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The ancient Chinese thought of nutrition differently to us. They observed what foods did, related them to results in the body and classified them according to their energetic actions. (Western medicine and science think of nutrition in terms of chemicals and enzymes, proteins and carbohydrates etc.)
If you go far enough back, they classified foods in terms of what we would call their shamanistic traditions: a bit like how Western Astrology nowadays puts Iron under Mars and Copper under Venus. They knew what their equivalents of Mars and Venus were: classifying foods this way was natural to them.
As time went by, these shamanistic beliefs were re-classified into observations of what happened to the body in terms of sensation.
For example, if you've ever had brandy you'll agree that it has a heating effect. This is more marked than the heating effect of red wine, which in turn is more heating than white wine. Indeed, most people think of white wine as being cooling, but that's because it's usually drunk chilled or diluted with water, which is cooling.
Anyway, brandy heats you up fast.
What about good Scots porridge made from oats? This is usually taken warm in Scotland in winter. It keeps you warm for hours as its energy is slowly released. But it's less heating than brandy.
Now what about ginger?
Ginger isn't usually taken other than as a flavouring in the West, but if you drink ginger root in tea, it has quite a strong warming effect. Unless taken very strong, it won't make you sweat, but with its warming effect, it's good in dishes if your digestion is a little weak. (Dried powdered ginger has a different effect to raw root ginger, but let's not get too complicated here!)
Lastly think of melon. Melon is juicy and we eat it in summer. It has a cooling effect. Even if you grilled it first it would still be juicy and cooling. (Unless you grilled it to a cinder.)
Take brandy, leave it in the fridge, then drink it: it would still be warming although perhaps slightly less warming than if taken at room temperature.
So the Chinese way of nutrition uses food to keep your energy balanced between yin and yang, hot and cold, dry and moist, energising and steadying, stimulating and calming.
So they would suggest that in cold weather, or if you tend to be cold, eat warming foods. In hot weather or if you are typically inclined to suffer from hot diseases, take cooling foods and drinks.
That's what's meant by its energetic effect.
It's basic common sense.
However, there is another way of looking at food, which comes from the Five Element school of thought in Chinese medicine.
With this, foods were classified into five categories and the 5 Element theory says that if you eat foods from each category regularly, you'll stay healthy. (Actually, there's also a sixth classification - neutral.)
Conversely, if you eat food from only one category all the time, you won't stay healthy: you'll eventually get ill.
So for example,
Bitter foods, include almonds and some kinds of cabbage, coffee and chocolate. These feed the Fire quality in your body, and help balance the Heart. Too much, or too little, and your Heart energy may suffer.
Sweet foods, including most grains and baked vegetables but also various kinds of meat, feed the Spleen energy. Sweet food taken as straight sugar, ie too refined and too sweet, damages the Spleen.
Pungent foods are spicy and go with the Lungs energy.
Salty foods include salty foods: Kidney energy.
Sour foods include lemons and vinegar: they feed your Liver energy.
From the above, you'll see that gradually there was a movement away from classifying foods according to shamanistic 'superstitions', food sensations and life phases association, to their actions in the body.
More marked when dealing with herbs - herbs being rather like concentrated foods - because herbs work faster, these actions by foods take effect over time. You have to eat nothing but roast chicken for quite a while to produce its effect, unless you are a very susceptible or sensitive individual.
I once had a patient whose migraine stopped, so he said, after having from me just one acupuncture treatment.
You would notice these effects only if you ate a lot of the food in question for a long time, or if you were ill and took plenty of the food.
But if you eat a small selection of foods from only one or a few classifications frequently you may, imperceptibly, begin to acquire features of the action of the food - as in the above example of the man who got migraines from eating oranges.
In his case, he was fine eating the occasional orange or drinking the occasional glass of orange juice. But not when he drank the equivalent of 27 oranges daily.
In terms of nutrition he was eating well. In terms of food he was eating well. In terms of the energetic function of his nutrition he was eating a very lop-sided diet.
I had a neighbour once who loved barbecued food.
Barbecuing increases the heat in a food. Over a period of years his face began to look more florid, and he became grumpier.
He began to suffer conditions characterised by heat and dryness, such as arthritis and skin eruptions.
I always thought the kind of food he ate contributed to these problems, but he moved away before I could prevail on him to change his eating habits.
Foods and herbs have been carefully classified in China over the centuries as to their energetic qualities.
For example, whereas maltose (yi tang) is occasionally used to tonify the Spleen, because it is said to enter the Spleen meridian and to be slightly warm (it also soothes the digestion and moistens the lungs), cane sugar, the white stuff we like in our tea and on food, is damaging to the Spleen because it is cold in nature, like bananas.
Cane sugar and bananas come from hot latitudes, and though they contain carbohydrate and help Qi, they are cooling: they are potentially damaging for people living in cold climates if taken in excess. Maltose, made during malting, is used in drinks such as Horlicks: it is warming. (However, Horlicks also contains quantities of cane sugar.)
Tea, the Indian variety, is cooling: coffee is warming. Both contain caffeine, especially coffee, and too much of this can be damaging - see our page on Coffee.
The Indian subcontinent has made a fortune out of our British tea habit, which is comical because we have a cold climate and take tea to warm us up. Actually it makes us pee, cools us down, and ensures that we want another cup!
Not until ice cream was invented did we get our own back. Ice cream is full of fats, and although it cools us down initially, it warms us up later, ensuring we want more!
