The Tao of Nutrition
Third Edition, by Maoshing Ni, Ph.D., O.M.D. and Cathy McNease, B.S., Dipl. C.H., Foreword by Hua-Ching Ni
Sample Chapter: Introduction to Chinese Nutrition
—Yin and Yang
—Your Body is the Greatest Healer
—Traditional Chinese View of the Body
—Organs of the Body
—The Five Tastes
—The Eight Differentiations
—Causes of Disease
—Prevention of Disease
—Guidelines for a Balanced Diet
This is definitely one of the best books on nutrition I have found, and it is one of four bestselling books by Dr. Mao I have found within the last year or so, and that I am all going to review here. It is very methodically made up and structured in six sections, which are:
Section 1: Introduction to Chinese Nutrition
Section 2: Foods
Section 3: Remedies for Common Conditions
Section 4: Simple Vegetarian Recipes
Section 5: Sample Meal Plans
Section 6: Appendix
Section 1, which I will entirely quote here as the sample chapter, is the best and most easy-to-understand summary of Chinese nutritional wisdom, a practical philosophy that is thousands of years old and thus beyond any fad that you may come across these days under the header of ‘vegan’ cuisine. And Dr. Mao, who comes from a straight line of 38 generations of natural healers, certainly possesses the authority and competence to treat the subject in a brilliant manner.
Section 2 is about foods, not just vegetarian foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, but the subjects of meat, fish poultry and other animal products are equally discussed, and their positive or negative impact upon the human body is outlined.
Section 3 is a little ‘house pharmacy’ that treats medical conditions from Acne to Worms and gives sometimes surprisingly simple and always straightforward advice about disease conditions, symptomology, and treatment.
Section 4 is a delightful chapter with recipes which are presented under the headers Soups, Grain Dishes, Bean and Tofu Dishes, Herbal Dishes, Miscellanous Recipes, and Congee Recipes.
Section 5 presents meal plans under the headers of Spring/Summer Meals, and Fall/Winter Meals.
Section 6 contains four charts, the ‘Energetic Properties of Foods,’ The Five Elements Correspondences,’ Energetic Transformations’ and ‘Translations of Food & Herb Names.’
The books comes with a very useful Glossary, a complete Bibliography, a reference section for Chinese herbal stores and supplements in the United States, an Index, and finally an Internet Resources section.
It could not be more complete, a true compendium for natural healing through food, which is the essence of Chinese Culinary Tradition, as since ancient times food was considered as medicine, and healthy eating therefore was always part of Chinese philosophy.
And what I personally like about Dr. Mao’s approach is that it is balanced, that it doesn’t throw out eating meat as a deadly sin as ever so many of other authors who write about nutrition, and doesn’t ‘sell’ a bulk of ‘must-have’ supplements, but gives wholesome advice with a good deal of pragmatism and the wisdom of the practitioner. It is a truly humane approach!
All in all a true 5-star bestselling book that deserves praise!
Introduction to Chinese Nutrition
Chinese nutrition applies the traditional healing properties of foods to correct disharmonies within the body. Over the course of several millennia, countless experiences were gathered using food for prevention and healing of disease. This treasure was passed along as an important healing art, within the body of information known as Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Chinese nutrition differs from Western nutrition in that it does not talk about the biochemical nature of food. Rather, Chinese nutrition deals on an energetic level where balance is the key. Foods are selected according to their energetic qualities such as warming, cooling, drying, or lubricating. Thus, Chinese nutrition would seek to warm the coldness, cool the heat, dry the dampness, lubricate the dryness, and so forth.
By carefully studying the individual’s imbalances, one would choose the appropriate foods to bring about a balanced state of health. For example, for an excessive individual who is exhibiting conditions of heat in the body, cooling foods would be appropriate. For a deficient individual who tends toward coldness, warming foods would be chosen. In this way, balance is achieved.
