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Healthy Diet, Chinese Style

The cliche "you are what you eat" seems to cross cultural boundaries, thereby suggesting a universal acceptance of the wisdom of a good diet. Nothing influences our health more than our daily routines, including what we consume. But with so many types of diets, food pyramids, and priority charts out there, all backed by significant research and experience, who knows what to believe?

Traditional Chinese medical (TCM) theory, forming the backbone of Asian eating habits over the last 5,000 years, offers one view which plays a role in supporting some of the longest-lived and healthiest populations in the world. It is by no means the only way to approach your diet.

According to TCM theories, good health depends on an abundance and smooth flow of Qi (vital energy)-- and your Stomach and Spleen systems (which differ from the Western conception of the actual spleen and stomach organs) play an integral role in the creation and processing of Qi. The Stomach is viewed as a large cooking pot while the Spleen is like the fire underneath it. Within this view, the Stomach receives food that has been broken down in the mouth, and begins to break down the essences via the heat from the Spleen. The Spleen acts to separate these essences into the pure and impure, with the former rising to the chest for the production of our Qi life energy. The impure passes into the Small Intestine, and is further broken down into the clear and turbid parts of the impure essences. The clear is sent to the bladder for further processing; with the beneficial parts dispersed into the skin and muscles, and the waste material being excreted in urine. The turbid is sent to the large intestine where the last beneficial parts are reabsorbed and the waste material is processed into stools.

From this chain, we can see the importance of the Spleen at the top of the chart. Overworking the Spleen through overeating, eating the wrong types of foods, and excessive mental or physical activity can all weaken this vital organ. Spleen weakness can manifest as fatigue (especially after eating or bowel movements), abdominal bloating, abdominal pain, gas, and diarrhea; constipation, foul breath, acid reflux, and belching are also symptoms of digestive problems.

Classic texts assert that the Spleen dislikes Dampness and Cold --fried and raw foods common in the American diet fall conveniently into these categories. Combined with the super-sized value meal phenomena, we end up with excessively Spleen-depleting dietary habits. The Spleen's digestive fire weakens as it becomes overburdened, and we gain less out of our food. As the body taps into its Qi reserves so it can break down the foods, you may feel more fatigued, prompting you to eat again. The Spleen is once again taxed, and vicious cycle of diminishing returns on the energy gained from food has begun.

Here are some basic guidelines toward maintaining healthy Spleen function:

  • Chew thoroughly: The mechanical process of breaking down food helps reduce the load on the Spleen.

  • Avoid extremes: Excessive eating, excessive sweets, and excessive grease. All these overwork the Spleen and Stomach systems.

  • Limit yourself to one cup of warm liquid with meals: cold drinks and excessive fluids impede the digestive process. Imagine, a pot with a lot of cold fluid takes much longer to heat than a one with a little warm fluid.

  • Eat regularly: avoid skipping meals, and try to eat around the same time every day. The body functions harmoniously when it follows regular patterns.

  • Emphasize cooked, energetically warm foods while limiting raw and energetically cold foods. Foods have an intrinsic energy; warm ones are easier to process than cold ones. See a listing below

  • Decrease the amount of processed foods in your diet. While they are convenient, modern processing tends to deplete food energies. Whole, fresh foods provide the greatest nutritional potential.

  • Based upon your specific body type and the seasons, your diet may vary. Ask your Acupuncturist or read "Between Heaven and Earth" by Harriet Beinfield for specifics.

Cool and Cold Foods:
Tofu, wheat, millet, buckwheat, apples, oranges, melons, bananas, lettuce, corn, eggplant, broccoli, asparagus, avocado

Neutral Foods:
Carrots, string beans, peas, yams, potatoes, rice, oats, black beans, kidney beans, pork, beef, milk, cheese, peanuts, almonds, olives, honey

Warm Foods:
Artichokes, mustard greens, cauliflower, pumpkin, peaches, nectarines, cherries, dates, coconut, lamb, chicken, shrimp, pine nuts, chestnuts, walnuts, brown sugar, garlic, ginger, fennel, scallion, cardamom, turmeric, vinegar

Black pepper, bell peppers, cayenne, cinnamon

Cooking and adding hot spices imparts warmth into foods. The longer a food cooks, the more warmth it absorbs. The following methods impart warmth in the order of listing: Roasting, deep frying, baking, grilling, broiling, stir frying, sauteing, steaming. Chewing also warms food.

Remember, fried foods, despite their warmth, are greasy and "damp," and can also tax the Spleen!