I’d like get one fact straight right away. I love food! I love eating food. I love preparing food. I love trying new foods. I love smelling it, talking about it, reading about it and writing about it. And if it weren’t for the fact that I live in New York City, I would grow my own food. I love food so much that if I wasn’t so drawn to a healthful lifestyle and career I would have been a professional food critic well on my way to congestive heart failure.
In my private practice, Aiyana Acupuncture & Chinese Herbs, every patient I see receives Chinese therapeutic dietary counseling and I, myself, have used dietary therapy for many years. It is with great pleasure I can reach people outside of my office about how to make simple dietary adjustments that will reap great therapeutic value.
Fortunately, Chinese Dietary Therapy usually requires simple, natural changes as opposed to the extreme or hard to follow diets popular in America. My articles will explain how to balance food choices based on Taoist balancing principles called Yin/Yang energetics as well as using common nutritional sense. In certain cases, a patient may need to abstain temporarily from eating a particular food, but balance and moderation are the ultimate keys to a healthful diet.
This article is about our relationships to food which might be physical, cultural, emotional and political. And I will briefly touch on some basic recommendations to begin your journey in healthful eating.
Physically, we need to eat regularly in order for our body to create the energy it needs to function. Since different people have different dietary requirements, some need to eat several small meals a day; others need three large meals a day. Some need a vegan or vegetarian diet to feel well while others have to eat meat. Some need large amounts of protein while others are better off with a higher carbohydrate intake. Cravings often indicate the body’s need for the increase of a vitamin or mineral. According to Chinese Medicine, cravings may also indicate energetic imbalance. I need to drink lots of room temperature water while many of my patients prefer cool drinks. What are your food cravings? When do you experience those cravings? Are they tied to PMS, work schedules, weekends, celebrations, etc.?
Culturally, many of us enjoy the foods we grew up with. Since my family is Italian-American, I love to eat pasta, cheeses and breads. I had to learn how to balance these foods to maintain a healthy lifestyle. From the Chinese medical perspective, eating cheese daily can become detrimental to the spleen qi. Overeating cheese and other dairy products can cause “dampness and phlegm accumulation” which, in some cases, lead to obesity and ovarian, uterine or breast fibroids. When I was twenty years old, I was diagnosed with ovarian cysts. After the diagnosis, I talked with a friend about curing them naturally. She turned me on to the book Food and Healing by Anne Marie Colbin.
I read that amazing book and decided to stop eating cheese, antibiotic/hormone fed meats and chocolate. I had been eating cheese daily because I used it as a major protein source as it was part of my cultural eating habits. I also ate chocolate everyday because, well, I like chocolate. After my change in diet, my cysts did disappear. Do I eat cheese, chocolate and antibiotic/hormone fed meat now? Yes, but in moderation, and I only eat non- antibiotic/hormone fed meat when I dine out. For home cooking, I buy organic antibiotic/hormone free meats and cheese.
In an Italian-American family, celebrations and gatherings always involve an abundance of food and family interaction. My memories of celebrations and foods we ate elicit warm feelings. I remember the smells, the laughter, and the conversations in the kitchen while preparing food. To accommodate everyone at my grandmother’s house, we put several tables together which filled the dining room and living room. The table became crowded with family, enormous bowls of pasta, meats, jugs of red wine, my grandmother’s cookies, fruits, nuts and boisterous conversation. As a very young child, one of my uncles sat next to me. He would inevitably distract me from my big plate of pasta and meatballs by pointing his arm in the opposite direction of my food and exclaim “Juliette look over there”. When I turned my head, he stole my grandmother’s famous meatball right off my plate and shoved it in his mouth! I fell for it every time, and I laugh at that memory to this day. What are your cultural relationships to food?
Emotional relationships with food can be complex and may lead to acute stomach aches or chronic issues such as anorexia, bulimia, or ulcers. We have all heard the expression “comfort food”. Occasionally eating comfort food can soothe our spirit but not if we binge eat or overeat. Conversely, as a teenager when I became overly anxious or worried, I lost my appetite or felt nauseous after eating. Chinese medicine advises not eating when we are upset because we cannot properly digest and assimilate the foods we eat. Such emotions can cause various qi imbalances. For instance, eating while upset, angry or worried can lead to “rebellious qi syndrome” such as acid reflux, belching, nausea or vomiting. In the meantime, think about your relationships between food and emotions.