Foods all have specific inherent qualities determined by the effect the food has on the body. Then the method of preparation further enhances or neutralizes the foods. Generally speaking, warming foods raise metabolism and cooling foods lower metabolism. Balance in the diet is essential for good health.
Yin and Yang
It is a universal law that everything is constantly changing, except for the fundamental governing laws of life. This principle applies to the universe surrounding us as well as the inner universe of our bodies. The ancient Chinese developed ways of looking at these changes to better understand them. One such theory is that everything in the universe consists of two opposite yet complementary aspects. This is called the Theory of Yin and Yang. Ying and Yang exist relative to one another and are also in a state of change at any given time; they are not static conditions. Day and night is a good example of this. When Yin and Yang are out of balance, diseases or disharmonies occur.
When the body, Yin and Yang are often referred to as the body’s water and fire. These descriptions are very useful in determining the relative nature of both the individual and the energies of foods. The application of Chinese nutrition necessitates determining the body type of the individual. He or she may be the cold type, considered of a Yin nature, the hot type, considered Yang, or commonly a mixture. Some significant questions to determine this may be as follows, with the Yang tendencies listed first: male or female? feel hot or cold? drawn to hot or cold foods? thirst or no thirst? constipated or loose stools? dark or pale urine? or pale face and tongue?
We are all a mixture of Yin and Yang, although we may be predominantly one or the other. Thus, Yang persons need relatively more Yin, or cooling foods, whereas Yin types needs relatively more Yang, or warming foods. Chinese nutrition categorizes foods according to the observed reactions within the body. Easily observable changes occur according to the warming or cooling nature of a food. Foods are categorized as Hot, Warm, Neutral, Cool or Cold.
Typical symptoms of the hot type or Yang type person could include the following: red complexion, easy to sweat, always hot, dominating, aggressive our outgoing personality, coarseness, loud voice, dry mouth, thirst, affinity to cold liquids, ferocious appetite, constipation, foul breath, scanty and dark urine, sometimes dry cough with thick yellow sputum, easily angered, very emotional, irritability, insomnia, and in women, early and heavy menstruation with bright red blood.
Typical symptoms of the cold type or Ying type person could include the following: paleness, coldness, disdains cold liquids, likes warm liquids, low energy, loose stools, sleeps a lot, feeble and weak voice, introverted personality, white and copious sputum, lack of appetite, copious and clear urine, dizziness, and edema.
To bring about balance and counteract the symptoms, hot type persons would use primarily cooling foods such as wheat, mung beans, watermelon, fresh fruit juices, and many of the vegetables. Cold type persons would achieve balance by regularly including the warming foods in their diet, such as garlic, ginger, onions, black beans, lamb and chicken. Accordingly, hot types would avoid hot, spicy foods, while cold types would avoid cold, raw foods.
Yin and Yang also apply to the organs of our bodies. Those which are considered solid, or with substance, are considered Yin. These include Heart, Spleen, Liver, Lungs, and Kidneys. Those which are considered hollow, active in transportation, are considered Yang. These include Large and Small inestintes, Gall Bladder, Stomach, and Urinary Bladder.
Your Body is The Greatest Healer
Many people are overfed and undernourished. We are constantly bombarded by information on nutrition from food companies, current faddists, and diet cultists, yet the picture is very incomplete. According to the Chinese point of view, the body is looked as a whole, working together in harmony. Just as every screw and bolt on a machine has an important purpose, if one part is broken the whole suffers. Our body is a very intricate machine that works together as a whole.
Western medicine tends to focus on symptoms and the diseased part of the body. It tries to attack and kill diseased cells, not taking into account how those cells became diseased. It is not just because the cells are exposed to viruses and bacteria. We are constantly being exposed; even out mouths are full of bacteria. Yet why is it that some people break down and get sick and others do not when both are exposed to the same pathogens?
