Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Thursday, 5 April 2012

What is a healthy diet?: a Chinese Medicine view - Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I shared some of the basic TCM views of the digestive process. This part focuses on simple ways in which we can achieve a more balanced and healthier diet. 

TCM views of nutrition

Going back to the Chinese Medicine analogy mentioned in Part 1 of this post, we have our cooking pot (Stomach) where everything we eat and drink has to be cooked in order to extract the nutrients necessary for the proper functioning of the body. The efficacy of this process depends on the fire heating up the pot - our Spleen Yang, so no matter how apparently nutritious what we are eating is, if there is not enough fire to cook it with we won't be able to extract its goodness.

Another important point is that in every aspect of Chinese Medicine, balance is regarded as essential to both achieve and maintain health and long-term exposure to either too much or too little of anything will have detrimental effects on our health. Food is no exception to this so if you are putting too much of one kind of food in your body all the time, it is likely that this food is becoming toxic to you. Moderation and variety in our diet are by far the best ways of getting all the nutrients that we need. 

According to this, the two main guidelines for a healthy diet are:

1.  Eat a wide range of foods:
Variety in food and flavours is key for good health
As mentioned above, a varied diet is more likely to provide us with the nutrients that we need than a limited diet even if it contains foods that are regarded as highly nutritious. In addition, using diverse cooking methods rather than favouring only one or two will make your staple foods much more useful as they will have varied energetic effects on your system.

In Chinese medicine each of the naturally occurring flavours nourishes a different aspect of the body so balancing the flavours in our food is also advisable.The five flavours, with some examples, are:
  • Salty- seaweed, miso, seafood.
  • Sweet- rather than sugar this means the sweetness found in sweet potato, beetroot, mangoes, grapes, milk, and most grains such as brown rice. 
  • Pungent - spices such as cumin, ginger, garlic, etc
  • Sour - vinegar, lemons, and limes
  • Bitter- oregano, turnip, watercress.
Many foods do not have an obvious flavour, this may be because the have a combination of natural flavours. It is a good exercise for our taste-buds to try and discover the flavours contained in different foods, although this may be difficult for those used to eating food laden with salt, sugar, or spices.  

A variety of food groups is of course also necessary for nutritional balance. These are the proportions that are recommended:

Vegetables and fruits             40-60%
Grains                                  30-40%
Beans, Dairy, Meat, Nuts       10-20% 

2.  Support your digestive fire:
  • Avoid too much rich, over-spiced and greasy food.
  • Raw and chilled foods are best avoided unless you are feeling truly hot. Ice cream in winter is the capital sin here.
  • Chew all food well, especially if it is raw.
  • Soups and stews resemble the digestive process therefore they make it easier for our body to extract nourishment from the food and are the most recommended ways of cooking.
  • Unless you have a bright-red complexion, and/or feel hot or feverish, add moderate amounts of warming spices to your cooking. Ginger, cinnamon, cumin, basil, etc. can actually facilitate digestion when taken in moderation.
  • Use warmer spices such as black pepper, cardamom, clove and chili very sparingly and avoid them if you feel hot or feverish.

Given that these days we are confronted with the complexities of food production, industrialisation, and marketing, I would add these considerations:

What's on your plate?
  • As much as possible, cook from scratch using natural ingredients: Freshly cooked meals contain the most nutrients and the least risk of yeast and bacterial growth. This is also the only way in which you will know exactly what you are eating.
  • Avoid additives and preservatives by becoming a “label reader”: Have you noticed that supermarket bread has gone from containing 4 or 5 ingredients to containing up to 30 in some cases? And this is only one example! You may be consuming large amounts of inverted sugars, hydrogenated fats, preservatives, and additives which may be harmful to your health. By the way, do not believe that “natural flavourings/colourings” are necessarily a good thing. You could well be eating a chemical extracted from the non-descript fatty tissue of an animal.
  • Buy fresh, local ingredients: How do you feel after travelling for days on end, a 15 hour drive, or a flight to an African country? Fresh and full of life? Neither does a blueberry coming from the US, a Kenyan green bean, or a New Zealand apple. Lack of freshness equates to loss of nutritional values even if clever food industrialists have found ways to mask this by making not-so-fresh foods look pretty. Eating locally-produced food is not only good for the planet, it is definitely more nutritious!
For more on how to get the right nutrients visit my post exploring our concept of food.

Futher reading

If you want to find out a little more about how to balance your diet following the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine Daverick Legget's Recipes for Self-Healing is a wonderfully inspiring book that not only goes into TCM theories but also has delicious recipes.

For those wanting too look more into where our food comes from and what has been done to it before it reaches us, Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence is an excellently written and well documented read.

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