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Oriental Traditions and Modern Nutrition

By Shihan Mary Bolz

In the late twentieth century, food finally began to be recognized in the West as an important healing force. For the first time in United States history, the Surgeon General acknowledged, in 1988, the value of a good diet while at the same time condemning typical American eating patterns. According to his statement two-thirds of all deaths are directly affected by improper diet, and poor eating habits play a large part in the nation’s most common killers – coronary heart disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, diabetes and some cancers.

Here in the United States people who begin to study about diet and health are often inundated with conflicting views in almost all sources of information. Understanding which foods are suitable for human consumption and specifically which foods are best for overcoming personal imbalances and maximizing vitality in each individual is not a mystery to traditional Asian societies. This understanding comes from the ancient, practical, and sound theory of yin and yang, which is merely a way of knowing the principles of the universe, the laws of nature.

Besides a need for higher quality foods and better basic diets, the Western people need a clearer view of which foods are best for their own individual needs. Frequently food therapies are used with little or no result and worse yet, undesired results. That is because there is a lack of understanding of the individual properties of foods and their effects on individual bodies.

In actuality, healing with food is not haphazard. Food acts according to its various therapeutic properties, although its properties are often less specific and its actions less drastic than those of herbs or other medicines. Food is a foundation medicine. It is sometimes slower to take effect but profoundly affects all systems of the body.

With knowledge of how foods act in the body and the ability to self-evaluate, a person can learn which foods and diets are best for his or her particular constitution and condition. Knowing only vitamin, mineral and general nutrient properties is not enough. Oriental medicine offers another dimension to food analysis. As far back as 2,000 – 3,000 years ago, master healers in China perceived a way to classify food and disease according to simple, easily observed patterns. An example of this is: eat cooling foods for overly hot conditions and warming foods for people who feel too cold. A person who carries excess toxins requires detoxifying foods while building foods are good for deficient persons. When one understands certain basic and sound principles, the name of a disease does not need to be known. When the foundations of Oriental diagnosis and treatment are understood and practiced correctly, all imbalances, regardless of their disease name can be treated dietarily. This does not mean, however, that is all that is needed for correcting long-term or serious imbalances. Other therapies from herbology, homeopathy, massage, acupuncture, modern medical treatments and others are more effective when based on a solid dietary foundation.

Most traditions in the far East conceive a basic law of cosmic harmony, the dual principle of yin and yang or as similar polarities when the term yin/yang are not used. These same principles are understood by people of wisdom in the West, but expressed in different terms. Western nutrition can benefit from the simplicity and wisdom of Oriental medicine and hopefully the Orient will awaken to hard lessons learned in the West about denatured food (as the modern trend of eating white rice has taken hold there).

In the West, proteins, carbohydrates, fats and other components of food are considered in nutrition. However, in the Orient, other dimensions are considered; the warming and cooling properties, the ability to moisten, strengthen energy, calm the mind, reduce water and mucus accumulations in the body, and others. Other advantages of incorporating this ancient system into modern nutrition is that it works with subtle flows of energy, reaching far in advance diagnostically to predict and prevent approaching illness and also understand an imbalance that already exists when the Western approach alone sees “nothing wrong.” It also benefits people without access to expensive diagnostic tools, since oriental diagnosis is powerful in its simplicity, and it helps one select the most useful remedies from the myriad possibilities.

Correct preparation and skill in eating, besides understanding the properties of foods is also important. This means, not overeating, choosing high-quality organically – grown foods, avoiding too many food combinations, knowing a broad-range of nutritious foods such as chlorophyll-rich plants, the best sources of fatty acids, the least dangerous concentrated sweeteners, etc. There is no limit to health with good attitude, exercise, and a balanced and disciplined diet.

On a long-term basis, the best foods to use are those that are not extreme; i.e. they don’t overly cleanse, overly build, or stress the body or mind. These foods are the whole grains and other complex carbohydrates. That means unrefined and in their whole, untouched form as much as possible. These are found in traditional diets around the world.

A wonderfully nutrient-rich variety of foods are found in this category (complex) of carbohydrates: grains, vegetables, sea vegetables, legumes (beans, peas, lentils), nuts and seeds. Though they have properties in common, each carbohydrate has its own unique healing attributes and should not be lumped together in that respect. Fruits are “simple carbohydrates,” and are a form of simple sugar which play a role that depends on the persons health, constitution, the climate, and the degree of need for purification.

If a person observes nature, he/she can usually come up with the answer as to what is healthier and what nature intended for human consumption in general. For example, if one looks at the number of “grain-grinding” teeth (i.e. the molars), they far outnumber the teeth made for tearing. Also, examine the teeth that are made for tearing-they are not as sharp or pointed as those of carnivorous mammals. This tells us that we were made to tear more vegetable-quality food. Take a look at a horse’s mouth-full of teeth -quite similar to ours in structure, look at what they eat. Also, if the intestinal tracks of carnivore and herbivore mammals are compared, the carnivores have very short digestive tracts. The herbivores have very long ones, like the small intestine, in humans. The carnivores are able to swallow animal quality food and get rid of the excess waste from it, whereas in the human digestive tract, much of it is never digested or eliminated, but gets “stuck” there. An accumulation of undigested waste, toxins, and fat builds up in the human body when too many animal products and denatured, refined carbohydrates are consumed. This is a breeding ground for disease and poor health in general.

Most Americans have a limited awareness of the value of grains and vegetables as the focus of a meal, and limited ideas for preparing them. When they learn the variety of simple factors involved in the preparation of vegetarian food, vital energy is added to their meals. Part of this vitality comes from correct preparation procedures that preserve and concentrate nutrients. Another important factor is the attention and respect paid to the food during its preparation; in subtle, but noticeable ways a meal prepared with mindfulness will taste and look better.

In Chinese philosophy, the practice of avoiding known evils is called “wearing one hat.” A “hat” represents an action in a chain of causation. Regarding unhealthy food, the first action, or hat, can be the decision not to eat those foods. In this case, we wear only one hat. However, if unhealthy food is eaten, then this action is the first hat, and the second, third, and successive hats are how we must overcome the effects of the poor food-by suffering, by trying to change the effects with positive thoughts about the food, or by taking medicine, then by overcoming the effects of the medicine-in other words, there is a further reaction to each preceding reaction.

It is suggested that for maximum health we wear at most one hat. Each hat beyond this is an added weight, causing progressively heavier feelings and less freedom. The appropriate diet is high individual, so the precise nature of this process will vary from person to person. However, following are recommended proportions of food groups as a general guideline.

50-60% Grains: whole grains, cereals, grain sprouts, and flour products
20-25% Vegetables: green, starchy, low-starch; seaweed and micro-algae
5-15% Legumes: beans, peas, lentils, legume sprouts, tofu, miso, etc.
5-15% Fruits: and small amounts of nuts and oil-rich seeds
0-10% Animal products: dairy, eggs, fish, fowl, and mammal meats

An understanding of the theories of traditional Oriental medicine, namely, the yin/yang theory gives us a foundation of understanding the principles of nature,of how and what to eat, and how to know which foods to eat to heal ourselves. It doesn’t mean Americans must eat Chinese and Japanese cuisine, but Americans can benefit from the basic understanding of how to choose foods for health and enjoyment, using the North American variety of grains and vegetables.

Food offers natural remedies for overcoming various minor health problems, as well as more serious metabolic disorders such as cancer and diabetes, heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, premature aging, etc. As Hypocrites stated, “Let medicine be thy food and let food be thy medicine.”

Note: Acupuncture Plus in Vacaville offers nutritional counseling based on whole foods. Call today for a consultation.

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