Why Chinese Medicine?

[ahm-wp-tabular id=null template=template1] You might wonder what makes the insights of Chinese medicine on nutrition so relevant to our times. Chinese medicine is one of the most widely used traditional health systems on the planet. The texts on which it is based were written over two thousand years ago and are thought to represent a compilation of thousands of years of observation and clinical practice before that (Ho and Lisowski 1997). While human lives have changed radically since that time, human physiology ahs in fact changed very little. The effectiveness of Chinese medicine has been continually validated as its practice has flourished and spread across the globe, and many of its insights are being confirmed by modern scientific research.

Chinese medicine offers an important complement, and counterpoint, to Western allopathic medicine in that, like most other non-Western medicines, it is truly holistic, meaning that it is concerned with “the complete psychological and physiological individual” (Kaptchuk 2000, 4). Health in the Chinese medical system is seen as a state of balance, or harmony, between opposing forces, which can be couched in contemporary physiological terms as a state of dynamic equilibrium, or homeostasis, both within an individual and between an individual and her or his environment. The goal of vibrant health, or vitality, includes not only resistance to disease or but also appropriate energy levels, emotional balance, and longevity. A key way to reach this goal is through the diet.

Balancing Your Diet

While your grandmother and your nutritionist might both advise you to eat a balanced diet, they may mean two very “different things by “balance”. A Western science-based conception of a balanced diet usually refers to eating a mix of food groups, or macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) types. By contrast, traditional Asian nutrition, embedded in culture and folk wisdom, categorizes foods according to their energetic qualities, providing a way of summarizing the effects of ingesting foods on the body. The simplest system is based on a fundamental concept in Asian medicine, culture, and philosophy: the division between yin and yang. All phenomena are divided into one of these two major categories, which are both oppositional and interdependent, for example:

Yin Yang
Dark Light
Wet Dry 
Water Fire 
Night Day 
Reduced Activity Hyperactivity 
Body Structures  Physiologycal functions

Foods are categorized as either warming (yang) or cooling (yin). Warming foods tend to provide more thermal energy and macronutrient calories, while cooling foods tend to be less calorie dense, instead having higher water content and being relatively rich in micronutrients. Warming foods tend to stimulate or speed up metabolic processes, while cooling foods tend to slow them down and also to exert anti-inflammatory effects. Health requires an ever-shifting balance of the two. In general, animal flesh foods, alcohol, and certain hot spices are considered more warming, while dairy, eggs, beans, and grains are neutral in energy, and most other plant foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are cooling to the body. Within these larger categories of foods, individual foods are characterized as relatively more yin or yang. For example, plant foods that grow below ground, such as root vegetables, as well as those that take longer to grow, are generally more warming than those that grow above ground or grow more quickly, like leafy greens. Foods of warmer colors, such as red, orange, or yellow, are generally more warming than foods of cooler colors, such as blue, green, purple, or black. Produce form tropical climates is generally much more cooling than that form temperate climates.

Eat with the Seasons
In-season foods tend to complement the prevailing season, helping our bodies adjust to the climate, supporting health, and preventing the illnesses typical of that time of year. Cooling vegetables, such as cucumbers and summer squash, ripen in the summertime and, when eaten then, help to cool the body and provide fluids and extra antioxidants needed when we are exposed to more sunshine. By contrast, vegetables that mature in winter, such as kale and broccoli, and those that store well to lst throughout the year, like onions and winter squash, are more warming, typically providing more calories and a different set of beneficial phytonutrients.

Just as important as the energy of the food itself is the effect of the method of preparing it. Intuitive cooks and worldwide culinary traditions make use of this principle all the time. Imagine eating a salad of raw shredded carrots, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. Would that sound good on a hot day? Now imagine the very different effect of eating those carrots if you roasted them in olive oil, allowing the sugars to caramelize, and then drizzled them with the lemon juice. Such a dish would be much more hearty and satisfying I cold weather, right? Cooking methods in order from warming to cooling are: deep frying, roasting, baking, sautéing, pressure cooking, simmering, steaming, fermenting, marinating, sprouting, and serving raw.

There are many benefits to be gleaned from eating according to the seasons. From the point of view of Western nutrition, in-season food simply contains more nutrients. For example, in a 2008 study evaluating the vitamin C content of supermarket broccoli, a research team found that locally harvested fall broccoli had almost twice the vitamin C content of imported spring broccoli, which had traveled many miles to reach the market. Since produce tends to lose nutrients after harvest, the shorter the time from harvest to your plate, the more nutritious your food will be. For example, in a 2004 study at Penn State, the team found that spinach lost 47 percent of its folate by seven days after harvest.

Remember the adage of both grandmothers and nutritionists to “eat a variety of foods”? as an added bonus to the sheer pleasure of this style of eating, varying your diet according to the seasons increases the variety of the food you eat, which in itself is associated with improved nutrition and resistance to chronic disease.

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