Our body is equipped with a healing mechanism that is greater than any invention. It is unique in that it has a system that can repair the body’s disharmonies, given the opportunity to do so. Through inappropriate lifestyle, diet, thoughts, and actions, we abuse the workings of this delicate system. Always keep in mind that the body’s own healing system is very powerful. Suppressing a headache with aspirin does not take away the underlying cause. The headache is a warning of some disharmony. Thus, we should work on the underlying cause and use natural healing methods to enhance the immune system so the body can heal itself.
The focus of Traditional Chinese Medicine is to help the body to heal, not interfere with the healing process. Often our suroundings do not give us the proper chance to heal ourselves because we are bombarded with chemicals in our soil. food, water, and urban environment. These chemicals can accumulate in the liver and become very toxic.
Significant chemical pollution occurs in meats. Meat animals are routinely injected with steroids such as bovine growth hormone to fatten them quickly and make them produce more milk. Antibiotics, including penicillin and sulfa, are used to control rampant diseases. These drug residues remain in meat and milk and cause health problems for the consumer. Hormones can cause men to become more feminine and have problems with impotency and sterility and women to experience premature aging and general disharmonies in their endocrine systems and menstrual cycles.
Traditional Chinese View of the Body
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the human as an intricate whole is made up of the following essential components: Chi, or vital energy, blood, body fluids; Jing, or the essence of life; and Shen, or spirit. If any one of these components is missing, you cannot have life.
Chi comes in many forms with many different actions. In general, Chi is like life force. The body is a network of Chi pathways called meridians. In a healthy person, Chi or energy flows evenly along these channels. When the energy becomes blocked, disease results. Acupuncture can be of great value in facilitating the flow of energy through these pathways. Chi, the Yang component, is closely related to blood, the Yin component. Blood supplies nutrition to the body and nourishes Chi. Movement of blood is dependent on Chi.
Body fluids are of two types: Jin are the thin, refined fluids such as sweat, tears, and tissue fluids and Ye are the thick, lubricating fluids such as spinal fluid and synovial, or joint fluids.
Jing is the essence of life found in the egg, sperm, marrow, and brain (the sea of marrow) and is stored in the Kidneys. At the time of conception, the fetus absorbs this vital essence from the egg and the sperm. All of our chromosomes at that time give us our Jing. Thus, we are born with a certain amount. Throughout our lives we use up our Jing until we die. Our fast-paced lifestyle uses up Jing at a very rapid rate. For this reason women can have problems with menstruation, go through an earlier menopause and cannot safely bear children for as many years as in more natural cultures.
Spiritual cultivation is very important for the proper development and preservation of our Jing, which is stored in the Kidneys. The Shen, or spirit, gives us intuition, instincts, and the ability to comprehend. Shen is housed in the Heart.
Organs of the Body
TCM views the body organs as couples consisting of a Yin organ and a Yang organ. Each pair also has energetic correlations that we may not necessarily associate with the physical organ. For example, the Kidneys in Chinese medicine would also include functions of the reproductive organs. Each pair of organs is associated with one of the five energies called the Five Elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. The quality of the element is reflected in its organ pair.
The pair related to the Wood element is the Liver and Gall Bladder. The Liver houses the soul, controls tendons, stores blood, manifests externally in the eyes, and is responsible for keeping energy flowing. Thus, when the energy is obstructed, look to the Liver. Anger, frustration, and depression relate to the Liver. The Gall Bladder stores and excretes bile, protects the nervous system from overreaction, and helps to normalize a person emotionally. Gall Bladder weakness may manifest as difficulty making decisions.
Corresponding to the Fire element are the Heart and Small Intestines. The Heart houses the Shen, governs blood, has taste as its sensory function, externally manifests in the tongue, and joy (mania) is its related emotion. The Small Intestines absorb fluids. As one of the hollow organs, they are responsible for the transporting of excretion.
Also relatd to the Fire element are the Triple Heater, or Sanjiao, and the Pericardium. These are functions rather than organs. The Triple Heater is responsible for the communication between the three cavities in the trunk and helps with fluid metabolism in the body. The Pericardium surrounds and protects the Heart.
