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

Friday 29 March 2013

What real food is and why we need it

The recent scandals involving edible products that we are being sold by supermarkets in the UK and Europe -horse meat being sold as beef (1) and cheap fish varieties presented as more expensive ones (2)- are only the tip of the iceberg of a massive problem that affects us all. At the centre of this problem lies the food industry which, thanks to the blind eye of the law-makers, has managed to put into our food chain things that are hardly fit for
From healthy corn to sugar-laden flakes?
human consumption, let alone nutritious. This is just one example of the damaging consequences of a profit-driven world where entire industries are prepared to go to any lengths to maximise profits. In the case of the food industry this means making the most money out of the cheapest ingredients. Although this is appalling behaviour and those behind the misleading information given to consumers should be held accountable, the responsibility of what we put into our mouths ultimately lies on each of us. If we willingly stop exercising our power of discernment in respect to our food and render ourselves easy prey to clever advertising, then we cannot put the whole blame on the system, the food industry, or the supermarkets.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a country where local ripe fruit, fresh vegetables, and meats taken directly from the animal were cheaper than anything processed or pre-packed. When I first came to the UK over 18 years ago, it struck me that the opposite was true: Canned vegetables and fruit were cheaper than their fresh counterparts and anaemic-looking meats that had been packed for who-knows-how-long populated the supermarket shelves while chocolates, biscuits and crisps always seemed to be the most affordable products. People around me could not seem to do without the crisps and chocolates even for one day but fruit and vegetables did not seem that essential. Sadly, little has changed since then.

There is obvious confusion around what “food” is and is not, and a lack of understanding as well as abundant misinformation about what we actually need to eat in order to not just curb our hunger but be healthy human beings. Although plenty of studies show us that what we eat affects our health and there is talk of “we are what we eat” everywhere we look, this knowledge does not seem to have become part of our collective consciousness yet, or maybe we cannot be bothered to think about it? 
What food IS

Provided an expecting mother has a balanced and varied diet herself, her baby can obtain nourishment that will provide all the essential nutrients needed to form every cell and tissue of the body and promote growth and healthy development. This happens because during gestation we get our nourishment directly from our mother through the umbilical cord. After birth, it is our mother’s milk that provides all these essential nutrients until we are ready to receive food. From this point onwards and for the rest our lives, our development and health will depend on the nutritional content of what we eat and our capacity to extract goodness from it. Every cell and tissue of our bodies will then be made up of the nutrients received from what we ingest.

Animals are programmed to play their particular part in the food chain and instinctively know what to eat. Human beings are no different, we too carry the instinctive knowledge of what to eat and also of what is good and bad for us.  What happens to us when we override this instinct with “acquired knowledge”? What we are seeing all around us: obesity, devastated immune systems, and chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease reaching epidemic levels. An example of this “acquired knowledge” serving us wrong is seen in people who despite being lactose-intolerant have been consuming milk throughout their lives because it is “good for you”, and as a result have always suffered from indigestion, gas, allergies, etc. When I see a case like this in the clinic, it invariably turns out that even though the person did not “know” about their intolerance, they can recall feeling sickened by milk during childhood and being force-fed dairy products until it became a habit to consume them. More often than not, symptoms markedly improve after cutting out dairy from the diet. When we pair this willingness to override the messages from our body with marketing strategies designed to convince us that this or that food is great for us, then we are in even greater trouble. But I am straying here from the point, we now need to go back to basics. 

So what makes something a food?  I would say that for an edible product to be classified as “food” -i.e. a good source of energy and nourishment to make healthy cells - it must be:

1. Nutrient-rich: By this I mean natural nutrients which are necessary for our sustained energy and health such as complex carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, etc. “Added” chemicals resembling vitamins or proteins do not necessarily count as nutrients any more than what our clever food industry calls “natural” colourings or flavourings. We are genetically programmed to eat stuff of vegetable and animal origin, not chemicals forcefully extracted by man from something that was once natural, or produced in a lab to mimic something natural. These substances may end up clogging up our whole system as they cannot be dealt with by the body.

2. Clean: Free from dirt, harmful bacteria and disease.

3. Fresh: When food is in its natural form, it is easy to tell that it is past its time as it will look withered and colourless or it will decay and decompose. Preservatives that stop food from “looking” old do not necessarily preserve its freshness or nutritional value, they simply prevent decay. A tasting session comparing fresh products such as bread from a good bakery and fresh carrots from the greengrocer’s with their long shelf-life counterparts may show this to you better than words.

