I am often asked whether a particular food is good or bad. Chocolate, for example. My answer might be “good for me or good for you?” or “ just a few squares or the whole bar?” or “today or last week?”. That’s because the answer depends on three questions. They are:
- Who is eating?
- How much are they eating?
- What are the conditions of the time?
From a Chinese medicine point of view there is no such thing as a bad food, or a good one. Foods have particular values, qualities, actions. Whether they are good for us depends on the answers to these three questions. In this article I am going to unpack these questions a little further to illustrate some of the principles of “Qi nutrition”.
Who is eating?
Illnesses may be the same but the persons suffering from them are different
Chinese medicine recognises that we are all different and have somewhat different dietary needs. The saying “Illnesses may be the same but the persons suffering from them are different”, the words of the legendary doctor Hsu Tach’un, is a central axiom of Chinese medicine. Its diagnostic methods may lead us to different dietary recommendations from those reached via a western approach. The same condition might be treated very differently according to how it is manifesting. Let’s go straight in with an example.
Our clients Romeo and Juliet have are both obese and want to lose weight. Romeo’s obesity manifests with with a distended abdomen which is soft to the touch, rapid hunger after eating, heaviness in the limbs, dizziness, a feeling of fullness in the hypochondrium, thirst with no desire to drink and constipation. His diagnosis will be “Stomach Heat with Dampness”.
He will be recommended to reduce greasy and fatty foods, alcohol, sugar and hot spices; to include some vegetable juices; and to eat a bland diet which includes plenty of fruit and vegetables and cooling foods such as celery, cabbage, radish and apple. He will be advised to steam his vegetables and to avoid frying and roasting. The focus of his diet will be to cool the heat and decongest the dampness.
Juliet’s obesity manifests with weight mainly carried around the waist, a history of poor eating habits, low energy, weakness in the limbs, hard abdominal distention after food, loose stools, lower back pain, low libido and edema of the ankles. Her diagnosis will be “Spleen and Kidney Deficiency”.
She will be advised to eat warm cooked foods; to avoid overly cooling foods such as celery and vegetable juices; to use warming spices. She will be advised to eat more baked and roasted foods, to use some alcohol in her cooking and to eat plenty of stews and casseroles. The focus of her diet will be to nourish deficiency and warm the body.
Both will be advised to reduce carbohydrates, sugar and poor quality fats and not to overeat but otherwise their diets will differ. If Juliet eats Romeo’s diet she will continue with many of her symptoms and be unable to lose weight and vice-versa in the case of Romeo.
How much are they eating?
A second axiom of Chinese dietary therapy and herbalism is that the effect of any food will depend on the quantity eaten. Whereas a little of a certain food or flavour may be beneficial, too much may have the opposite effect. Chocolate is warming, bittersweet and tonifying to the heart. That sounds like good news and, of course, it is. But it’s all about quantity. A little will be beneficial. Too much chocolate will cause overheating, dampness and overstimulation of the heart. Oh dear. Whereas a little will gently move the Qi, warm the body and strengthen the heart, too much will cause congestion and exhaustion.
The same principle applies to all foods. The right amount of grains will nourish the Qi and supply energy, too much will sedate. Curry will move the Qi; too much will over disperse and weaken the Qi. A little coffee will move the Qi, warm the body and promote digestion; too much will exhaust the kidney and disrupt digestion. How we assess what is the right amount depends on the answer to question one: “who is eating?” A cup of good coffee will support someone whose tendency is to be cold and damp but upset the equilibrium of someone who is having hot flushes.
What are the conditions of the time?
The third question – what are the conditions of the time? – can be used to moderate our answer to questions one and two. For example, our advice to Romeo in the summer might differ from our advice in winter. In summer, because there is sufficient heat in the environment, we can push him a little further along the road of cooling his diet, perhaps even put him on a juice fast for a few days. In winter we might recommend vegetable soups rather than juices because we don’t want him to get too cold, poor chap.
So, the answer to whether chocolate is good or bad will be moderated by when and where it is being eaten. At the midwinter solstice in the arctic circle you are offered the choice of a slice of watermelon or a slab of chocolate. Which do you choose? It’s a no-brainer really. At midday in the humid heat of an equatorial jungle?
So, three questions. The answer to whether a food is good or bad will always be, it depends…