Food as medicine is not a concept but rather a practice that has been utilized in China for centuries as an important catalyst for healing. “He that takes medicine and neglects diet, wastes the skills of the physician.” – Chinese Proverb
Foods and herbs that have a particular taste tend to have specific properties that can treat people with certain ailments. The Chinese diet includes all five flavors – pungent, sour, bitter, sweet and salty. Each flavor will support the yin organ for which it corresponds – sweet for Spleen, bitter for Heart, salty for Kidney, sour for Liver and pungent for Lung. These flavors have the ability to change the viscera (zang fu) organ to which they represent. The change, referred to as its action, may be to: disperse, gather, strengthen, soften or retard. An action can also be seen in the form of a direction, such as outward, upward, downward or inward.
In addition to categorizing food by their flavors, actions and directions, Chinese Medicine also considers the thermal properties and energy of food. Foods range in temperature and are categorized as cold, cool, neutral, warm, and hot. Depending on the condition of an individual, a food eaten from a certain category could have a negative or positive effect on one’s health. For example, someone with a excessively hot constitution could worsen their condition by eating too many ‘hot’ foods; where as, someone with cold symptoms could enhance there health greatly by eating warming foods. How we cook our food can also change the temperature- methods range from raw to roasted.
Eating seasonally is great way to promote properly temperate foods and is very complementary to the diet of most balanced individuals. Foods that are “in season”, or most natural with in our external environment, are often the best to support a more healthy internal environment.
Food can be used to supplement or build qi and blood by nourishing and supporting certain channels or organs. It can also transform dampness and phlegm, clear heat, and expel external pathogens. By selecting foods that suit our constitution, our bodies are able to work more efficiently, heal themselves, and encourage optimal health. Food cravings (the most common being for salty or sweet food) are usually a sign of imbalance. These deficiencies could be related to the Spleen and Kidney organs respectively.
Strengthen your digestive organs. The following suggestions are things that everyone should consider, but especially those of us at higher risk for spleen qi deficiency. If you live a busy lifestyle, are under stress, chronically ill, managing pain or inflammation, or have digestive issues-you could probably use some spleen and stomach strengthening.
Here are some basic guidelines for nourishing and supporting digestive health:
- Eat slowly, chew well, and eat at regular times each day. Regularity promotes a smooth flow of qi for digestion and discourages stagnation or food accumulation.
- Eat within an hour of waking. When a person is not hungry in the morning, this implies a digestive system weakness. The Stomach’s energy is strongest in the morning hours, especially between 7am to 9am. Avoid eating large meals late at night. Stomach qi is at it’s weakest during the hours of 7pm to 9pm. Overstrain of the digestive system may lead to food accumulation and have a negative effect on quality of sleep.
- Do not eat while stressed or mentally preoccupied. Take time to enjoy what you are eating. Over working, over worrying and emotional stress directly affects the proper flow of qi and contributes to Spleen qi deficiency.
- Do not drink large amounts of liquid with meals. Not only does liquid dilute stomach acid and make it harder for your stomach to break down food, it also overwhelms the spleen qi.
- Include warm broths, soups, and stews in your diet regularly. Warm soups and cooked vegetables are easy for the body to digest, and the nutrition is easy to assimilate. This is especially good if your digestion is severely compromised or you are very sick and weak. If you are especially weak or suffering from inadequate nutrient absorption, try what I refer to as “baby food”. Cook vegetables by steaming with ginger, stewing or roasting, and then puree or mash them if you choose. This will give your food a warmer quality and requires less digestive work, allowing your stomach more rest and the ability to recover. Here is a recipe for congee– a very easily modified dish to support digestion and heal the body.
- Focus on a vegetable-based diet. Reduce or eliminate your intake of processed foods, sugar, wheat, and excessive animal products. Make at least 50% of your plate vegetables at every meal, a mixture of cooked and raw (unless you’re deficient or prone to feelings of cold-see number 8 below on avoiding raw food).
- Choose meals that are easy to digest. Use simple food combining principles to ensure effective digestion, especially if your digestion is compromised. There are lots of ways to approach food combining from very strict to very loose; you have to find what works for you. Here is a link to a food combing chart.
- Do not eat an excess of raw or cold foods, cold drinks or frozen treats. Raw foodists will disagree with this philosophy, but Chinese theory states too much raw food can deplete your digestive strength. Despite the excellent enzymes available in raw and live foods, it harder for the body to break down, especially if you have weakened digestion due to illness, irritable bowel, or leaky gut. Raw foods force the body to work harder to heat up the food before it can be digested, using more digestive energy. Cold drinks and frozen treats (like ice cream) are a shock to the digestive system. Like all things, it is a matter of balance and listening to your own body.
Source and reference for Supporting the Spleen and recipes: Affairs of Living
Additionally, both Eastern and Western medicine would tend to agree to limit/avoid certain foods all together.
- Chemical additives and preservatives
- Processed and refined foods, especially white sugar, white flour and bread
- Processed meats and bad fats (trans fat)
- Hormone and antibiotic contamination within dairy products and meat
- Over consumption and infrequent meals
- Fried foods and fast food, especially foods with low nutritional value
- Alcohol, caffeine and other stimulants
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” – Hippocrates