Unfortunately the Indians soon cottoned onto this and now offer sorbets as well as traditional ice-cream made from milk. Sorbets are made from cane sugar, juice and ice, so are cooling. For most Indian curry eaters, the cooling effect of a sorbet after a warming, spicy Indian curry is probably a better combination than a warming ice-cream made from milk-fats.
You can see from this that the Chinese attitude to nutrition, diet and food is based on Chinese medicine, which makes it quite sophisticated.
Always to think about the effect of a food on your health is a waste of time: our bodies have evolved over half a million years and can cope with quite a bit of rubbish. Unless, of course...
In those cases, what you eat may make you sick. The more sensitive you are to the food you eat, the more quickly you'll get ill.
Many modern foods contain substantial quantities of chemicals, or have been refined or processed during manufacture.
These foods need to be newly assessed because the traditional Chinese medical theory assumes that foods come from organic sources and are produced according to stable farming practices and traditional cooking methods, without refinement.
Nowadays we've begun to remove many of the nutritional qualities of food, often to make them keep longer (for instance in the case of white bread flour and many cooking oils).
So wholemeal bread (wheat, Spleen energy, a little cooling) has a different effect to refined, white bread.
It takes time to work out what a food does: sometimes years. But by and large, most modern foods have been classified, or given provisional classifications.
Apart from salt and spices, the energetic qualities of which were known to the Chinese, we don't yet know what these very recent additions may be doing to us, although in many cases we have very strong suspicions.
Aspartame, for instance, is used as a sweetener and flavouring in the vast majority of sodas, colas, sweets and snacks. It is consumed in huge quantities by many people.
Although the manufacturers funded many tests showing no dangers, other tests have pointed to the awful potential consequences of over-consumption.
Drinking a half-litre of cola or soda several times a day is not seen by many as excessive. Yet count the amount of aspartame drunk with it and you may want to reconsider your options. Aspartame is in some ways as deadly and addictive as crack cocaine. It encourages your pancreas to release insulin when very little is needed, upsetting your blood levels and fooling your brain into wanting more.
The major classifications are as follows. They are applied to both foods and herbs, though the classifications are more important in herbalism than in the kitchen.
How well does a food strengthen or weaken:
Is the food:
Is a food:
Of course they've done the same thing with many modern Western medicines. But that's another story.
The upshot of all this - if you are still with me - is that what you eat has not only a (Western) nutritional effect on you for better or worse.
What you eat also has an energetic effect on you from the Chinese medicine perspective.
In the long term, you need a diet of food and of nutrition that is healthy from both perspectives.
In the short term, you'll find that the energetic perspective is often more important for balancing your energy quickly.
For example, suppose you are catching a cold and you feel chilled. In this case, probably the best foods to take are warming foods which, instinctively, you'll probably want anyway.
Because cold foods easily cause phlegm, avoid milk and milk-based foods like cheese, cream and yogurt and instead take ginger (warming) and lemon (astringent and drying). (Yogurt, which you may think good because of its active bio-cultures, is cooling - not conducive if your problem is Coldness!)
Conversely, if you feel hot and thirsty, take cooling moistening foods, like natural yogurt and milk (organic if possible, of course, to avoid even more exposure to antibiotics and pesticides, small though the amounts in any single glass of it may be).
Most acupuncturists can advise you on this and guide you towards the nutrition and diet that suits you best.
What about vitamins and minerals for good nutrition? Click here to find out about Supplements!
Many illness syndromes in Chinese medicine occur because of diet - the wrong diet. For example, here are just a few, though many of them have other causes too. But too much of one food or an imbalanced diet, can produce, for example:
Of course, many of these have similar causes in Western medicine but in the latter, it is purely the nutritional effect that is considered (unless your doctor believes all diseases can only be cured by medication, of course) and not the energetic effect of food.
Food energies often work faster than their nutritional effects.
For example, a long-term runny nose (with clear or white phlegm, indicating a 'Cold' energy) in a vegetarian might have been treated with ever more organic food.
Considerable experience - often with vegetarians - shows it would resolve faster if the patient were to eat no cold or iced food/drinks and instead were always to take them warm or hot.
(Believe me - I've seen it happen lots of times!)
If you're interested in recipes, I've put a few (but growing in number) on a page of dishes for Yin Deficiency.
Alternatively, ring him on 07950 012501 or freephone (only free to telephone within the UK) 0800 298 7015.
All the books in the 'Chinese Medicine in English' series should be fully accessible on Kindles and Kindle apps. (Or you can buy the softback print editions, of course.)
('Western Astrology and Chinese Medicine' published 1986, was never available in a Kindle version.)
If, having read one of my books you can write a review - preferably positive - that would help others decide whether to read it.
You can put your review on Amazon or, on this site, here.
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Well, let me know so I can improve it for the next person. (Ideally let me know before cursing it in public!)
Here are some of the books I (Jonathan) have written.
Subscribers to Kindle Unlimited can borrow the first four for 'free'.
Still only one comment, though personally I think this is my best book so far.
Published 1986 and, amazingly, still selling. Was apparently used back then by at least one acupuncture college to help students understand Chinese medicine!
One Review so far. (Despite the lurid cover, it explains the five main types of phlegm and what works best for each type. I hope it's easy to read and will be much more useful than all the websites on the subject.)
3000 years of Chinese being stressed, and at last, here's a book showing how all that experience can help you!
By the author of this website, it explains in simple English how to use stress to improve and enhance your life.
NB You can also order 'Qi Stagnation - Signs of Stress' from your bookseller.
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