During my first class in the study of Chinese medicine, I was told that the Chinese way of thinking was different from everything that I had grown up knowing.
The difference between the two cultures is readily apparent when we talk about food. It’s hard not to notice how differently we Westerners think about what we eat when compared to the principles of Chinese food therapy. Here are a few disparities between the two cultures in how we view food.
1. Good Food Versus Bad Food
In Western culture, we like to make foods the good guy or the bad guy. A decade ago, fats were the villain, today it’s carbohydrates and gluten. This faddish way of eliminating whole food groups is crazy and often unhealthy. That said, eliminating hyper-processed foods and foods full of denatured ingredients is another matter entirely.
2. Raw Versus Cooked
In our Western culture, raw foods are king, and the more the better. However, a principle of Chinese food therapy is that it takes more energy, or digestive fire, to break down and digest raw foods than those that are cooked. This understanding has been affirmed by western research, including that cooking can raise the calories absorbed from food.
It’s important to understand, this view was developed before our age of hyper-processed, calorie-dense foods. In those times, all food was relatively healthy, and getting more energy from food was generally a good idea. Now many foods are stuff with sugars and oils that need to be considered differently. These types of foods fall into the category of “wrecked foods.” More on that shortly.
In the Chinese view, if you’re ill, your body is depleted or you’re having digestive problems, and eating raw food may aggravate your condition.
Cooking your food is a way of “predigesting” it, and a way to get more energy from each meal, because you’re not using that energy to break down raw food and fiber.
3. Calories and Energy
In general, the Western perspective is that we should control or at least keep track of the calories that we are eating. However, in Chinese medicine, you derive your energy from the food you eat, and you need enough to function. In other words, calories are qi, or energy, and are needed to perform a whole host of functions including digestion, immunity, healing, movement, and temperature regulation to name a few. The reason for these differences has much to do with the volume of processed and unhealthy foods present in the Western diet.
4. Too Many Calories Equals Fat … or Not
We have long believed that if you eat too many calories you will get fat, which may be true.
However, in Chinese medicine, the underlying cause of obesity is something called dampness. Caused by eating too much of the wrong food and poor digestion, dampness is an accumulation of moisture, which puddles in various places in your body.
This concept does mimic the action of calorie-dense junk foods in the body. These foods can’t be properly digested and the body can be stirred to inflammation by these foods. And those foods that have too much fat do accumulate in the body.
Edema, yeast, athlete’s foot, weepy rashes, and adipose (fat) tissue are also considered boggy accumulations of dampness.
5. Food Groups
Our Western diets are grouped according to carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Ideally, we try to get a good balance of each, according to ever-changing research and food pyramids.
In Chinese food therapy, foods are categorized by their actions and their inherent temperatures.
Foods eaten can impact your body to build up vital substances like qi or blood, or they can boost circulation or drain dampness. The temperature of a food is a way to describe the post-digestive thermal effect on your body—not how spicy or hot it is when you eat it, but how warm or cool you feel later. For example, ginger and cinnamon are considered to be warming foods, while the effect of mint is cooling.
In Chinese food therapy, food choices are recommended for you based on how they will act on your body based on your unique needs. For an excellent resource on the properties of food and Chinese food therapy, check out “Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition” by Paul Pitchford.
6. Additives and Preservatives
If you push your cart through the center of any Western large chain grocery store, you will find aisles and aisles of products that have been chemically altered with additives to enhance flavor and shelf life.
In Chinese medicine, something called wrecked food is considered to be a source of illness. This originally meant food that has spoiled, however, today food that has been chemically altered beyond recognition as food is also considered wrecked.
Chinese food therapy offers up a few simple ways that we Westerners can eat a little better—and happier.
Choose what’s right for you; don’t get caught up in food fads or the good food-bad food dichotomy. Eat real food, cook most of it, pay attention to your digestion, and enjoy what you eat.