Chinese Women Don’t Get Fat: Food, Digestion and Oriental Medicine

The topic of food and health has probably become one of the most complex and contradictory areas concerning health. There are so many different theories, viewpoints, diet plans as well as various corporate and industrial forces which have turned what should be a simple thing into an overly complicated topic.

For example, if you see a Western scientific ‘dietician’, a healthy diet is based on consuming adequate amounts of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of carbohydrates, proteins, fibre, vitamins and minerals. It does not necessarily matter whether the carbohydrates and vitamins comes from fortified sugary cereal or from sweet potatoes. With a certain degree of opposition, there are the various schools of ‘Nutritionist’, which are generally more imaginative with diets and may promote a more natural nutritional diet based on the consumption of vegetables, pulses, wholegrains and lean meats along with various supplements. Then there are the more specialist nutritionists or naturopaths that may promote certain ways of eating emphasising certain food groups such as high fibre diets, low carbohydrate diets, Candida diets, fasting, food combining or raw food diets. And of course there are the weight loss diets. Diets designed to make us lose weight. It goes without saying that such diets are not popular in developing countries.

There are so many diets. Just to name a few – there is the Palaeolithic diet, the Food combining diet, the Weight Watchers diet, the F plan, the Exclusion diet, the Zone diet, the Atkins diet, the Okinawa diet, the Eskimo diet, the Dukan diet, the Apple a day diet, the Banana diet, the Grapefruit diet, the South Beach diet, the Cabbage soup diet, Juice fasting, the Specific carbohydrate diet, the Gluten free diet, the Warrior diet, the Alkaline diet, the Blood type diet, the Dr Hay diet, the Macrobiotic diet, the Candida diet, the High protein diet, the Low protein diet, the High carbohydrate diet, the Low carbohydrate diet, the French women don’t get fat diet, the Low glycemic index diet, Raw foodism, the Sugar busters diet, there’s even a Junk food diet. The list is endless. I found over 400 different diets – most of them related to losing weight but some of them were about improving a health condition or simply to improve general health.

Maybe, just as the final curtain is drawn on the last of human civilisation, there will be as many diets in existence as there are stars in the sky.

And so just to confuse things even more, I will talk about the Oriental medicine diet.

In the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) system of Oriental medicine, food is classified with different energetic qualities. They can be heating – they put heat in the body. Or cooling – in that they cool the body. They may also be damp forming – causing phlegm, mucous or weight gain. Some foods increase the yang energy of the body and others nourish the yin. Some foods may be considered neutral. Basically all food has energetic qualities, which affect the body in different ways.

Foods that are considered heating are spices, red meat and lamb. Cooling foods are typically raw foods like cucumber, egg plant and raw fish. Damp forming foods are dairy, oil and sugar.

Some foods tonify or weaken certain organs, For example, the sweet taste affects the spleen and stomach, which governs the digestive system. Naturally sweet foods like grains – both white and brown tonify the spleen and stomach. However, excessively sweet foods like refined sugar, candies and cakes can weaken it.

The yin and yang of foods has many aspects and is not altogether that simple. One way of looking at yin foods is that they increase the yin aspects of the body like the blood and flesh. Therefore proteins like meat and fish may be considered yin. Foods that increase energy quickly may be considered yang such as alcohol or refined sugar. However, as discussed in the article on yin and yang, everything is relative. So for example, although meat may be considered yin, red meats are considered more yang compared to white meats and fish may be considered more yin than white meats, which relatively speaking are yang. Make sense?

Foods are grouped by colour according to the theory of Five elements. For example, the colour white is said to resonate with the metal element and in particular the lung and large intestine – so white colour foods may be beneficial to the lungs – like cauliflower or white rice. Green tonifys the wood element – the liver, so green leafy vegetables may be beneficial to the liver.

Foods are grouped by shape. The kidney bean resembles the human kidney and so is said to tonify the kidneys. The walnuts look like the brains and are said to tonify the brain.