Corresponding to the element of Earth is the Spleen and Stomach pair. The Spleen transforms and transports food into usable food essence (the waste is transported to the intestines), produces blood, opens to the mouth, and controls muscles. It is also responsible for keeping blood in the vessels. Thus, bruising easily is a sign of weak Spleen function. The related emotion is worry, or excessive thinking. Reference made to the Spleen in the Chinese system also includes functions of the pancreas. The Stomach breaks down and ripens the food and then transports it downward.
The pair corresponding to the Metal element is the Lungs and Large Intestines. The main functions of the Lungs are breathing, regulating water metabolism, and descending and dispersing Chi throughout the body. The Lungs open out to the nose and control the skin, pores, and hair on the skin. Sadness is the related emotion. The Large Intestines excrete wastes from the body and absorb water.
Related to the Water element are the Kidneys and Urinary Bladder. The Kidneys store Jing, are responsible for growth, development, and reproduction. The Kidneys also produce marrow, form the brain and spinal chord, control bones, open to the ears, and balance body fluid metabolism. The related emotion is fear. The Urinary Bladder stores and excretes urine.
A basic theory in the Chinese view of the universe is the Five Elements Theory, or the Five Energy Transformations. This view gives us a helpful framework for understanding the ever-changing world, the inner relationships of change, and the interconnectedness of all things. The five elements, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water, connect in that sequence for what is called the creation cycle. This cycle occurs in nature as well as within our bodies. In nature, rub two pieces of wood together and create fire; fire buns to ash and becomes earth; from earth we dig up metal; melt the metal to liquid and make water; put a seed into the water and it germinates a tree and creates wood. The cycle is circular.
In the creation cycle, the creator element is the mother who gives birth to the son element. Thus, if the son is weak or deficient, we can tonify or nourish the mother and thereby benefit the son. If there is not enough Fire (corresponding to the Heart), we would strengthen the Wood organ (the Liver) with the proper foods or herbs.
In ancient times, these correspondences were made by observing that nature and our bodies work similarly. In nature the Five Elements can be correlated to the seasons as follows: Wood corresponds to spring; Fire corresponds to summer; Earth corresponds to late summer and the time between seasons; Metal corresponds to autumn; and Water corresponds to winter.
There is a useful relationship between food colors and the elements and corresponding body systems. White foods nourish the Lungs; black and dar blue foods nourish the Kidneys; green foods nourish the Liver; yellow and orange foods nourish the Spleen and Stomach; red foods nourish the Heart. Thus, a person with weak digestion, a Spleen weakness, should include plenty of the yellow and orange foods such as sweet potatoes and winter squashes, as these are the colors that correspond to the Earth element. Someone with Heart weakness would do well to eat more red foods such as tomatoes and hawthorn berries, as red corresponds to the Fire element.
Another relationship that occurs within the Five Elements is the control cycle. It goes like this: we take wood, for example a tree, whose roots grow into the earth; we take earth and build a dam to control water; water puts out the fire; fire melts down to metal; metal makes the ax that cuts the wood. If the Wood element (Liver) becomes excessive and manifests as hypertension, red eyes and a headache, we may want to strengthen or tonify the Metal element (Lungs) to control the Wood.
The creation and control cycles occur as natural phenomena, keeping life in balance. However, when any one of the elements is either too strong or too weak, disharmony results. Keep in mind as you use the Five Elements Theory that there are always exceptions to the rule.
The Five Tastes
The physical sensation of taste has its significance in Chinese medicine. Taste is classified into five flavors, although in the text below you will actually find severn. These five tastes are: sour, sweet, bitter, pungent, and salty. The other two are bland, which falls under the sweet category, and astringent, which falls under the sour category.
