The Way

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Let Food be Thy Medicine

By Travis Metzger /

Let Food be Thy Medicine

For thousands of years, China has maintained one of the world’s healthiest populations by adhering to a diet based on the idea of keeping your body and its qi in balance. Today, Chinese doctors use food and its amazing healing potential to not only keep your body in balance, but also to treat disease.

“Yi shi tong yuan”

Food and medicine are from the same source

Chinese medicine practitioners believe you can use food and its energies and nourishing power to keep your body and your qi healthy and in balance.

food as medicine

Chinese medicine theory places great importance on proper diet and promoting good digestion. Rather than focusing on weight loss or counting calories or grams of fat, a diet that embraces Chinese medicine theory focuses more on how food disperses energy throughout the body and what specific organs it strengthens and nourishes in the process.

Moreover, this theory embraces the notion that food loses its ability to supplement qi if it is not eaten in a relatively short period of time after it is freshly made: foods whose qi has been reduced are thought to be more dampening and while our systems need a certain amount of dampness, excessively damp foods such as dairy and sugar can interfere with digestion.

Foods and liquids can accumulate dampness in the digestive tract and can congeal into phlegm and block the flow of qi throughout the body.

dampening foods

Whether your foods are raw or are cooked can have implications on your digestive system as well. Chinese theory believes that for food to be most impactful and beneficial in our digestive systems, it should be at a temperature similar to our bodies, 98.6°. When you eat cold or raw foods, our bodies use up energy or qi to warm these foods whereas if you eat cooked foods or at least room temperature foods, less qi is used in the process of digestion and more of the foods’ available nutrients can be absorbed. When the stomach and spleen can use less energy during digestion, the benefit is greater, which is why chewing your food thoroughly before swallowing is so important.

Chinese theory looks at the temperature of foods before we eat it differently than the temperature of food after digestion and classify most foods as either cold, cool, neutral, warm or hot. Ice cream is cool before we eat it but has a warming effect on our bodies due to the fat content and having to warm it to match our body’s temperature. Dried red chilies are not hot before we eat them but rapidly warm our bodies upon ingestion. In general we should mostly eat neutral and warm food since our body itself is warm, however during cold winter months it is important to eat warmer foods and during the warm summer months we should eat more cooling foods. Plants that take longer to grow are more warming than those that grow quickly.

a few cool foods

Chinese theory matches five food flavors with the five elements – a greatly talked about and embraced concept. We are to balance our food between sweet, salty, bitter, pungent and sour without overeating from any one category. As an example, while our kidneys do require a certain amount of salt, too much salt will injure the kidney. Sour can calm the body, bitter can clear heat, sweet can tonify the body, spicy can expel wind and cold from the body while salty can help the body to dissolve stagnation. If you are craving sweets this can indicate a spleen deficiency. Like all things in Chinese medicine, it’s all about balance, but the nuances and the specifics of matching the flavors to specific elements are where the theory becomes particularly distinct from our diet.

food as medicine

Common western diseases are sometimes discussed as diseases of the affluent: because we can afford to eat a certain way we end up eating more rich “celebratory” type foods and fewer basic foods. Instead of always eating like kings, it is important to incorporate more of a peasant style diet into our lives for harmony and health.

Historically, a healthy diet per Chinese theory recommends eating mostly cooked vegetables and grains with a small amount of animal protein, fats and oils. Blending these concepts with the modern Western diet can be confusing as every day we can go online and discover a new and better way to eat.

A diet based on Chinese theory is not a constant thing and will usually be adjusted as your symptoms or conditions change. Chinese doctors pay attention to every little detail in life, ways to prepare food as well as your state of mind when eating also play a significant role.

Different foods transform to various physical energies, by being mindful of the energies of food you can rebalance your mind and body and achieve peak vital energy or qi with every meal.

Travis Metzger is a Minneapolis-based chef and co-founder of DAO Labs. An avid health enthusiast, he’s juiced and eaten his way to health, combining his passion for fresh ingredients with flavors that make the palate sing. He combines his training at the New England Culinary Institute with his frequent travels to and throughout Asia to create recipes for The Way and DAO Labs that bridge the culinary aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine to the western diet and ingredient options. Travis can be reached at travis@mydaolab.com.

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