Like fixes like. Offal meat like animal liver, kidney and intestines are said to nourish the corresponding human equivalent. Pig blood (Black pudding) can nourish human blood.

Foods are classified by action. For example, spicy foods encourage perspiration and sweating. If we have stagnant energy such as having poor circulation or being overweight – then some spicy foods can move the circulation and encourage the opening of the pores. Although, this can be a quick fix to the underlying problem. Too much yang (spicy foods) can eventually lead to too much yin (mucous, phlegm and excess weight) in the body undermining it.

Damp forming foods cause damp in the body. This can be thought of as phlegm or mucus. Some people are intolerant to dairy or wheat and when they eat it they may find a build up of phlegm and mucus in the throat or even in the stool.

How foods are cooked also affects their energetic qualities. For example, fried, barbecued and grilled foods involve using more intense heat in a shorter period of time and has a searing effect on the food. They are consider to be more yang compared to boiling or steaming, which tends to soften the food and is considered a more yin method. In particular, frying especially deep fat frying has both a yang heating and damp forming effect on food due to the combination of heat and oil (a damp food). Deep fat fried foods may be very hard for people with weak digestive systems to digest. An excess of this kind of food can lead to what in TCM is described as damp heat in the body. Damp heat refers to any kind of puss-filled inflammation or painful inflammation. We see this in the adolescent fast food employee who eats free hamburgers and fries every day for lunch and suffers from cystic acne. We see this in the middle aged person who eats fried rump steaks, ribs and fried chicken everyday and suffers from swollen joints. A historical example of damp heat would be the condition of gout – a painful arthritic condition, which affects the foot. It was called the “king of diseases and the disease of kings” or “the rich man’s disease”. When King Henry VIII wasn’t busy destroying the church and beheading wives, he was famous for suffering from this ‘damp-heat’ condition which is associated with an extreme excess of rich foods and alcohol.

There are other various principles – a little of one flavour can strengthen an organ or body function. So a little sweet (from grains) can tonify the spleen and stomach. A little of the bitter flavour – tonifys the heart; a little pungent tonifys the lung, sour tonifys the liver, salty tonifys the kidneys. However, too much of a flavour can weaken the same organ. Too much sugar (refined sugar) weakens the digestion. Too much pungent (curry) weakens the lungs. Some people after eating strong curry may get a lot of mucus in their throat afterwards.

There is a debate over raw and cooked foods. In Chinese food therapy, it is recommended to cook foods. This contrasts with the Western raw food movement – especially popular in California, which claims that the cooking process ‘denatures’ food and destroys raw enzymes. However, not everyone can tolerate raw foods. Raw foods can lead to stomach aches and excess flatulence in people with less than robust digestive systems.

Other issues are vegetarianism and fasting. Despite the proximity of India and China and the transfer of ideas which had gone on for centuries between the two countries, there are some fundamental differences concerning eating habits and diet. In traditional Indian medicine, fasting (the abstinence of food for a short period of time) is practiced to rest the digestive system and to detoxify the body. However, in Chinese dietetics, fasting is discouraged as it is seen as weakening the digestive system. Instead simple, plain, easy digestible foods and herbal teas are recommended for sickness. Vegetarianism is also a common part of the Indian diet. However, vegetarianism is not so common in mainland China. There is an infamous quote by Prince Philip, when he was commenting on the Chinese eating habits to the World Wildlife conference in 1986. Typical of Prince Phillip, it is offensive and shows that wealth and privilege does not necessarily confer humility and respect for others.

“If it has got four legs and is not a chair, if it has two wings and it flies but is not an aeroplane, and if it swims and is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it”.

With the exception of Taoists and monks, Chinese are not generally vegetarian. Meat tonifys both the yang and yin and is seen as an essential part of a healthy diet. In the Chinese diet, mealtimes are generally a combination of vegetables, meats, fish, rice or noodles.

This doesn’t mean that the Indians are right and the Chinese wrong or the other way round. Both means of eating convey benefits and disadvantages to these people. What this teaches us is that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to food and eating habits.

A more important factor is that good digestion depends not just on the quality of the food we eat, but also on our ability to digest it. If our digestion is impaired, we will not absorb the useful nutrients from it. In Chinese medicine, the Spleen and Stomach meridians and organs control digestion. If they are weak, then we may suffer from low energy and other symptoms such as feelings of bloatedness or tiredness after eating, rumbling in the intestines, diarrhoea and aches in the stomach or food intolerances. Food may not be properly absorbed causing low energy and a thin body. Conversely, food may be too well absorbed but not properly converted into energy in the body resulting in weight gain and again tiredness. In this way, we could eat the best food in the world and it will go to waste. When a person has strong digestion, they can eat a big mac and fries and take in benefit from it. When a person has weak digestion they can eat a Jamie Oliver meal and gain very little benefit from it.

There is a common joke – only sick people can be found in health food shops. Conversely only healthy people are found in fried chicken shops.

Acupuncture seeks to strengthen the digestive system. But there are times when digestion is naturally weak such as when we are convalescing from an illness. During this time, Chinese dietetics recommends very simple and easily digestible food. Every culture has some version of this. The Chinese and Japanese have a very simple meal – called congee or rice porridge. It is available from some Chinese restaurants. Here is the recipe:

Congee

Ingredients:

– ¾ cup long grain rice

– 9 cups water

– 1 teaspoon salt

Preparation:

In a large pot, bring the water and rice to the boil.

When the rice is boiling, turn the heat down to low. Put the lid on the pot, tilting it to allow steam to escape.

Cook on a low heat, stirring occasionally, until the rice has a thick, creamy texture like porridge. Approximately 1-2 hours. Add the salt, taste and add seasonings if desired.

Serve with garnishes. A little soya sauce can be added.

For a healthy option, brown wholegrain rice may used instead of white rice although the cooking time may have to be increased to 3-4 hours. Alternatively you can use a pressure cooker and cook for about one hour.

Variations:

For extra nutrition, an egg can be added and stirred into the congee a few minutes before you turn the heat off. Other options are wakame seaweed or nori seaweed, which should be added at the end or kombu seaweed, which should be cooked from the beginning.

A little shredded meat can also be added at the beginning of the cooking process. The long cooking time will mean it is very soft and easy to digest.

Congee tonifys the blood and is very nourishing. It is more easily digestible for the chronically ill person and gentle on the intestines.

How we eat

Consider some western eating habits today. How we eat – the environment has the potential to affect digestion particularly if we feel stressed when we eat or if we eat in a rush. Some people at work will stuff a cold sandwich down their throat during a rushed five minute break and a coke during the winter. This is not really respecting their digestive system. In the traditional Chinese energy circulation clock, which shows the circulation of qi through the meridians, the morning time period of 7am – 9am is called the time of the stomach. The period of 9am – 11am is the time off the spleen (which deals with digestion and absorption). These four hours are considered to be the time when the digestive system is at its maximum peak of power in the Chinese clock. It is a time, where it would be good to have our most substantial meal because our digestive organs are at their peak of energetic activity and can digest and absorb efficiently.

In Asian countries like Japan, traditionally they would honour this with a substantial meal for breakfast. A traditional breakfast would be rice, miso soup and grilled mackerel. In the West, breakfasts used to be more substantial. My father’s generation were brought up with a large bowl of porridge oats, bread and butter and sometimes kippers (when times were good). However, now there is a trend towards having lighter and quicker breakfasts. Today, many people have a few spoonfuls of cornflakes, a slice of toast or they forego breakfast and have two to three cups of coffee and a cigarette. It may well be that the post afternoon slump and craving for snacks that many people suffer from may be attributed to an insufficient breakfast. And there is a long term consequence to inadequate eating. Your body must use up its own resources and precious yin energy in order to provide yang energy for daily movement and activity. In short, you’re selling yourself short.

