overgrowth, athlete’s foot, and moist rashes. In addition, adipose tissue—or fat—is also considered to be an accumulation of dampness.
- In Chinese food therapy, foods are classified by how they act on your body. In Western medicine and dietetics, we categorize our food in terms of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Our food pyramid and recommended dietary choices are based on these categorizations. However in Chinese food therapy, foods are classified by how they act on your body. Similar to Chinese herbal therapy, foods have inherent temperatures and actions. The temperature of a food is not a description of how spicy it is, but a way to describe the thermal effect it has on your body. For example, melons are considered to be cooling foods, but lamb is warming. In addition to its temperature, foods also have an action. For example, a food can boost your energy, build up your blood, or drain dampness. In Chinese food therapy, the foods that are recommended for you are based on both temperature and action, according to your specific health needs.
- According to Chinese medicine, one of the underlying causes of disease is eating food that’s been “wrecked”. If you wheel your cart through a grocery store, either in the United States or China, you’ll find foods that have all kinds of additives. With ingredients such as artificial flavors, to food dyes, to preservatives, many of the foods you find in the grocery store have been chemically altered to enhance shelf life, flavor, and appearance. According to Chinese medicine, one of the underlying causes of disease is eating food that’s been “wrecked”. In ancient times, that meant rotten or spoiled food. Today however, wrecked food might mean products that are unrecognizable as food due to chemical additives or processing that has stripped them of their nutrients. One of the basic principles of Chinese food therapy is eating foods as they’re found in nature.
While Chinese food therapy is best done in partnership with your acupuncturist or practitioner of Chinese medicine, the above comparisons offer up a few guidelines for eating just a little better. Pick foods that make you feel your best, not those based on current diets or food fads. Try to choose foods with few or no additives; cook most of your produce; don’t worry too much about calories; eat slowly; and enjoy your meals.
In addition to her training in Chinese food therapy, Cynthia Chamberlain is also certified as a Functional Nutrition Guide by mindbodygreen’s Functional Nutrition program. In choosing appropriate food therapies for an individual, she incorporates both western Functional Nutrition and Chinese food therapy.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.