Every culture has a concept of foods that are healthy and foods that are unhealthy. From early childhood, we are told that some things are good for us and some things are bad for us. And that it’s ok to eat the bad foods, just not too much and not until after we eat the good foods. While this perspective certainly has value, it is often too simplistic and sometimes it is incorrect.
According to Chinese medicine, every food has unique qualities and properties. This allows both for generalizations which can be true (such as “vegetables are good for you”) and for specifics which allow fine-tuning for a given individual (such as “you have deficient Spleen Qi and raw vegetables are not good for you.”)
Rather than generalize, it is easy enough to learn the basics of digestion and food qualities, and to make choices based on this understanding. This is an important point – Chinese medicine is focused not only on the food, but also on our digestion and physiology. If we don’t understand how our own body works, we cannot make good choices about foods.
I recently placed a post on Instagram about digestion.
You can read the information there.
In brief summary, the Spleen (organ of metabolic transformation in Chinese Medicine) may be damaged by too much cold, sweet, and damp; and is benefited by warm, balanced flavors, and lightness. While this may appear at first overly simple, the logic is based on foundations of digestion and physiology and leads to precise information about how to eat a healthy diet. (Note: This is a large discussion that will require multiple articles to fully discuss.) Here, I will offer common examples of foods that are typically categorized as healthy, but Chinese medicine views differently.
The majority of people I treat, when asked about their diet and describing the part they feel is healthy, will respond that they eat a lot of salad.
From the perspective of Chinese medicine, eating too much raw food can damage digestion in people who already have a weakened digestive system. Typically, people who eat a lot of salad are doing so because they want to lose or maintain weight, and the very fact that this is a concern suggests a weakened digestive system.
It is therefore the case that people wind up doing exactly the opposite of what they need.
In addition to salads being raw, they are often eaten cold. And sometimes with cold, oily (damp) salad dressing on top. We are warm blooded, and digestion is a warm, metabolic process. Food needs to be heated and churned into chyme before it leaves the stomach. When the food we eat is cold, either in literal temperature or in quality, it takes more energy to heat and break it down. Rather than gain energy from the food we eat, instead we lose some. In some popular diets, this is thought of as being beneficial. The idea is that by eating and drinking cold, we will burn off more calories in the process of digestion.
It is a problem that our only concept of food and weight is described in terms of calories, which we view as something bad and to be minimized. Rather than foster a nurturing relationship with food, we instead cultivate a life-long struggle.
Similar to salad, fruit is typically consumed raw and is relatively cold in energetics. In addition, it is very sweet. We tend to differentiate in the West between natural sugars and processed sugars. While this has value, still the overly sweet flavor of most fruit damages the Spleen when consumed in excess.
It is useful in this situation to understand that pancreatic function is subsumed under the category of Spleen in Chinese medicine. Sugar (sweet) is the first and most basic form of energy we utilize. Our bodies convert glucose into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the basic energy molecule of the body. Excess carbohydrate (complex sugar) energy needs to be stored as glycogen, and requires insulin from the pancreas. If we consume too much sugar over time, the insulin receptors on our cells become desensitized and the pancreas has to produce even more insulin. Over time, this leads to type 2 diabetes. In this condition, the blood is filled with sugar that the body is unable to use. There is starvation in the midst of excess. Eventually people gain weight and yet are malnourished. If they continue to treat this by eating more salad and fruit, the condition continues to get worse.
Somehow it is a common belief that garlic is good for you, that it is a strong food and possesses healing properties. However, for many people its regular consumption as a food is problematic. From a Chinese medical perspective, garlic is a pungent Qi reliever. It is used to move stagnant Qi.
Garlic is contraindicated for people with a weakened Spleen and digestion though, and for instances of ulcers or digestive tract inflammation. Yet in the West garlic is popularly marketed, along with fish oil, ginger, and turmeric, as an anti-inflammatory. This highly popular concept is too generalized to be of real clinical value.
Garlic may have anti-inflammatory properties, but in people who are sensitive it can aggravate inflammation. Experientially, anyone who has ever eaten garlic and gotten heartburn knows this.
Furthermore, foods and herbs are tropic – that is, they have affinity towards particular parts of the body. For example, in Chinese medicine, turmeric is tropic for the upper body. We use it in formulas along with other herbs to balance its properties, to treat neck and shoulder problems. The popular turmeric extract known as curcumin has a very low absorption rate, which is avoided when turmeric is combined with other herbs and foods as part of diet or Chinese medical treatment.
One last point is that from the perspective of biochemistry. Garlic contains high levels of fructooligosaccharides, or fructans. These compounds, found in a wide variety of foods that may generally be considered to be healthy, can cause significant gastric distress for people who are sensitive to them.
Coffee is one of those foods that seems, according to trends, healthy one week and unhealthy the next. This changing perspective reflects a lack of understanding in Western nutritional science about fundamental properties of foods.
Coffee acts as a bitter surface reliever in Chinese medicine. Surface relievers transform Jing into Qi to relieve the exterior of the body. That is, they move Qi up and out of the body surface, sometimes producing sweat, when there are external pathogens such as wind or cold that are producing acute symptoms. This Qi is liberated from deep reserves of energy that are stored in the Kidneys. As a result of this, people typically experience more energy when they consume surface relievers, which from a Western perspective sometimes have stimulant properties (such as caffeine).
These substances are medicinally useful for short term treatment, but can be draining and damaging when used regularly over time. From a Chinese medical perspective, coffee drains the Kidneys, dries the Blood, and produces stagnation of Qi. Coffee is not a healthy food from a Chinese perspective. This is true even of decaffeinated coffee; it is the bitter alkaloids and overall flavor and nature of coffee that gives its properties, not just the caffeine.
There are many additional examples of foods that are considered in the West to be healthy, but that Chinese medicine would consider to be unhealthy either for particular people or in particular situations. If you’re curious about whether a specific food is healthy for you, send me a note or we can discuss it at your next appointment.
To read more on related topics about food, see my posts: