The Secret to Using Food as Medicine! Part 4 - Protecting Your Stomach.
In Part 3 of this series, I introduced and explained how to diagnose and formulate a strategy to rectify particular health ailments, and imbalances using the concept of the 4 movements of Qi.
To read past articles in this series, click on the links below:
Now, lets take all the information presented in this series, and put it all together to formulate the best diet for you. There are some general guidelines that everyone must obey to get the best outcome. Primarily, it comes down to one guiding principle: No Matter What, Protect the Stomach and Digestive Function!
No matter what the disease or illness, the process of digestion remains the same. It is our source of transforming food into energy, and is required for all cellular metabolism, and repair. The stomach is thought of in Chinese Medicine as a pot on a stove. It receives food and liquids, that decompose and cook. In order to cook something and transform something, heat is required.
The Pancreas and Spleen are then thought of as the fire under the pot, and a distillation device. They create the fire, and distill the food in the pot, which is metaphorically separated into steam, liquid, and waste products.
In this way food and liquid in the pot (stomach) decompose and are cooked, transforming it into the pure and clear energy required to run the body. The impure remains are sent from the Stomach down to the intestines, where food particles are further transformed, and separated. Some pure is reabsorbed, from the impure, while the remaining impurities are sent downward as waste. So in order for there to be optimal movement, and transformation we must always protect the stomach and digestive fire.
The pot (stomach) loathes dryness, as a dry pot is not very good at cooking. You can easily picture this, when you cook on a stovetop and add cooking oil, or water to facilitate cooking, and put a lid on it. The Stomach function is dependent upon the creation of a mash or soup in it’s pot.
The Pancreas/Spleen loathes dampness. If the mash overflows, or has too much water it can dampen the fire underneath, and too thick and damp a steam can clog the distillery, and evacuation tubes.
So, the first rule of cooking is always create and help maintain this digestive fire, by creating a 38 Celsius (100 F.) soup in the stomach. This is warmer than body temperature, which is 36.5 Celsius (98.6 F.).
1). Therefore, most people, most of the time should be eating mostly cooked food.
Now, you may be saying cooking destroys nutrients, and raw food is more nutritious, isn’t it better to eat raw food? Well, no one absorbs 100% of any available nutrient in a given food.
While it is true that uncooked food is more nutrient dense, the process of digestion required to unlock the nutrients is difficult. There is no point in eating something that has more nutrition, if you cannot unlock the nutrients and absorb them.
Cooking is a pre-digestion process. The more locked up nutrients are inside the food, the harder it is to digest, and absorb the nutrients. Therefore it is crucial to first unlock it with cooking.
Chilled and raw foods require more energy to transform them into a warm soup, within the pot of the stomach. Not only is the nutrition inside uncooked foods locked away, but cold foods and cold drinks are similar to placing ice cubes in your stomach.
Your body uses energy to create warmth for digestion. It is then easy to see, if you need to expend more energy in heating the stomach, then the net gain in transforming food into energy will be less. If you eat cooked food, or food that is at least room temperature, less energy is required to digest it.
This is why soups, and stews are so nourishing. The closer a food is to a 38 C. soup, the easier it is to digest and absorb the nutrients. This is also why it is important to chew food thoroughly before swallowing. The more it is chewed, the more it is macerated, mixed with liquids, and pre-digested, and looks like a soup or stew.
Different foods require different cooking requirements. Grains, beans, and meat take longer cooking times to break them down, make them edible, and unlock their nutrients. Vegetables should only be cooked long enough to soften them. Lighter vegetables take less time, than thick ones. Thick skinned ones may take longer than thin skinned ones. Many fruits may be eaten uncooked.
According to Chinese Medicine Theory, when foods and liquids are not adequately transformed, it will effect transportation of nutrition, energy, and waste products, creating dampness. Remember the Pancreas/Spleen function is likened to a distillery. If there is too much sludge, there will be stagnant food, dampness, and turbidity clogging the pipes and further damaging the function of transformation and transportation (digestion). The longer this goes on, the worse the function of the distillery.
I want to say one last thing about cooked foods vs. raw foods. Chinese Medicine does not say, people should never eat or drink cold, or raw foods. It just emphasizes protecting the stomach and digestion. Some people have stronger digestive systems than others, and can handle cold and raw food better. Everyone’s metabolism runs at different temperatures throughout the year, following the seasons of nature. During the summer when it is hot outside, it’s ok to eat cooler foods, and drink more chilled liquids. But, it should still be balanced with mostly warm, cooked foods.
2). Don’t over eat.
Over eating puts further strain on the digestion, which often leads to food stagnation, and gumming up and slowing down transformation and transportation. Additionally, since everything we eat contains impurities along with nutrition, the digestive process spends energy to try and separate the useable from the un-useable. Overloading the stomach at each meal, means the body is working harder and expending more energy, than it is getting from the meal. It is best to eat to only 80% full. A good way of measuring portion size is to look at your two hands cupped together like a bowl. Don’t eat more than what can fit inside and level with this.
3). Eat a whole food plant based diet. Protecting the stomach also means eating foods that are easy to digest, and don’t cause a slow down to transformation and transportation. This means eating meals that are primarily comprised mainly of vegetables, beans, and grains, and some fruit. One should only eat small quantities of meat, oil, and fat. After eating a meal, you should feel satiated, and peaceful, not overly full, bloated, or sluggish.
4). Eat regularly. Our bodies are ruled by circadian rhythms. Most people only pay attention to this when they are jetlagged, or when they have to reset their clocks for day light savings. Having regular meals at fixed times each day is best for protecting the digestive function and regulating the metabolism. Big fluctuations, and irregularity can cause all sorts of digestive, and metabolic issues. Chinese Medicine believes eating at regular times keeps the body free from suffering. Eating irregularly also causes people to make poor decisions by choosing convenient unhealthy foods, and overeating because they feel like they are starving.
Additionally, it is best to eat your largest meal at breakfast, a smaller meal at lunch, and the smallest meal at dinner. It is important not to eat a large meal to close to bed time. Sleep is a time for cell repair, and deep rest. If your energy at night is focused on digestion, your body will not be able to deeply rest, and focus on repair, and restoration.
There are a couple of exceptions to eating regularly. The first is to never eat when you are emotionally upset. Emotions can play havoc on digestive processes.
The other exception is occasional fasting, known as BiGu in Chinese. Fasting is a significant topic in classical Chinese medicine and Taoist practices that date back for thousands of years.
5). Use the 5 flavours wisely. After reading the previous articles in this series, you should be very familiar with the actions that the 5 flavours have on the body. When you are in balance, try to stay balanced by eating a diversity of the 5 flavours. Don’t eat too much or too little of one flavour. As you know eating too much of one flavour will favor an environment for gut microbes, and effect one of the 4 movements of Qi.
6). Select foods, and flavours that treat your constitution: We touched on this in part 2 of this series, when discussing the flavours and associated climates.
For example, if you tend to be a person that is thin, wiry or tendony, short tempered, nervous/anxious, with a red face, feel hot more than cold, and tend to have constipation, dry skin, mouth, and eyes. You most likely are a hot and dry type of person, so avoid foods that are hot, drying, and moving upward. Eat more foods that are cooling, moistening, and move downward.
If you tend to be overweight, or put on weight easily, tend to have poor muscle tone, feel fatigued easily, have mucus, or phlegm, and are prone to skin outbreaks like acne, you are most likely a damp type (can be cold or hot). This means your digestive function is weak and sluggish. It is best to eat foods that are light, warm, and easy to digest, with flavours that have actions of drying and draining, mostly bland, and some bitter.
If you tend to be very thin, anemic, feel cold all the time, fatigued, easily catch colds and flus, you are most likely a cold dry type. Eat more foods and flavours that are warming, and moistening, sweet, pungent, and salty.
