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How Food Works

In sharp contrast to many dietary systems, the dietary branch of Chinese Medicine never makes broad recommendations for everyone.  It does not herd people into ‘types’.  Diet is individual and needs to be adjusted to the moment.  For example, meals should be entirely different if a person is recovering from an illness or getting ready for a job interview, trying to get pregnant or trying to lose weight, studying for an exam or trying to rid persistent hay fever or headaches.  A person’s health and a person’s life are inseparable.  Everyone’s diet should be as individual as are his or her body, feelings, dreams and aspirations.  In truth, there is no health condition or life moment, large or small, upon which the foods we eat do not have an influence.  The art of food is in having those influences be positive (and delicious), supporting rather than impeding what we want for ourselves, families and friends (and customers, for the complex food industry).  In order to make this real in our lives, the basics of food energetics need to be understood.  


The main ways diet and health are discussed in a Chinese Medicine dietary therapy consulatation are introduced extremely briefly here:

The Naturalist Lens

In early Chinese Medicine, foods were considered from a naturalist point of view: by eating a food we bring some of that food’s nature into ourselves.  


Building and Clearing

Sometimes the most simple is the most important. Foods that build are those that contribute to bone strength, sufficiency of blood, muscle tonicity, amply balanced hormones and so forth.  Foods that clear are those that neutralize toxins, promote peristalsis, drain dampness (mucus, phlegm, stagnant fluids), clear Heat (inflammation), etc.  While all foods include some building and some clearing properties, no single food includes them in perfect balance for the shifting daily needs of an individual.  



Everyone wants good tasting food, but the word taste in this context is used in a special way to mean the way in which taste determines the effect of a food.  Naturally, artificial flavorings confuse taste and nourishment in complex ways and should be avoided.

Six tastes are discussed in Chinese Medicine.  Examining which tastes we favor and which we avoid is very important in discovering how our diets are influencing us, no matter how ‘healthy’ they may seem.  The sweet taste, for example, is naturally appealing to children since they are growing.  Many adults, however, wish to limit how much their physical bodies continue to grow (usually wider and thicker….)  Likewise, many people today dislike bitter foods, unaware that they can be important for clearing stagnation and cooling inflammation.  Taking a look at our habit foods from a Taste point of view is a very powerful practice. 



Directionality, the way in which foods move energy in the body, is very important in understanding foods.  Directionality relates to the part of plant used and the nature of the food itself (seafood is more descending than land animals or poultry, etc.)   Descending foods can move fluids or waste downward in the digestive tract, reduce a headache, or calm nausea.  Ascending foods are invigorating, can improve transport and assimilation of digested foods, and support immune function.  

Some foods exert more directional influence than others, for example, garlic is strongly ascending, raw carrots strongly descending, while a white potato is not very directional.  Vegetables and spices are highly directional and are key in fine tuning the energetics of meals.  


Temperature (or thermostatic influence)

Foods have varying thermostatic influences that are managed by cooking technique but never fully altered.  For example, whether eaten cold or warm, hot spices are hot and celery is cooling.  Knowing the temperature or thermostatic influence of foods is essential to understanding them. 


The Three Levels of Qi

Qi (chi) is a classical term that means energy. Literal translations include the words atmosphere or breath but the key idea is life animation.  In health and the body, qi means the capacity to fulfill function, and since function always includes movement, qi also means connection or communication.  

Our bodies rely upon three levels of qi:

  • The Constitutional Level (known also Yuan Qi-Source Qi) refers to the deep level of genetics, hormones, reproduction, bones and bone marrow.  Constitutional level foods include seafood (especially shellfish), seeds, nuts, some beans, mushrooms and sea vegetables.

  • The Nutritive Level (known also as Ying Qi) refers to blood, fluids, and the complete digestive process.  Ying foods include grains, vegetables, beans, root vegetables (especially potatoes, beets & sweet potatoes), fish and most meats.

  • The Protective Level (also known as Wei Qi) refers to the immune system, skin and hair.  Wei Qi foods include herbs and spices, fruits, some nuts, chicken and dairy.

This perspective was developed early in the history of Chinese Medicine.  Individual foods can been seen to have influence on two or even all three Levels, but at first we look at foods being primarily one level or other, then look at the foods that bridge or connect two levels. 


Five Elements

The Five Element system is a lens for viewing the way things grow, mature, wane, rest, and transition between.  The Elemental phases are Wood (the energy for birth, growth, movement), Fire (the energy needed to mature, ripen and complete), Earth (the energy that accommodates, nourishes, supports), Metal (the energy that cuts, discerns, judges, expels), and Water (the mysterious energy that consolidates, conceals, and germinates new life).  Each Element is associated with a direction or movement, two internal organs (a yin-yang pair), a taste, various emotions, personality traits, and so forth.  And, of course, each Element is associated with various foods that describe them and in turn stimulate them.  


The Five Element system can be applied simply or with complexity.  There are some clinicians who use it as their principal lens while others rarely use it at all.  At the very least, it is an important tool to differentiate similar foods and as a shorthand for complex energetics. 


