Before acupuncture, before herbal medicine, in Chinese Medicine (CM) the first line of therapy is good food. If you aren’t feeling well, your CM doctor will take your history, check your tongue and pulse, diagnose you, and, as part of a comprehensive plan, may prescribe a customized therapeutic nutrition plan to gently restore wellness over time. By following basic CM principles, a targeted therapeutic diet can greatly enhance your life.
Unfortunately, in our post-modern era “diet” often means following food lists categorized into “good” or “bad” foods, foregoing entire food groups, gulping micronutrients in smoothies, or limiting caloric intake by eating raw and uninspiring foods. Chinese nutritional therapy advocates fresh, yummy, warm-cooked meals that leave you feeling nourished, calm, and satisfied. Ideally, you should push away from the table sated but not stuffed, energized, enthused, and ready to tackle the day.
Because CM customizes treatments for each person, it is tricky to create a list of principles that work for everyone, but here are a few tenets that apply to Chinese Nutritional Therapy in general.
Chinese Medicine Nutritional Tips
1. Cook for yourself.
If you or a loved one are unwell you must cook for yourself. Even if you are eating in the best restaurant in town, restaurant food, take-out, or prepared meals cannot deliver enough vitality to restore your health. When a stranger is preparing your food, you don’t know the quality of the ingredients, the care of his methods or the state of his mind. If the chef is angry, that anger may affect your digestion. In your own kitchen, raw material is alchemically transformed into nourishing elixirs. Your intention is the magic ingredient. That’s why Mama’s food was so good: you could taste the love she put into it.
2. Method is medicinal.
The cooking of animal products, plants and grains alters their nature making them remedies if you are using the appropriate cooking methods for you. Do you suffer from stagnancy? Stir frying rapid-growing vegetables like asparagus in a pan breaks up stagnation. Are you exhausted? Stewing root vegetables will rebuild your foundation. Do you experience the rising tide of anxiety? Steaming grains and lentils, or pulses will ground you. The methods of cooking are themselves a healing treatment.
3. Eat foods you like and that work for your lifestyle.
Your meals should reflect your identity and culture, AND food should be seasonal. While macrobiotic food can be health-providing, nobody should be forced to eat tofu and brown rice if they don’t like them. Heavy farmer’s breakfasts are excellent if you work in the fields all day, but office work doesn’t require that kind of fuel. Are you eating strawberries year-round? It’s not a superfood if it’s out of season.
4. Hot food nourishes.
Your stomach likes foods that arrive warm and soupy. Very few people chew well enough to warm cold food before it passes the lower esophageal sphincter. Salads and raw food are cold in nature, which is hard on your guts and contributes to bloating, and digestive issues. Cold food has its therapeutic use: when the weather is broiling hot in the middle of summer, the body cools off with leafy greens and fruit. The rest of the year it is counterproductive to consume these foods raw.
5. Eat a variety of foods, flavors, and colors.
Do you consume green, red, white, yellow, brown (or blue, black, purple) foods every day? Do you regularly eat salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami foods? In North America we prefer the salty and sweet tastes, but on other continents people eat a much wider variety of bitter, sour and a pungent flavor—a “mature” flavor that nutritionists and food scientists call umami, which covers fermented foods, mushrooms, and pungent foods like crucifers. Variety is life.
6. Nourishment is not limited to solid food.
Fluids should be consumed slowly throughout the day. Ice-cold drinks freeze the stomach and can create stagnation. Heavy stew-like soups can nourish our body and soul, but the light clear soups like broth and consommé are wonderful for replenishing the vital fluids we need for our brain, blood, eyes, skin, and joints and should be a bigger part of our lives.
7. Whatever your daily diet is, it must be sustainable.
No one can live for the rest of her life gorging on protein, or avoiding fat, nor can you live a full life without the occasional
taste of sweet to brighten your day. Each day you should be eating of all the good things on earth: herbs and spices, fish, poultry, eggs and meat, grasses, greens, sedges, fungi, vegetables, grains, drupes, fruits, stone fruits, berries, sea vegetables, roots, squashes, succulents, pickles, beans, brassicas, nuts, and seeds. How many of this list have you eaten today? (Trick question: how many depends on the season!)
8. Stay Consistent.
Once you find foods and dishes that work for you, it’s not enough to eat them occasionally. You must consume them regularly over time until your meals, like a medicine, or an exercise regime, change you from within.
Chinese Medicine Nutritional philosophy is based on seeking holistic overall improvement over time, in a sustainable and delicious manner, not upon discovering a new superfood to heal all ills. Health of the body is dependent upon its nourishment. Simple is best–it doesn’t have to be five-star cuisine. Eat well to be well.
About the Author
Tiffany C. Hoyt is a doctor of oriental medicine with over 25 years of East Asian medicine and lifestyle training. She is currently practicing at George Washington Center for Integrative Medicine in Washington, D.C.
In her practice, Dr. Hoyt emphasizes healing through all the eight traditional branches of Chinese medicine: Meditation, Chinese nutritional therapy, Acupuncture, Moxibustion, Chinese herbal medicine, Customized movement therapy, East Asian body work, Feng Shui and Ba Zi.
Contact us to schedule an appointment with Dr. Hoyt.