“Am I hungry?” “What do I want to eat?” “Is it good for me?” “What does my body actually need right now?”
Tuning in and understanding our individual journey with food, hunger, and nutrition can feel like a full time job. As a Doctor of Chinese medicine and a woman with my own personal journey around food, I have had countless discussions on this topic. My hope is to illustrate how Chinese nutrition sees us as having unique constitutions and thus specific nutritional needs.
What does Western nutrition focus on, and what does it miss?
Western-based nutrition, with its emphasis on nutrients, vitamins, minerals, calories, and fat, is predominantly focused on weight loss or gain. Western doctors will make dietary suggestions for people with heart disease or diabetes, but aside from this it’s unusual to have a physician suggest or limit foods in treating a patient.
I had an eight-year old boy with chronic asthma who was on steroid inhalers, nebulizers, and who couldn’t easily run and play with his friends. His dad brought him to me for acupuncture, and during intake I learned that dairy was a very large part of his diet. I recommended for him to be off all dairy for 30 days and almost immediately his condition improved. (The boy’s pediatrician had never considered changing his diet as a potential treatment for his asthma.)
The same was true for a patient of mine who had been scheduled for sinus surgery. I asked the her to consider postponing the surgery and try changing her diet for 90 days — eliminating dairy products and other inflammatory foods. Within the first month, her sinus headaches and congestion began to clear and she ultimately didn’t need the surgery.
Chinese medicine does not always advocate to completely eliminate potentially damaging foods forever, but rather to simply cut them out for a specific period of time. This recommendation helps us notice how our bodies respond to certain foods and then allows us to choose how often we eat those things that bring negative impacts.
How is traditional Chinese nutrition so different?
Chinese or Asian nutrition is unique in that it looks at the individual and their patterns. For example, a person who has excess heat wouldn’t be given cayenne to boost their metabolism. Herbs and spices that are hot in property would only exacerbate a person’s heat, dry out, and congeal the fluids in the body. Conversely, someone with excess cold wouldn’t be given salads, raw veggies, and cold drinks. It would only worsen his or her condition.
Food in traditional Chinese medicine can be seen as medicine for one person and poison for another.
When I work with patients they often ask, “Do I have to give up coffee or alcohol?” “Are coffee and alcohol bad for you?” “Do I have to drink herbal tea from now on?” But the fact is there are few absolutes in Chinese nutrition. We must ask ourselves if coffee, tea, or alcohol is good for us, specifically. Tea, even when consumed hot, has cooling properties, so if you have a hot constitution tea may be better for you. However, if one’s constitution is cold then coffee may be better for you because it has a warming energy. If you have a cold physical constitution then liquor can warm you, but if you have an already hot constitution alcoholic beverages can worsen symptoms. Not everyone has a clear hot or cold pattern; we’re often somewhere in the middle and patterns can change over time and in different environments.
A skilled practitioner can help you find your diagnosis, as well as the best foods for you to eat and avoid. In his book, Healing with Whole Foods, Paul Pitchford says, “With knowledge of how foods act in the body and the ability to self evaluate, one can learn which foods and diets are best for his or her particular constitution and condition. Knowing only vitamin, mineral, and general nutrient properties is not enough.”
How can I learn what my pattern is and what is best for me to eat?
Begin by listing the main symptoms that you have on a regular basis and then use those symptoms as a way to discover your patterns. Chinese nutrition emphasizes the energies of foods which can affect the body in different ways.
Books are also a good place to start. Tao of Nutrition outlines the basic ideas of Chinese nutrition and suggests ways to utilize them into your life.
What are some common symptoms and nutritional treatments?
Symptoms: Fatigue, bloating, gas, slow metabolism, coldness. Nutritional treatment: Lentils, oats, root vegetables (sweet potato, squash, pumpkin), miso soup, orange peels.
Symptoms: Painful periods, menstrual cramps, uterine fibroid joint pain, migraines. Nutritional Treatment: Cooked or roasted veggies (mushrooms, eggplant, spinach), herbs that move qi and blood (onions, garlic, horseradish, shallots, leeks, chives, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, oregano, basil, rosemary, turmeric, cinnamon), red wine.
Symptoms: Anemia, migraines/headaches, fibroid joint pain, menstrual problems, polycystic ovary syndrome, focus and concentration problems, insomnia, depression, anxiety, infertility. Nutritional Treatment: Eggs, beef, chicken, sea vegetables, seeds and nuts, beets, sweet potato, carrots, leafy greens, oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, black beans, spirulina, nutritional yeast.
Dr. Jill Harrison is an acupuncturist and herbalist practicing in Los Angeles. She is the founder and president of Joyful Life Healing, a Chinese medical practice that consciously invites and guides the individual through a journey towards wholeness in body, mind, and spirit.