Yin and Yang

Yin/Yang, the famous description of complementary opposites, originated in Chinese philosophy and was then applied to medicine and dietary understanding.  In the dietary context, yang means moving and yin refers to the substance of the body: bones, flesh, organs and fluids (blood, lymph, secretions and hormones).  A Yin food is nourishing while a Yang food is energizing.  Both are essential to life. Yin and yang are relative, never absolute.  Plants are fixed as they grow (yin) while animals move about (yang).  Plants that grow in water or wet environments (seaweed, mushrooms, rice) are more yin than plants that grow in dry conditions.  Plants that grow underground (root vegetables) are more yin than those that grow above ground (green vegetables).  Fruits, seeds and nuts are the completion of their plant’s mission and are therefore very yang, but so much so that they follow the natural law that extreme yin or yang transform into each other. 


Organ Affinity

For most people—home cooks, non-cooks, others—it can be sufficient to think in terms of the relationship of foods with the three levels of Qi.  If we were to get more complex in our thinking, however, we’d start looking a the way in which a given food affects specific internal functions.  This approach evolved during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) as herbalists began to focus on the affinity medicinal herbs have to the various internal organs.   Foods and herbs can be placed along a single continuum: most of our foods are not herbs, some are food and herbs (e.g., garlic, orange peel, sesame seeds) while the plants that are too powerful or too bitter to eat are only herbs.  During the Song Dynasty period, foods were assessed, like herbs, for their affect upon the internal organs.  Foods introduced later were explored and categorized accordingly.  Some of these associations were obvious extensions of the categories of taste, part of plant and Five Element thinking.  For example, sweet potatoes are foods with affinity for Spleen/Pancreas and Stomach based on their shape and color (Five Elements), part of plant (tuber, growing beneath ground), and taste (gentle sweetness is the taste that sustains digestion and the digestive organs).  Sweet potato is also assigned as a Large Intestine food and was observed to be useful clearing Large Intestine toxins and assisting healing from various bowel inflammatory conditions.  Some of the affinity assignments are easy to understand, others more difficult.  Working from the organ affinity point of view is complex, but it offers a more subtle understanding of foods, including minor uses that can be invaluable.  With the understanding of organ affinities, a modern cook can roll up their sleeves in the kitchen while also rolling up sleeves to participate with the masters of Chinese Medicine—the theories, insights and applications that have been discerned in a world very different from ours and tested in every generation since.  

Every food imaginable can be assessed for organ affinity.  The book of food information that I am completing includes this information along with Western nutritional findings, historical notes of interest, cooking methods and tips, and extensive ways to understand each food and use it for health and delicious eating.  

Food and Emotions

Foods are very important for supporting a healthy emotional life, a key foundation of good health.  More than just reaching for comfort, foods can be skillfully used to help move and resolve emotional states, if the emotions are well observed and a food strategy well matched to what is needed.    With enough information, cravings or food habits can be diagnostic, offering enough insight to make effective strategies, rather than relying upon willpower alone to make positive changes.



Cooking Methods

Beyond the foods themselves, it is essential to understand the influence different cooking methods have on identical foods.  

The energetics of cooking methods are organized according to organ affinity and Five Element association.  Selecting the best method depends upon a clear understanding of the complete needs of those you are cooking for (including yourself).  


Combining Foods Into Dishes, Meals, Diets

Combining foods into meals is where the art of food and health reaches its heights.  

As omnivores, we can manage the very complex digestive choreography of a mixed meal, up to a point, but Chinese Medicine has long pointed out that digestion is the center of all health or illness.  Improving digestion so that assimilation of nutrients is strong and stagnation is avoided will lead to an individual’s entire health improving, including aspects that have no apparent connection to diet.  It is not the healthiness of our diet that is most important, it is the health of our digestion.  


The Varying Schools of Chinese Medicine

Chinese Medicine has a very long history, categorized by the innovations and shifts of viewpoint that occurred in the historical dynasties since the Han (206 BCE through 220 CE).  Each period’s teachings can be used with sophistication and success if deeply understood.  


The Lens of Nutrition Science

Western nutrition science is another lens through which to view food and health.  The contributions of laboratory analysis have become essential to fully understanding nutrition.  Rather than diminishing the importance of food energetics, digestion and assimilation as seen in Chinese Medicine, nutrition science adds precise details to be used when appropriate.  Ultimately, an individual is beyond any amount of information that can be discovered through testing.  The strength of Western nutrition information is in exploring what is essential to include in the diet; the strength of Chinese Medicine dietetics is in improving the quality of digestion and assimilation so that whatever diet is being consumed is handled well.  The challenge for us all is to integrate multiple ways of thinking flexibly, each with their unique brilliance, applying what is most beneficial in the short and long terms, individually, communally and globally.  


Lenses Within lenses

Healthy eating is a complex subject that easily fosters debate in the press as well as amongst family and friends.  The complications and contradictions can be frustrating, but apparent contradictions can be resolved by perceiving which lens someone is using (there are more than those listed here).  Ultimately, we all would benefit most from a diet that shifts perfectly as our needs change, both on a daily basis and across the major transitions of our lifetimes.  To do this well, some fluency between lenses is indispensable.  Further, it is the role of the dietary clinician to sense when and how to apply the most appropriate lens.  For example, if a specific deficiency condition is present, the Western Nutrition lens can be very helpful.  Once resolved, the lens of the Three Levels of Qi may be best for maintaining health.  The Internal Organ System lens may be needed to tune emotions, restore good digestion or work with specific health conditions.  Knowledge of food practice for fertility, pregnancy, post-partum, pediatrics, convalescence and geriatrics is essential.  And of course, any of the viewpoints can be used to support excellent health if skillfully employed; after all, whatever lens we use, we are looking at the same human life with the same beneficial intention.  

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