7.) Eat according to the season: Refrigeration is one of the biggest world changing events to have ever occurred on our planet, and it only occurred less than 100 years ago. Before refrigeration, not only did people rarely eat cold foods, they ate mostly what was in season, or what could be stored in root cellars, and through pickling, salting, and drying. Fruit and vegetable juices were rare indulgences before refrigeration. Most juices turn to vinegar within days. Now smoothies and juices are ubiquitous and advertised as health drinks. Before refrigeration, people would rarely eat 4-6 oranges in a single sitting, and most certainly not every day. When drinking juices, people are drinking too much nutrition due to the quantity of fruits and vegetables for the digestion to process. This over nutrition, typically results in the formation of phlegm and dampness.
A major emphasis in Chinese medical theory is that the internal microcosm must be in harmony with the external macrocosm. Things change, and we must be adaptable, and follow the rhythms and seasons of nature in order to stay in balance. We should eat a little differently with each season. Before refrigeration it was very easy, because you didn’t have any options other than what was grown and produced locally.
Spring is the season of growth and expansion. It is also typically cool and damp. It is natural to eat more leafy greens, and more bland, pungent, and bitter flavours, and less sour.
Summer is hot and damp. So, we should eat lighter, more cooling foods that are in season, like cucumbers, and watermelon. The best flavours are sour, bitter, and bland.
Autumn is typically warm and dry. Autumn is the time of storage in preparation for winter. Things are condensing, just as metal condenses when it is cold. This is when grains and seeds are ready for harvest and storage. It is a good time to eat more grains, beans, and seeds, as well as flavours that are sour, sweet, and salty.
Winter is the Coldest Season, and the time to eat stored food, like tubers, and root crops; things that are calorically dense and warming. Flavours such as sweet, salty, and pungent.
8). Select foods, and flavours that treat your ailments: Use what you have learned to correct the imbalance.
If it is an acute condition like a cold or flu, then eat flavours that are pungent and move outward to open the pores and sweat the pathogen out.
If you are suffering from a chronic condition, then try to use the 4 movements of Qi, and your signs and symptoms to distinguish what flavours, energies (temperatures), and movements have the opposite function to put you back in balance.
8). Cook in accordance with age and development. Young children are beginners at eating. Their digestive systems are still developing and are easily overloaded. Bad eating habits can develop into imbalances that could affect them for the rest of their lives. They must have food that is warm, cooked, and macerated, with flavours, that are not too extreme. Bland is best.
Rice and grains for babies, the elderly, or the chronically ill, should be cooked longer, and with more water than healthy adults to facilitate easier digesting, and absorption of nutrients. It should also be emphasized that babies, the elderly, and chronically ill should also only eat when hungry.
It is especially easy to overfeed babies, which puts more pressure on their developing digestive systems leading to food stagnation, and colic. Babies should eat, and then fully evacuate before eating again. Signs of overeating are bright red lips, bright red cheeks, and foul smelling stools.
9). Avoid foods that are contraindicated/prohibited for your condition. There are some foods that will make certain conditions, illnesses, or ailments worse, primarily inflammatory conditions. If they are not avoided, things will not improve. Here is a short list of some conditions and the foods that must be avoided:
• Red Skin Rashes, such as hives, eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis, and shingles
– Do Not Eat - prawns, shellfish, fish, hot chilies, alcohol, coffee, smelly foods, fermented foods, milk, eggs, red meat especially lamb, peanuts, ice water, sugar, salmon, duck, goose, or eggplant.
• Gall Stones & Kidney Stones – Do Not Eat – english spinach, tofu, kale chocolate, or soft drinks.
• Gout – Do Not Eat – English spinach, beer and alcohol, rich and oily or creamy foods.
• Ulcers – Do Not Eat – raw, cold, greasy, fried foods.
