As a nutritionist, I was once obsessed with calories, vitamins, minerals and all the other things we can measure in food.
Western nutrition is a lot about about numbers: We count calories, grams of fat, carbs, and protein, as well as milligrams of zinc, calcium, magnesium and B vitamins. We are warned about too many milligrams of sodium and grams of sugar.
Correspondingly we gauge our physical health with numbers: we measure cholesterol levels, blood pressure, weight, plus hundreds of lab values: from hemoglobin to triglycerides to A1C. All numbers! High serum cholesterol? Just eat less fat and cholesterol! Oddly, this doesn’t work.
Years ago, when my father was in the hospital nearing the end of his life, his cardiologist marched up to his bedside saying he had “good news.” He reported my father’s cholesterol was below 160mg/dL and his LDL below 70. My father was so weak he couldn’t get out of bed, or even talk for that matter. It was disturbing to the family this doctor had nothing to say about his debilitated physical and mental state, but instead delighted in his low cholesterol. (As an aside, I later learned such low lipid numbers are associated with higher rates of infection and death especially in the elderly.)
Your constitution is the ideal way to assess your health. A traditionally trained Chinese doctor evaluates your constitution by looking for signs and patterns in your body. He will ask if you tend to run hot or cold, if you get angry easily or depressed. She looks at the color and quality of your skin and hair. Your eyes are particularly important as they reflect all your organs. Even your body smell can provide a clue.
He checks to see if your tongue is pale or red and if it is coated as well as the color of the coating. What are your cravings? Are you thirsty? He or she checks 12 different pulses, and not beats per minute, but whether your pulses are floatingor surging, hollow, softor soggy, emptyor deep. Once a diagnosis is made, acupuncture is usually provided and the appropriate herbs and foods prescribed.
The focus in TCM is on signs, symptoms, and patterns, not numbers. A TCM doctor would have first addressed the near lifeless state of my father, not zeroed his cholesterol level.
What is Your Pattern?
According to TCM, patters in the body reflect patterns in climate including heat, cold, dampness, dryness and wind. Someone with high blood pressure, frequent headaches, who feels hot and has a temper likely has a heat pattern. The perpetually chilly young woman huddled into the sofa with piles of blankets sipping on mugs of hot tea is likely suffering a cold pattern. The plodding, overweight, fatigued office worker shows a pattern of dampness. An aging, thin, dry-skinned, irritable man or woman is likely suffering a dry pattern. Someone plagued with itching and rashes or pain that moves around might be suffering wind. There might even be a combination.
Conveniently, foods can be cooling, warming, drying, moistening and can even dispel wind.
Warming and cooling don’t necessarily correspond to the actual temperature of a food. Ginger, lamb and garlic are warming whether they are served warm or cold. Foods can be cooling, but not because they are cold like ice cream. Peppermint tea, spinach, cucumbers and spicy foods, even if piping hot, are cooling and not the best choice on a cold January morning.
I paid a visit once to a hospital in Beijing, China on a hot summer day. There was no A/C and the building was really warm. Dietary staff served cooked mung beans to patients to help cool them. Mung beans are highly cooling.
Once we understand patterns of the body, and mind, we can choose complementary foods for balance.
Food flavors are often used as a guide to they can impact the body. The sour flavor is cooling and astringing, and can help with prolapse, incontinence or hemorrhage. The bitter flavor can clear heat including fever, rid the body of excess fluids and get the bowels moving. The sweet flavor is slowing and strengthening and builds fluids. Pungent or spicy foods helps get energy and circulation moving. The salty flavor can be detoxifying, and help resolve hard masses and growths. Too little or too much of any one flavor can lead to health problems. According to TCM all meals should include some of each flavor.
Overweight? Retaining fluids? According to TCM the problem might be too many damp foods such as pizza, pasta, sugary foods and dairy. Damp combinations in particular are problematic. Foods to dispel dampness include leafy greens, many types of seafood, lentils, sprouts, radishes, asparagus, basmati rice, barley and pungent spices. Soups and simple food combinations are also important for resolving dampness.
Cindy, a 45-year old mother of three has been counting calories and going to exercise classes for 15 years, yet her weight never seems to budge. When she cleared the damp foods from her diet, and incorporated more bitter, she began to effortlessly lose weight even though her calorie intake actually increased.
Salads, melon, crab, beans, and cucumbers are particularly cooling and can be beneficial on a hot July afternoon. Chicken soup or a lamb dish can be deeply warming on a frosty winter day. Ginger and turmeric can move stagnant energy, which often manifests as pain.
I find this ways of using properties of foods more useful in addressing weight or health issues than counting calories or fat grams.
My new audio book, Live in the Balance, will guide you in understanding your symptoms and patterns then show you the foods, herbs, cooking techniques, and movement that will restore balance. This Audible version is updated and contains a wealth of new information and updates since the printed version.