When a substance such as a food or an herb goes into the gastrointestinal tract to be digested, the sour taste is aid to be absorbed by the Liver and Gall Bladder, the bitter taste by the Heart and Small Intestines, the sweet taste by the Spleen and Stomach, the pungent taste by the Lungs and Large Intestines, and the salty taste by the Kidneys and Urinary Bladder. Therefore, foods and herbs with different energies and tastes are assimilated into the body to nourish different organs.
Take the example of someone with digestive difficulties as in a weakness of Splenn and Stomach. He or she often likes to eat sweets. Contrary to Western medicine, in which those with digestive weakness are advised against sweet intake, Chinese medicine utilizes foods, such as yam or winter squash, that are actually slightly sweet and strenghten the weakness of Spleen and Stomach. Thus, consumption of foods with various tastes will benefit those organs that correspond to these tastes.
- Pungent is a taste that has functions of dispersing, invigorating, and promoting circulation. Its function of dispersing is mainly used to disperse pathogens from the exterior of the body, such as we see in common colds and flu. Its function of invigorating is to promote circulation of Chi, blood and body fluids. In Chinese medicine, disease is the result of stagnation; therefore, foods that have this pungent taste will promote and invigorate circulation of Chi, blood and body fluids. The pathological condition of stagnation can be seen as local pain, irregular and/or painful menstruation, edema, tumors, and so on. The pungent taste, because of its dispersing quality also acts to open the pores and promote sweating. This is a way to expel the pathogens from the body. Examples of pungent tasting foods are ginger, garlic and mint.
- Sour taste has absorbing, consolidating, and astringent functions. It functions in stopping abnormal discharge of body fluids and substances as in the condition of excessive perspiration, diarrhea, seminal emission, spermatorrhea, and enuresis. Examples of sour foods are Chinese sour plum, lemon and vinegar.
- Astringent faste falls under teh sour taste category and its actions are very similar to that of the sour taste.
- Bitter substances have the action of drying dampness and dispersing obstructions. Often bitter also clears heat, so bitter aids conditions like dampness and edema. Its function of dispersing obstruction can be utilized for a cough due to Chi stagnation and so forth. Examples of bitter tasting foods are rhubarb, apricot kernels, and kale.
- Salty taste has the function of softening and dissolving hardenings. It also moistens and lubricates the intestines. Body symptoms such as lumps, nodes, masses, and cysts can be softened and dissolved by salty substances. An example can be seen in goiter, which is treated by seaweed, a representative of salty food. Also, in cases of constipation, one can drink salt water to lubricate the intestines and promote evacuation.
- Sweet taste has the action of tonifying, harmonizing and decelerating. In cases of fatigue or deficiency, sweet substances have a reinforcing and strengthening action. Deficiencies may occur in different aspects of the body, such as insufficiency of Chi, blood, Yin or Yang. Specific organs may suffer from weakness as well. This is why one is drawn to sweets when he or she is experiencing low energy. Sweet taste is also used to decelerate, which means to relax. It is used in conditions of acute pain to help relax and hence, ease the pain. Sweet foods and herbs can harmonize as an antidote or counterbalance undesirable effects from some herbs. Examples of sweet-tasting foods are yams, corn and rice.
- Bland taste falls under the sweet taste category. It tends to be diuretic, promotes urination and relieves edema. An example of a bland-tasting food is pearl barley.
The Eight Differentiations
In order to more clearly understand the energy of the patient and the nature and location of the disease, the Chinese have developed the Eight Differentiations system of diagnosis. Internal and external serves to locate the area of the disease. Deficiency and excess determine the relative strength of the patient or the disease. Cold and hot give indications of the nature of the individual and/or the pathogens. Yin and Yang give the overall picture of the condition. Together these eight differentiations can provide an accurate picture of both the individual being treated and the disease at hand. A mixture of symptoms can be confusing. The Eight Differentiations provide a basis for understanding seeming contradictions in the symptoms. A practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine would make an evaluation based on the tongue and pulse readings and the presenting signs and symptoms.