Another example of Western eating habits is that the evening meal time is slowly becoming a solitary affair. Even in families with two or more members, the TV is often switched on and takes centre stage. Some families eat in separate rooms.

Typically the Chinese family sit down at the table together. Food is placed on dishes in the centre and they take a small portion and place on their bowls unlike the Western way of having their own plate filled up with everything. This way, there must be interaction between family members. Eating becomes a social event. The TV may be on in the room in the background, but it does not take central focus. Food takes central focus.

This year I was fortunate to be invited by a Chinese friend for the Chinese New Year. In typical Western fashion, I filled up my small bowl to maximum with everything I wanted. It seemed more efficient to get everything in one go, then to have to keep takings bits here and there – especially with chopsticks. This attracted one small remark of disdain. Fortunately, I was among friends. We discussed different eating habits and I was told that the Western way of filling up everything you want in a bowl or plate is seen as selfish. It was an idea I had never considered before. I had always taken it for granted that typically we have everything we want on our own plate. When we order food in a restaurant, typically food comes on our own plate. We do not share it. It seems more efficient. But then by eating in this way, eating has the potential to become a selfish event. Everything is set. We do not need to interact. We don’t need to argue who’s going to eat that last piece of pie. And if the TV is on in the room, we can simply watch and eat, watch and eat. Social interaction can come secondary. And many families do eat like this.

Weight

The modern Chinese and Japanese do suffer the same as Westerners in that they also put on weight and feel inclined to go on diets. One look at women’s magazines from these countries will reveal all sorts of advertisements for questionable diet supplements and diet plans. However, what they don’t have are the levels of obesity that is becoming prevalent in the US and UK. From my time living in Japan, I believe this in part is down to the attitude towards food. In Japan, food is given a lot of respect. TV programs are awash with numerous segments on foods and restaurants with various B and C class celebrities being filmed eating said food and responding in the expected fashion by making an intense expression of pleasure and exhaling in an orgasmic “Oishiii! Umaii!” which literally translates as ‘Delicious! Tastes Good!”. Going to restaurants is a popular social activity, just like going shopping with friends or to a coffee shop and they are not overly expensive like in the UK. I saw a lot of food blogs written by people giving reviews of foods and restaurants. One acquaintance showed me a picture of a very tasty looking cake she had just eaten at a local cake shop which she was going to upload on her personal blog. On a Sunday afternoon, I often saw long lines of people – boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife standing patiently outside certain restaurants and eateries with reputations for selling delicious ramen (noodles) or gyudon (beef and rice) in a manner not too dissimilar to the way queues of couples may line outside museums or galleries on a Sunday afternoon in the UK.

A typical complaint from Japanese people and in fact many foreigners visiting the UK is that English food is no good. As an English national, I know this is not true. There are lots of good and simple foods. However I do understand the criticism. The closest you will find on the high street to a simple, clean and affordable British eatery is the Wetherspoons pub, which is usually tucked in among several MacDonalds, Subway sandwich shops and various Italian restaurants. After that, if you want authentic British food, you have to go to a greasy spoon café which is more catered to working men and mostly serves fried foods like eggs, bacon sausages, beans and toast – which is high in fats, salt and cholesterol. I also think English people tend to put too much stock in fish and chips which is really a kind of junk food. It is really no surprise that the Indian curry was voted the UK’s most popular dish a few years ago. After all, the British example is always – if someone else has something good, we can always steal it and make it our own. Take a look inside the British Museum if you disagree.

