Food is the fuel that enables us to exist, it gives us the energy for activity and the building blocks for growth and repair. There is no one single ‘superfood’ or faddy diet that is going to guarantee health but simply a good variety of fresh produce (with the occasional treat!) will give our bodys all it needs.
Dietary advice is seen as an important part of treatment. A Chinese Medicine practitioner will not tell you to make major exclusions from your diet (with the exception of sugar perhaps) but to increase certain foods and moderate others according to your TCM diagnosis. This is known as the dietary tilt which is discussed below.
The Energetics of Food
Chinese dietary therapy looks not so much at the constituents of individual foods but at their effects on the body. Some foods have warming and stimulating effects whereas others may be cooling, some maybe moistening and others drying. Good examples, are foods such as ginger, garlic, lamb and peppers being at the warming end of the spectrum whereas cucumber, tomato and yoghurt are considered cooling.
Foods can also be catergorised into the five flavours: sweet, salty, pungent, sour and bitter. Sweet foods are generally considered to be nourishing and moistening such as most root vegetables and meats. Salty foods such as most seafoods tend to be cooling and can help to hold fluids in the body, pungent or spicy foods such as onion, cardamom or cumin have a warming action, dispersing stagnation and promoting flow. Sour foods such as most fruits are cooling and in small amounts will aid digestion. Bitter foods like rhubarb or many culinary herbs like oregano and sage, will help to drain moisture from the body and counteract dampness.
There are also considerations as to how foods are cooked. Raw foods being the coldest and Roasted being the warmest.
COLDEST Raw Steamed Boiled Stewed Stir fried Baked Deep fried Roasted WARMEST
The Dietary tilt
Variety and moderation are the keys to healthy eating but understanding our constitution can guide us to getting the right balance according to ‘who we are’. This is known as the dietary tilt. A cold person for example may need to include more Yang stimulating/warming foods whilst minimising cold foods. A good example of this is adding some cinnamon to our breakfast porridge, using more warming herbs such as garlic and basil in our general cooking and swap cucumber for red peppers and generally focusing on well-cooked, roasted foods instead of cold raw foods.
[blockquote type=”blockquote_quotes” align=”left”]Let food be thy medicine. Hipocrates[/blockquote]
When we are feeling unwell, then the right foods can either hinder or assist our recovery. It is important that dietary therapy is gentle and patience is required to see lasting effects. Small changes (a gentle tilt!) over a longer period of time will provide the most benefit. The information included here is designed to provide a flavour (pun) of what Chinese dietary therapy is all about. It is best to get a proper diagnosis from a qualified practitioner.
“In Chinese medicine, our ability to find and receive emotional nourishment is intimately linked to our digestive system. The digestive process is expressed at the mental level as the thinking process. Our powers of concentration and digestion are related and will influence each other. Overeating can make the mind sluggish however too much studying can produce cravings for sweet foods (a sign the digestion is weak) and worrying ‘knots’ the digestion. Often we can confuse emotional and nutritional needs, eating when in fact we need comfort or want to suppress feelings such as frustration or desire”. (Daverick Leggett, Helping Ourselves, Meridian press 2005)
I’m a big fan of tea. There’s so much to choose from: black tea, green tea, earl grey, oolong, herbal teas. It’s worth exploring the vast array of tea as they do have some health benefits and are preferrable to too much coffee, cordials, concentrated fruit juices or soft drinks which contain little in the way of nutrients and are usually high in sugar or sweetners.
There’s been quite a lot of research into green tea which has been shown to have high levels of antioxidants as well as having anti-inflammatory effects, which have proctective properties against a number of chronic diseases. You may like to read the literature review included here: green tea
Chamomile has always been associated with relaxation and as an aid to sleep. Research has shown it to be a muscle relaxant that can also help to calm the smooth muscles of the digestive tract and heart, aiding stomach upsets and lowering blood pressure. chamomile
Peppermint and Nettle
Peppermint has long been associated with cooling or settling of the digestive system. While there is little formal research on this, it is a pleasant drink. It is often combined with fennel (supposed to help with bloating and flatulance) or Chamomile.
Nettle provides a rich source of minerals and can be used fresh in soups, stews or used like spinach. Theorectically, nettle tea should also provide a quantity of these minerals however this probably depends on the quality of the tea. Nettle does have quite a bitter taste but can be nice when combined with other herbs.
Read a recent blog post: “Food shouldn’t be fast”
Nutty, seedy, fruity flapjacks
This recipe is courtesy of my good friend Jenny Anderson and has become a mainstay in my household. The ingredients can be any combination of dried fruit, nuts, seeds and oats and make a perfect snack to take to work.
Warm together about a third of a pack of butter and a generous tablespoon of honey. Use a food processor to finely chop some dried fruit of your choice and add to the butter and honey along with any spices you may like.
Grind up nuts and seeds of your chosing and add to a large mixing bowl along with some oats. Combine together the dry mix and melted butter and honey.
Using a muffin/cupcake tray, spoon the mix into the wells, pressing down firmly with the back of the spoon. Bake on a low heat 150 for about half an hour until golden. Allow to cool completely before removing.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are generally low GI and provide a good source of essential fatty acids as well as protein, fibre, folate, vitamin E and B2 as well as essential minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and selenium.
Sunflower seeds in particular contain cholestrol lowering phytosterols. Ground flaxseed (linseed) is an especially good addition for women over 40 as they are the best source of phyto-oestrogens.
Dried fruits retain most of the nutritional value of fresh fruit and of course have natural sweetness. They are low to moderate GI, devoid of fat, provide a wealth of minerals and a good source of pre-biotics.
Goji berries or Chinese wolfberry are particularly revered in China as a super nutrient dense fruit which are particularly high in vitamin C and iron.
Any spices can be used as too can some citrus zest. Cinnamon is worth a special mention as it is known to have blood sugar normalising properties which can help with weight management by reducing insulin resistance and in turn potentially improve cardio-vascular health. cinnamon and diabetes