Causes of Disease
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the cause of disease is said to be of an external or internal source. Just below the surface of teh skin lies a layer of energy that acts as a protective shield. In a healthy person this shield is strong and without gaps as a barrier of protection should be. It is impervious to external factors. It, however, there are weak spots in this shield and external factors can penetrate into the body, we have disease. This shield is part of the immune system. If one’s immune system is strong, one does not catch the pathogen. For example, some people have the AIDS virus and show no symptoms of it; others catch it and soon die. That is the difference between strong Chi and weak Chi.
In the Chinese perception of disease, external causes of diseases include the following environmental conditions: cold, heat, summer heat, dryness, dampness, and wind. In Western thinking, we would put viruses and bacteria in this category.
Diseases can also arise as a result of internal factors. These include the emotions: joy (mania), grief, anger, depression, worry, melancholy, and fear. These reflect the mental state induced by one’s environment. That in itself does not cause disease. However, when emotions are very intense or long lasting, disharmony or disease can result. Mental attitude is very important for good health. By calming one’s mind, many physical problems disappear.
An interesting survey done in China on a group of cancer patients showed that 95% had been physically or mentally tortured during the Cultural Revolution (1965–1975). During that harsh period, intellectuals were tortured; even husbands and wives betrayed each other for the sake of the Communist Party. You could not trust anyone with your innermost feelings and thoughts. These people built up frustration, depression, and anger, and these destructive emotions in turn became cancer. Isolation and inability to express emotions is very destructive to one’s health.
It is important to recognize the role of emotional balance in maintaining good health. We must have a channel to release excessive emotions, be it exercises such as tai chi chuan or chi gong, breathing techniques, acupuncture, meditation, or walking. These activities can help to regulate emotions and promote more inner peace.
Other causes of disease include traumatic injury, stagnant blood or mucus, improper exercise, improper activities, and improper diet. Traumatic injuries include accidents, incisions, sprains, burns, and animal and insect bites. Stagnancy of the blood and mucus cause blocks in the energy pathways; a good example is tumors.
Either too much or too little exercise can cause disease. Improper activities include excessive sex, overworking, and overexertion. Excessive sex is particularly injurious to the Kidneys, the store-house of our Jing. Improper diet can be eating too little for proper nourishment of the body, overeating, or eating too much of the wrong foods, such as too much raw, cold, greasy, or spicy foods.
Overeating is a very common imbalance and can cause many diseases. We frequently overeat because we do not know how to eat and tend to eat very fast. By chewing food slowly and properly, the body will naturally tell us when to stop. People also reach out to food and use it as an escape. Eating in a relaxed frame of mind is essential to good digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
It has been found in animal experiments that if one group is allowed to eat as much as desired and another group is starved every second day, the first group had fives times more tendency toward spontaneous cancer. Statistically, the United States leads the world in both protein consumption per person and the incidence of cancer. Protein is needed, but an excessive amount causes problems. An over consumption of meat protein will also result in a high percentage of fat in the diet, another significant contributor to disease. Meat companies have led us to believe that we need far more protein than is really healthy. Moderation is essential to good health.
A study conducted from 1983–1988 of 6,500 people from 65 regions across China showed the impact that regular exercise and a low-fat, high-fiber diet have on maintaining good health. This was the largest study of its kind to date. The findings of the China Project on Nutrition, Health, and Environment were published in 1990 in Diet, Lifestyle, and Morality in China. This project was under the direction of T. Colin Campbell of Cornell University, in collaboration with researchers from Oxford University, Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, and Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, both in Beijing.
The results suggested that the healthiest diet would contain a minimum of 80–90% plant foods. Those in the Chinese countryside, who get only 10–15% of their calories and 7% of their total protein from animal products, had low incidence of heart disease, colon cancer, and osteoporosis. The study showed that when the rural dweller moved to the city and adopted the city lifestyle and higher fat diet (30%), diseases increased.