4. Composed only of natural substances:  Real food is not riddled with chemicals, preservatives, colourings, flavourings or ingredients so far away from their natural form that they have no nutrients left in them (see No 5 below)

5. The closest possible to its original form: The fresher a food stuff, the more nutrients it will contain; and the longer a food has been lying around, the lesser its nutritional content. This also goes for processing, the more you do to a food, the more nutrients you will take out of it. Many techniques have been developed by man to transform food in order to change its potency or quality, prevent it from decaying so that it can be kept for leaner seasons, or simply to avoid the boredom of eating the same thing over and over.  These methods include blanching, freezing, drying, curing, fermenting, smoking, etc. Some of these techniques may actually infuse new nutrients into the foods when performed on very fresh food and in a natural way.  

Conversely, when a food is subjected to refinement or processing which extracts its nutrients until it is rendered empty of any goodness, it is no longer food. The best examples of these are white sugar (all its vitamins and minerals being left in molasses during refinement), white flour (all its protein, minerals, and fibre being left in the husks and wheat germ), and pre-packed meals (frozen or not) whose ingredients are so empty of flavour and nutrients that a whole load of flavourings, colourings, sugar and fats are needed to make them edible.

What food IS NOT

Not Food
If we follow the above criteria, many of us will find in horror that many of our favourite edible products end up in the "not food" list. There go the crisps, chocolates, biscuits, cakes, many of the pre-made sauces, all ready meals, puddings, soft drinks, and so on. This may sound quite extreme but a profound and radical change in our concept of food and what eating is about is actually needed if we are to promote and sustain our own health and well-being. Unless this is done, most of us - even the reasonably healthy ones - are going to suffer from at least one of the many chronic, often degenerative conditions that are becoming more and more common in the world: diabetes, heart disease, obesity with all the problems that it brings, cancer, dementia, chronic fatigue, etc.  

Before you panic, this does not necessarily mean we need to completely ditch all the products mentioned above, and the many others not mentioned. It just means that when thinking of what to eat we need to be aware that most things that come out of a packet - apart from natural nuts, natural dried fruit, reasonably fresh fruit and veg, and similarly un-tampered food - can be high in toxicity and comparatively poor in nutrients so if we rely on them to curb our hunger or cravings too often we are not only not giving ourselves a chance to have good energy but we are potentially encouraging the creation of faulty cells and disease in the future. 

Why do we need real food?

Food is the basic ingredient of every single human cell
Every single cell in our bodies goes through a cycle of development, maturation and death; and every second of the day new cells are being created. Not only does this amount of cell reproduction require a huge amount of energy, but also a good source of raw material is needed for each single cell to be made. The energy for cell reproduction and the quality of the raw material to make our cells both depend to a large extent on the kind of nutrition that we are getting from our food. In other words, the quality of our food will account for the quality of our cells. Failing to nourish ourselves properly will result in faulty cells, faulty tissues, and faulty bodily functions which may result in chronic diseases including Cancer (3).

It is not always easy to determine the freshness of a food as the food industry has developed ways to make everything look fresh and tempting. Whether you have access or not to a market or a greengrocer’s where vegetables and fruit tend to be fresher and more natural, you can use your senses to find out about the food you are buying. You can determine if a banana is healthy or not just by looking at it, if a tomato is good by gently squeezing it, if the greens are old by looking through them, if a pineapple is ripe by sniffing it, etc. You can then let your instinct guide you to buy the best produce.With our modern time constraints, we have understandably become accustomed to “easy” and “quick” food and the idea of always cooking meals from scratch using fresh meat, grains, and vegetables always seems like a steep demand. It is also now deeply ingrained in our culture that every desire must be satisfied for us not to experience a sense of lacking. This way of thinking only makes us more unhappy as it makes us override the inbuilt wisdom we have had from birth and which allows us to know what is good and bad in favour of instant gratification which can only bring more craving and dis-ease.

Rather than taking guilt trips about our eating habits or fretting about changing the way we eat from one day to the next, what we all need to do is learn to make better food choices. For example, if there is no time to chop up vegetables and cook them it may be better to go for frozen than for the anaemic-looking already chopped and peeled carrots that say “fresh” in the packet but look old. We can also train ourselves to identify a processed food that has no real nutritional value because it contains only non-food ingredients and instead choose something less harmful to our health, or, if we often resort to pre-packed meals, we may be wise enough to go through the list of ingredients to check how many non-foods are listed and choose the one that is better for us.

Let us not forget that the food industry is more interested in profit than it is in our health. They want to sell us things that we will later crave because they give us short-lived pleasure resulting from chemical enhancers, excessive amounts of sugar, or other substances. Unfortunately, the pleasure that feeling well on a regular basis can give us is not part of our picture until we start to feel really unwell. Only then we might realise that what we feed ourselves every day does make a difference to the way we feel both physically and mentally. Is our daily intake of sugar, soft drinks or pre-packed meals worth the risk of a life-time with an incurable illness, or is our own well-being worth a little readjustment in our habits? The answer is down to each of us.