• Constipation – Do Not Eat – spicy, greasy, fried foods, Do Eat More Vegetables
• Diverticulitis, Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis – Do Not Eat – raw, cold, spicy, greasy foods, eggplant, or alcohol.
• Hypothyroidism – Do Not Eat – raw cabbage, broccoli, kale, radishes, cauliflower, bok choy, (anything in the brassica family must be cooked).
• Type 2 Diabetes – Do Not Eat – sugar, fruit, and complex carbohydrates like bread, pasta, and grains.
10). Avoid poisons, processed food, preservatives, food coloring, and additives. Before World War 2, there was very little refrigeration, most people ate a whole food, seasonal diet, everything was organically grown, and most of that was raised on small farms, with grass and pasture for animals to graze. There was virtually no processed food.
After World War 2, many of the chemicals manufactured for war, were put to new uses as artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. With refrigeration, and refrigerated transportation, many seasonal foods became available year round. Convenience food became popular and fashionable, and seen as a sign of progress.
All evidence suggests food that is contaminated by pesticides, preservatives, chemical dyes, and additives, is also not good for long term health and well being. There are more than 1000 active ingredients registered as pesticides, and we are unknowingly ingesting on a daily basis. Research has proven that these chemicals disrupt the endocrine system (hormones) and cause cancer. Certain combinations or pesticides have also been shown to cause Parkinson’s disease. Food preservatives, chemical dyes, and additives also have many adverse affects on the body.
Here is a short list of some commonly used food preservatives and their associated health risks:
Aspartame: artificial sweetener, poisonous even in small amounts, causes brain damage, blindness, inflammation of pancreas and heart muscles.
Calcium Propionate: there is link between this food preservative and behavioral problems in children.
Carbamate: There are measurable detrimental effects elicited on the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems.
FD&C green no. 3: known to cause bladder tumors.
Food Coloring: can cause anaphylactic shock in sensitive individuals.
Gentian Violet CI basic violet no. 3: can cause contact dermatitis.
Hydrolyzed p: A fatty acid, known to cause celiac disease, causing lesions of the small intestine mucosa.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): reports of dizziness, nausea, a feeling of tightness or pressure in the upper body and chest after consuming food containing it.
Pectin: Large quantities cause temporary flatulence or intestinal discomfort.
Potassium bromate: Large quantities can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and pain.
Sodium aluminum silicate: known to cause placental problems in pregnancy and is also linked to Alzheimer’s.
Sorbitol: can cause gastric upset.
Sulfites: can cause difficulty breathing, as well as stomachache, hives, and anaphylactic shock.
Thiamine: Adverse effects in high doses causing headaches, irritability, rapid pulse, trembling and weakness.
The best way to avoid these poisons, is to buy local organically grown produce, and grass fed, pasture raised meat, eggs, and milk, and return to more traditional food preparation at home. There is no substitute for freshly harvested and wholesome unadulterated foods. One cannot eat anything else and remain healthy and well over the long term!
My hope is that this series of articles about the secret to using food as medicine will help everyone that reads it, and that you put it into practice. The more you start using it, the easier it is to understand. These theories make sense, and more importantly they work. Sometimes things are extremely out of balance, and some diseases may need medical intervention, acupuncture treatments, and herbal medicine. But, if you protect the stomach, and follow these principles, I have no doubt you will see some positive improvements.
Alchemy Wellness Centre is located in Byron Bay, NSW Australia
RJ Singer is a registered Acupuncturist, and Chinese Medicine Doctor with AHPRA and AACMA. He is also a highly regarded QiGong Healer and Teacher, and Feng Shui Consultant. RJ’s area of special interest is in the treatment of stubborn and difficult chronic disease, and all types of painful conditions. Katrina Hillis is a Kinesiologist, and a registered Remedial & Relaxation Massage Therapist with AMT, who specialises in helping people overcome emotional issues and life transitions working holistically to balance the body, mind and spirit.