The Western approach to diseases is to kill bacteria and suppress the symptoms, thus driving the disease deeper into the body. The Chinese way supports the body and lets it do the killing of the pathogen. Supporting the body with tonification reinforces the body’s healing energy. The body can heal itself if given the chance although we may need to give it assistance through proper nutrition or herbal medicine.
Fasting or light eating is sometimes recommended during an illness, such as a cold, so digestion of heavy foods will not detract from the body’s healing process. In many traditions throughout the world, a thin, soupy grain porridge, or congee, is given during illness. This is very easy to digest, and thus the body can draw on its resources to heal. The antibiotic route, on the other hand, weakens the immune system, makes one prone to illness, causes the immune system to become lazy, and generally interferes with the natural healing process.
There are many supportive measures that can be taken with foods and herbs. In many instances, we need to support the body while concurrently detoxifying or sedating it. This is the Chinese approach to disease. For cancer patients in some hospitals in China, doctors combine the killing aspects of chemotherapy and radiation with supportive measures of Traditional Chinese Medicine, including proper diet, herbs, chi gong exercises and acupuncture. This has produced a longer life expectancy than the conventional killing approach alone. Some hospitals treat cancer patients solely with Chinese medicine; this group often shows the longest life expectancy including many total remissions.
Prevention of Disease
As we increase our awareness of health, we can maintain a state of balance within the body, and become more responsible for our health. Too often we suffer from our inappropriate actions and thoughts. Chinese nutrition stresses prevention of disease. Written 2,000–3,000 years ago, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine says, ‘A doctor who treats a disease after it has happened is a mediocre doctor. But a doctor who treats a disease before it happens is a superior doctor.’ Doctors were considered to be teachers who taught their patients how to be healthy and spiritually upright. Success was measured by vibrant health. We as individuals choose to be one kind of doctor or the other.
Traditionally, herbs have been used to preserve good health and prevent disease. Many of the tonifying herbs are used for this purpose over a long period of time. The tonic herbs are further categorized into Yin, Yang, Blood and Chi tonics, and lend themselves well to preparations with foods, such as soups, stew and porridges. Incorporating the appropriate herbs into the diet on a regular basis can provide great benefit to health.
The use of herbs as food has a long history in China. The first Chinese Materia Medica, Shen-Nong Herbal Classic, categorizes herbs into three groups. The first group was called food herbs, which were eaten as a part of the diet for general nourishment, maintenance of health, and prevention of disease. Taoist hermits called these herbs immortal foods and described them as producing effects that rejuvenate health, prolong life, restore youth, and increase clarity. They often used them as the main part of their diet, along with some fruits, nuts and seeds.
The other two groups of herbs were called medicinal herbs, which were dispensed to patients in an individual formula based on each patient’s constitution, environment and medical condition, by a traditional Chinese medical professional.
Prevention of disease includes proper nutrition, exercise, emotional balance, and nourishing our spirit. As we nourish body, mind, and spirit we maintain a state of balance. Preventive maintenance is the most sensible route to take. As The Yellow Emperor states:
The sages of ancient times emphasized not the treatment of disease, but rather the prevention of its occurrence. To administer medicine to disease that has already developed and to suppress revolts that have already begun is comparable to the behavior of one who begins to dig a well after he has become thirsty or one who begins to forge weapons after he has engaged in battle. Would these actions not be too late?
Guidelines for a Balanced Diet
As every body is unique, there will always be variations according to individual needs. A few basic guidelines, however, are appropriate as we seek a way of eating that creates balance and harmony. Frame of mind is of utmost importance at mealtime; relax and slowly chew your food for optimal digestion and assimilation. The dinner table is not the place to discuss the day’s problems. Chewing is a major part of digestion. Remember, your stomach does not have teeth. Digestion, particularly of the starches, begins in the mouth. Foods that are difficult to thoroughly chew, such as sesame seeds, should be ground before eating. Fruits digest quickly while meats and other proteins take more time to digest.
