In the upcoming weeks, we will be releasing a post on congee and it’s importance to your health.
So we thought a little pre-frame might be useful on some basics of Traditional Chinese Dietary theory.
Hopefully, we will be able to provide you with a basic understanding of the principles at play—at best giving you some tools to work with or at worst some good resources to further your knowledge.
Perhaps like us, you will find this exciting and to some degree life-changing—a perspective not considered before.
Some of the questions we will cover include:
- what is meant by cold food and why does my Chinese doctor advise me not to eat it.
- what does Yin and Yang have to do with a better digestion?
- does your constitution determines the food you should eat?
- should our food be raw or cooked?
First things first, let’s dive in and a take a brief look at the basic principles, that have lasted for over 3000 years.
The Basics of Yin and Yang in Chinese Dietary Theory
Lorraine Clissold, the author of Why the Chinese Don’t Count Calories provides us with a simple way to understand this theory.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine – TCM – the inside of the body is Yin and the surface is Yang.
Okay, that’s it!
Just joking, we might touch on this a little more.
Yin is everything that is passive and associated with storage; yang is active and responsible for processing —our Qi, or life-force, is created from the perfect balance of the two.
The Taoist principles say that the body needs this balance of these two opposing forces to be healthy—therefore if a person is unwell, tired or has simply over-indulged, the balance needs to be brought back in line.
In Chinese dietary therapy, which is a branch of TCM, foods are classified as Yin and Yang.
Yin foods sink down, and assist the functioning of the Internal organs, while Yang foods generally rise up and out, towards the body surface—this can contribute to indigestion, skin problems and headaches.
Yang foods are warm so they usually create heat in the body, whereas yin foods are cooling and so cool the body down—although there are contradictions to this theory, at this point in the article and for it’s intention the basics should get us through.
It’s just common sense really, now let’s move on to the stomach itself.
The Stomach Is the Pot
Now we take these principles and apply them to the stomach: stay with me here!
In short, The Chinese see the trunk of the body as three alchemical retorts or burners, all to transform food into usable energy—let’s just call them levels.
On the upper level we have the heart and the lungs—the middle level containing the spleen and stomach—and the lower level contains the kidneys, intestines, liver, and reproductive organs.
On the middle level, we have the Yang stomach and the Yin spleen—as described by Bob Flaws the author of The Tao of Health Eating:
The stomach is the pot of the middle burner and the spleen is both the fire under this pot and the distillation mechanism to which this pot is attached.
Thus the “stomach is the pot”.
Difficult to digest ??? Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.
Anyway, the fact of the matter is the stomach’s function is to receive food and liquids, and to “decompose and cook” them—it is then the spleen’s function, to distill or drive upward, the purest parts of foods and liquids.
You still with me, great, now the amazing bits.
The pure foods, become the basis for the creation of air for the lungs, and the liquids, the blood within the heart.
I know, I know, from a Western medicine (Medicine boxes are imperative for packaging different sorts of medicines as heat and moisture are likely to temper their quality.) perspective this sounds crazy—let’s just consider the metaphor as a way of understanding it, rather than fact.
And so the process continues down to the large and small intestine.
The large intestine’s function, is to reabsorb the pure part of the impure foods or solids—thus becoming the energy or fuel for the Yang of the kidney—secreting the impure as feces.
The small intestine’s function is to re-absorb the pure part of the impure parts of liquids—this is transformed into the body’s thick liquids, such as the brain and joint fluids, and nourishes the Yin of the kidney—thus secreting the impure out as urine through the bladder.
Check out the diagram below.
But Why Is the Analogy of the Cooking Pot So Important?
Bob Flaws also goes on to discuss the importance of the cooking pot analogy.
It is said in Chinese medicine, that the stomach function is dependent upon the creation of a mash or soup in its cauldron or pot—and it has an aversion to dryness.
Great wisdom also tells us, that the Spleen fears dampness—since spleen function is likened to a fire under a pot, it is easy to understand that too much water or dampness can douse or damage this fire.
Here’s the crucial bit!
Digestion creates a 100°f soup in the stomach.
Whatever facilitates the creation of such a 100°f soup in the stomach, benefits digestion, and whatever impedes or impairs the creation, impedes or impairs digestion.
Just common sense right?
Consider that, this is basically true, even from a Western medical perspective—most of the insights and principles of Chinese dietary theory and therapy, are logical extensions of this common sense and irrefutable truth.
Should Our Food Be Raw or Cooked?
First of all, Chinese medical teachings suggest that most people, most of the time, should mostly eat cooked food.
Let’s consider Energy as the net profit of digestion—with this in mind the less work the body has to do to maintain the stomach temperature, the more energy will be available.
Just like on the other hand, if one eats cooked foods at room temperature at least, or warm at best, less spleen Qi is spent in the process of digestion—thus greater energy.
One must consider, that Western medicine does not test the post-digestion absorption of nutrients, when claims are made regarding the value of un-cooked foods—more on this in further posts.
Chewing food thoroughly before swallowing is also important—the more one chews, the more the food is macerated and mixed with liquids—thus lessening the burden on the stomach.
Let’s Take a Look at Chilled , Cold Foods and Liquids.
So now if we drink or eat chilled, cold, or frozen foods or drink iced liquids with our meals, we are only impeding the warm transformation of digestion—less energy
Cold negates heat and water puts out fire.
In Chinese medicine, if the spleen and stomach fail to adequately transport and transform foods and liquids, a sludge tends to accumulate.
Just like a car that has accumulated sludge over the years, poorly maintained, blowing smoke and overheating.
In TCM this is called stagnant food, dampness and turbidity—a contradiction.
On the one hand, the coldness of chilled drinks damages the spleen, making it vacuous and weak.
On the other hand, the stomach becomes hot and hyperactive, trying to deal with this cold material—struggling to decompose and cook.
No, no, we are not suggesting never eat cold food again, or miss out on your favourite ice-cream treat—everything in moderation and timing is essential.
However, there is no one size fits all here, consider your own constitution and the environment in which you live—we are all different.
Check in with your TCM practitioner on your next visit for the do’s and don’ts in relation to your own constitution.
Why Am I Always Hungry?
Now let’s get back to the old sludgy worn out car that’s stuck in overdrive—it’s getting hotter and hotter trying to burn off the accumulation—this in turn causes the body to register hunger.
What does this look like?
Well, have you experienced that feeling of never being full? I’ll just have one more serving—everyone has stopped and you are cleaning up the leftovers.
Or, alternatively, over time the liquid portion of the foods jam the spleen function, causing dampness.
Eventually, accumulated dampness may mix with stagnant food, and congeal into phlegm—which further gums up the entire system—that constant mucousy feeling in the mouth.
So I guess the takeaway here is to stop just before you are full—if you overeat at any one meal, you create stagnation, a temporary queue of food waiting to be processed.
This results in feeling tired and lethargic, ”think I might hang out on the couch for a while”—you may be inhibiting your digestive process.
As previously mentioned, the idea of this post was to supply a basic understanding of the digestive process according to TCM—with a few takeaways.
Hopefully, the picture is a little clearer, and you can take away some of the principles here, applying them to your own diet—a happier and healthier you.
For a more in-depth look at this topic head over to Amazon to read Bob Flaws The Tao of Healthy Eating. or Lorraine Clissold’s, Why the Chinese Don’t Count Calories
In a further post, we will discuss what conditions specifically are affected by cold foods, and ways to help you obtain better results for your treatment.