One of the most controversial topics in my clinic is the discussion of diet and food preparation. Not only is food very literally considered medicine in East Asian medicine, but food preparation is key. In East Asian medicine, every food item has a property such as damp, astringent, drying, and moistening. They also have a dominant flavor such as bitter, sweet, salty, pungent/spicy, and sour. Finally, every food item has an inherent temperature of hot, warm, slightly warm, neutral, slightly cool, cool, and cold. Food temperatures in Chinese medicine are not necessarily intuitive. For instance, beef is neutral, lamb is hot. Shellfish are warming specifically to your blood. I will dive into creating a list of specific temperatures, flavors, and properties of common kitchen ingredients in a later post.
East Asian medicine has a strong emphasis on cooking all of your food in autumn and winter, and preferably, most of the year. If your digestive system is strong (meaning you rarely suffer from gas and bloating, always have fabulously solid, torpedo shaped bowel movements that require just a couple squares of toilet paper to clean up, and no acid reflux), then you can eat some raw fruits and vegetables without consequence in the late spring and summer. The reality is that most people do not have an optimally functioning digestive system. The digestive system is considered the central pivot of health. All other body systems require the digestive system to work well in order for them to function properly–ie the building blocks for new blood cells, hormones, and neurotransmitters come from the food and drink that we digest. If we do not digest well, then we do not absorb the proper nutrients and tools for our body to function. Because of this, the first rule of health care in Chinese medicine is to restore the digestive system to optimal excellence.
Here are the signs of the digestive system starting to get fatigued and lose optimal function:
- A tongue with scallops or teethmarks along its edges.
- A tongue with a very thick coating or fur, or no fur and even cracks in the center of the tongue
- Bowel movements that are anything besides the solid, torpedo shape that is easy to pass and literally requires just a couple of toilet paper squares to clean up
- Daily gas and bloating, or gas and bloating either after a meal, or coming on at the same time every day
- Stomach cramping, abdominal cramping, loss of appetite, or food just becomes unappealing, or the opposite of becoming ravenously hungry,
- Stomach feeling cold after eating
- Acid reflux
- Fatigue after eating, i.e.- wanting to take a nap after eating
- dry, pale, or scarlet lips
- a pale, pasty or even grey-ish complexion
If your digestive system gets further fatigued, your bowel movements will become ‘sticky’ or needing a lot of toilet paper to clean up. Eventually they will lose their nice, torpedo form, have undigested food in them, increase in frequency, until you get lose, watery stools with a lot of undigested food in them.
But what about the raw food diet? I know that the raw food movement has significant popularity and that many people believe you need a certain amount of raw vegetables a day to get certain nutrients like glutathione. There is a belief that if you cook your vegetables you break down and lose some of the important nutrients.
The raw food diet looks great on paper. In practice, I have seen a number of patients try to stick to a raw food or mostly raw food diet in pursuit of optimal health, only to end up in six months to two years with loose watery stools, gas, bloating, a loss of desire to eat and a general discouragement about what it means to be “healthy.” I have seen this repeatedly, and it supports the classical texts in Chinese medicine that repeatedly discuss that food should be cooked to help the digestive system. Bottom line, a healthy diet should create bowel movements that you are proud of-ie easy to pass, solid, and easy to clean up.
It is especially important to eat cooked foods during the late autumn, winter, and early spring when the weather is cold outside.
Pay attention to what our bodies are telling us. Do you have poor circulation that shows up as cold hands and feet in the winter? Do you always feel cold and need to wear more layers than everyone else? Eating warm foods and giving up salads will be an important health decision during the cold months of the year. You can work to warm yourself from the inside out by cooking your food. There are many ways to cook simple, healthy meals without turning your delicious vegetables and fruits into an unappetizing mush.
You can lightly steam your vegetables for 5 to 15 minutes. This adds heat, but you can keep your crunch. You do not have to steam your vegetables to death to ‘cook’ them. Roasting can bring different flavors out in vegetables, especially when you combine certain vegetables in the roasting pan.
Steaming, boiling, baking, frying, roasting all add heat. Steaming and boiling can add moisture, while baking and roasting dry the foods. Roasting will often change the food property to hot and is useful for people who suffer from a cold digestive system (a simple example is frequent, loose stools, frequent clear urination, feeling of cold, fatigue and lethargy), but can aggravate those who have a hot digestive system (ravenous hunger, dry lips, perhaps frequent facial flushing, perhaps acid reflux, bowel movements that look like dry rabbit pellets).
Please note: the examples of cold and hot digestive systems are overly simplified for this post. Most people are a complex blend of conditions that affect the digestive system, and if you suffer from digestive concerns it can be very useful to see an East Asian Medicine Practitioner to use tongue, pulse and symptoms to clarify just want is going on in your gut.
The ultimate litmus test is how your digestive system behaves when you eat warm foods and cool foods. It is also important to note get stuck on one philosophy, such as always raw or always cooked. Listen to your body and the seasons. Try going warm for the winter and see what happens!