The preferred ways of preparing foods are steaming, stir-frying in water, stewing (boiling, as in soups), or baking. Steaming leaves the food in its most natural taste, while baking creates more heat and would be the best method for cold conditions. Even the best quality oils become difficult to digest when heated. So, if oil is desired, put it on after the food is cooked.
Foods should be eaten in their wholeness, when possible. Only peel fruits or vegetables if the peel is hard to digest or contaminated with chemical sprays. Search out organically grown foods to avoid the toxic chemical residues of commercial growing processes. To clean foods thoroughly, one may wash them in salt water. Also avoid irradiated or microwaved foods, if possible. The best utensils for cooking in are glass, earthenware, or stainless steel. One should avoid cooking in aluminum or copper; these metals can easily leach into the food.
The food one eats should follow the seasons and should be grown locally. Nature has the perfect plan for providing the appropriate foods in each given season. The fruits and vegetables that ripen in the summertime tend to be on the cooling side. In wintertime we will tend toward a more warming diet. Also, one should eat a wide variety of foods for good balance.
Most vegetables should be at least lightly cooked because raw vegetables tend to be difficult to digest. Foods should never be eaten cold because cold foods put out the digestive fire, so to speak. This is particularly upsetting to the female menstrual cycle as the stomach sits right beside the liver which is responsible for storing blood. Cooling off the stomach can lead to a stagnant blood condition and a difficult menstrual period. Frozen foods, such as ice cream or iced drinks, are very unhealthy. Neither should we consume foods that are so hot that they burn the mouth or stomach.
It is best to stop eating before becoming full. Also, eating just before retiring is not a good idea; one should eat the last meal at least three hours before going to bed. This will not only result in better digestion, but also a more restful sleep. Late eating also tends to be stored as unwanted pounds. One should wake up with a good appetite for breakfast. This is the meal that provides us with the fuel or energy for much of the day, so make breakfast a very nutritious meal.
Nuts and seeds contain a larger proportion of oil and should be eaten as fresh as possible and kept refrigerated. Because most people do not chew nuts well, grinding them into power makes them easier to digest.
Beans should be soaked prior to cooking for at least a few hours; always discard the soaking water and cook them in fresh water. Small beans like lentils and peas tend to be easier to digest than large beans like lima or kidney beans. For a person with particularly weak digestion, it is best to cook grains soupy with additional water and cooking time. You may use up to ten parts water per one part grain.
Always avoid highly processed foods and keep meals as simple as possible. A balanced diet would consist of the following on a regular basis:
Whole grains including rice, millet, barley, wheat, oats, corn, rye, quinoa, amaranth, etc. This group of foods will account for about 40% of the diet.
Freshly prepared vegetables including dark leafy greens, cabbage, broccoli, celery, root vegetables, etc. This group of foods will account for about 40% of the diet.
Fresh fruits will be consumed when in season but generally no more than 10% of the diet. Fruits can be a great snack or sweet treat.
Legumes/seeds/nuts including peas, beans, tofu, peanuts, lentils, sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts, etc. This group will account for about 10–20% of the vegetarian diet and a lesser portion of the meat-inclusive diet.
Animal products include dairy foods, meat, fish, poultry, and eggs. They should be no more than 10% of the diet if one chooses to include them. Attempt to locate growers who do not use drugs or inhumane practices on the animals.
Seaweeds include nori, wakame, dulse, kombu, hiziki, and arame. This is a valuable mineral source, consumed in small amounts (a small handful dry), and of particular value to those vegetarians who refrain from eating dairy foods.
As strictly as possible, avoid consuming the following: chemical preservatives, additives, colorings and flavorings, MSG, fried or greasy foods, coffee, ice cream and excessive sugar.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has adopted a Food Pyramid that shows food proportions for a healthy diet. It is very similar to the food group proportions used in Chinese Nutrition. Grains, beans, vegetables and fruits constitute the base of the pyramid and majority of the diet, while meat and dairy foods, eaten in small proportions, are at the top. This shows people how to make changes in their dietary habits and ways of looking at food.