When it comes to giving advice on food, I don’t think there is any one size fits all approach. I don’t believe one diet can fix all. In my own life, I have experimented with various diets, eating habits and supplements. Some had good results on my health. Some of them undermined it. I even underwent a 5 day fast at a specialist fasting centre. This is not to be advised on your own as it can be extremely harmful. I have experienced periods of my life when I have eaten as health consciously as I could by favouring organic foods, increasing vegetables, avoiding sugar, drinking fresh juices and eating so called ‘superfoods’ and supplements. I have also gone the opposite side of the spectrum – living on junk food, snacks and alcohol (mostly during my early twenties.). I have read many books, and tried many things out diligently but I can’t honestly say that any one way of eating resonated with me. The only way of eating which seems to make me feel well internally and externally is when I go back to a simple diet, which my mother used to cook for me. This was boiled vegetables – carrots, cabbage, potatoes and a serving of meat or fish. Sometimes a bit of apple pie afterwards for a treat. Lunch at school was a cheese or meat sandwich and an apple. My father’s ideal breakfast consisting of cooked porridge oats, with stewed apple for breakfast definitely heated me up during the cold seasons – although I still find it a bit bland. And for balance, there was always the treat of a takeout or fish and chips on the occasional weekend to look forward to. And when I was a young kid, I don’t ever remember being neurotic about food or calorie counting or worrying that a food was harmful to me. It may not be the healthiest, but nor is it the worst. Nowadays, I see school kids outside the local kebab shop at lunch time eating fried chicken and chips from little boxes and dropping chicken bones on the pavement and I wonder if they eat like this every day.

As an acupuncture practitioner, my advice is simple. Eat fresh and adequate amounts of vegetables, protein and carbs. Limit processed foods. Prepare and cook foods yourself. Boil, steam or grill in preference to frying. During the cold seasons, soups and stews are nourishing. During the summer, some raw foods can be OK if your digestive system is healthy. If you have digestive problems, cook foods softly so that they are easily digestible, and be wary of eating too much fibre especially raw. Also listen to your body – if a food or supplements upsets your gut, no matter how ‘healthy’ it is meant to be, then maybe it’s no good for you. Listen and respond to the messages your body tells you. And be aware of the psychological nature of food. If you crave salty snacks or sweets excessively – it can be an imbalance in the body but there is also the consideration that there is a psychological reason for the craving. When we are stressed or deeply troubled, sugary and salty foods can be a way of self-medicating ourselves in much the same way that people may drink alcohol or take illicit drugs to ‘numb’ themselves from the stress of life’s problems.

Not to mention, in much the same way that factory farmed animals are effectively force fed with whatever we choose to give them – GM grains, antibiotics, steroids or even brain material from their own species (causing Mad Cow disease due to prions), we as humans are also to various extents ‘force-fed’ by the food industry in collaboration with the advertising industry. Food is a billion dollar business and a major part of the economy. Certain industries depend for their very survival that enough of us Homo sapiens eat farmed chicken and pork, hamburgers, bread or milk or frosted sugar flakes or sweetened fizzy drinks on a daily basis. The last thing we are ever expected to do is to grow and eat our own food. It is in this way, that modern humans in the developed world have lost connection with food. Because food today is imported from thousands of miles away, we don’t even know which foods are local to our environment. Only amateur gardeners know which vegetables are in season. And meat is far more easily available today than in any generation previously, we tend to forget that meat was a luxury item for our ancestors. An ancient wisdom has been forgotten.

As many aspects of our life have been improved, we have forgotten that we as humans must still follow the natural laws if we want to thrive in health (not just survive). A major principle is to live in tune with nature. There is a price to be paid for spending all our days in an air-conditioned room set to the same comfortable temperature in summer and winter. In much the same way we can buy and eat salad from the supermarket chilled section everyday during the coldest period of winter. If we eat a yin food in a yin season, we make our bodies too yin. In a yin season (winter) it is better to eat a yang food (a warm stew) to balance yin and yang. The Chinese were smart – too smart. They foresaw the damage that occurs to the body when we live out of tune with nature and found a simplistic way of expressing it. Despite our incredible advances in science, medicine and technology, we still have the same bodies as the ancients and are still subject to the same natural laws. Fortunately, their wisdom has been preserved and is waiting for us to rediscover it.