The politics of food are varied and deserve a book or series of books of its own. “To meat or not to meat?” is a big question for many people today. A vegetarian diet can be very healthy and therapeutic. Yet, Taoist balancing principles teach that eating some meat and meat broths is healthy and necessary. As I stated earlier, regardless of your choice, the key to a healthy diet is moderation, energetic and nutritional balance. For some people a vegetarian lifestyle is simply a health choice while for others it is an ethical choice. We know that the more meat we eat the more animals will be raised just to be killed for food and sadly, much of the food raised in the United States goes to waste. Many people believe that animals are imbued with spirit just like you and me. As a dog owner, I agree that animals have spirit. We all know that animals feel pain. I also believe that plants are imbued with spirit and feel pain. Like the killing of an animal, harvesting a plant may well “take” its spirit. Ancient practitioners of Chinese medicine (as well as Shamans from other ancient cultures) recognized that qi and yin-yang energetics are present in humans, plants and herbs, minerals and animals. Everything in existence is made of this qi.
So when we eat foods or take herbs, we use those materials that help balance our qi and thrive on this qi. For some people who are qi and blood deficient eating small amounts of animal products will significantly improve their health. The Native American culture reconciles the use of live organisms with prayer and replenishment. As each plant is harvested or animal is hunted, they thank it for providing nourishment to the community. They also give something back to the plant or animal spirit in thanks. When we hold these philosophies in our hearts and mind, we eat with the correct intention or, as the Buddhists would say, “right thinking”.
Not only should we consider “right thinking” within our food politics but “right action” as well. The more we consume McDonald’s food (and other “fast foods”), the more they will farm animals in the decimated rainforests continually harming the environment creating detriment to all existence. This means that eating meat products from these places (as well as spending money, even on fries or a cookie) fund the destruction. Check out the books Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and the movie Food Inc. for more dialogue on this topic.
There are many other politics of food which are not within the scope of this column, such as genetically modified foods, fair distribution of food, and teaching sustainable growing practices vs. food drops in poor countries. I urge you to self educate and create an active position on these and other topics.
I leave you with some basic recommendations for healthful eating:
- The typical Asian diet consists mainly of grains, vegetables, tofu, tempeh and/or small amounts of meat or seafood for overall balance. Try eating smaller portions of meat. American men have the highest rate of prostate cancer in the world; whereas, Asian men have an extremely low rate of prostate cancer. A study which followed Japanese men who moved to America and adopted an American diet showed that they had the same rate of prostate cancer as their American born counterparts. So, it seems that an Asian style balanced diet is advisable. By the way, Asian women also have an extremely low rate of breast cancer and rarely experience menopausal symptoms.
- Enjoy your food. Try to avoid eating when you are upset, angry, sad or overly worried; it may cause stomach aches, indigestion, acid reflux, heartburn, ulcers or other digestive disorders.
- Chew your food well. The first step to digestion takes place in the mouth where secretion of the enzyme amylase begins the breakdown of food. By properly chewing food you will avoid taxing the stomach and spleen which would otherwise work much harder to break down the food. Chewing is especially important when eating carbohydrates and tofu.
- Since tofu is not a whole protein, lacking amino acids and some vitamins, make sure to eat tofu with whole grains and vegetables. I recommended eating whole, unrefined grains and five servings of fresh organic vegetables daily. If you cannot get fresh organics, frozen are O.K.
- Do not overcook your vegetables. Overcooking kills vitamins and minerals. Lightly steam your veggies instead. Chinese bamboo steamers work great!
- If you eat meat, buy organic. This way you can avoid consuming synthetic hormones and antibiotics that non-organic farms feed to livestock to increase production. You will also avoid ingesting toxic chemicals such as sodium nitrite and MSG.
- Integrate beans into the diet slowly to avoid digestive difficulty. Cooking beans with ginger helps remove gaseous properties. Latin cultures add white vinegar to beans for the same purpose.
- Avoid processed foods such as most boxed, frozen meals and canned foods which are high in sodium, artificial colors flavors and preservatives and low in nutritional value.
- Read the labels on everything even if you shop at a health food store. A general rule of thumb to avoid harmful chemicals and additives is – if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.
Salute! (That’s Italian for “To Your Health!”)
Aiyana Acupuncture & Chinese Herbs
32 Union Square East, Suite 615N
New York, NY 10003