Choosing therapeutic foods for balance

We can turn to the wisdom of Chinese nutrition to guide us in choosing foods that will help us stay balanced, avoid illness and manage our weight.

by Marianne Crafts-Brandner — 

Many of us have begun to realize that diets for weight loss don’t work, and that the only way to lose weight and keep it off permanently is to change our eating habits. The key is a more balanced approach that eliminates “bad foods,” rather than entire food groups.

Instead of avoiding all fats, we must eat the right balance of healthful fats. Rather than avoiding all carbohydrates, we want to focus on eating the right amounts of beneficial, complex carbohydrates. With a lifelong commitment to making wise food choices and eating a balanced diet, we’ll lose excess weight and be healthier too.

How do we know which foods to choose? What constitutes a balanced diet? Much conflicting information exists these days regarding the ideal diet. We hear about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, the South Beach diet, the vegetarian diet, the raw foods diet and many others. But is there one best way for everyone to eat?

The answer to this question is “No!” Each person has a unique biochemical makeup, with differing metabolic factors such as blood type, electrolyte balance, acid/alkaline balance, endocrine type, rate of metabolism and various constitutional considerations.

Each individual must determine the proper balance of nutrients that best support these factors to maintain optimal weight and health. Making good diet choices depends on obtaining as much information as possible about our individual health status. It also depends on knowing the properties of foods and their effects on us.

We can turn to the wisdom of Chinese nutrition to guide us in choosing foods that will help us stay balanced, avoid illness and manage our weight.

In Chinese nutrition, food is medicine. As Paul Pitchford explains in his book, Healing With Whole Foods, Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, “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 also acts as a foundation medicine. It is sometimes slower to take effect, but more profoundly affects all systems of the body. If diet is used correctly for prevention and treatment, other medicines are required less, if at all.

Thousands of years ago, master healers in China perceived a way to classify food and disease according to simple, easily observed patterns: one eats cooling foods for over-heated conditions, and warming foods are best for people who feel too cold. Detoxifying foods are for those who carry excess toxins, building foods are good for deficient persons, and so on.

Because what we eat directly impacts our health, we need to know more about the properties of our foods and how they influence us. It is better to choose foods that will balance us, rather than solely eating things that taste good.

One way Chinese nutrition can guide us toward a more balanced diet is by including each of the five flavors (sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty) with our meals. The Standard American Diet has a heavy concentration of dairy products, meats, and refined foods containing sugar and flour; these would be classified as sweet. Eating too many sweet foods tends to weaken the digestive system and cause excess mucus and blood sugar imbalances. This may lead to conditions such as diabetes, obesity and sinus infections.

Many healthy choices exist among sweet foods, and many nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables also are included in this group. However, it is important to balance these with the other flavors. For example, including bitter-flavored foods such as broccoli, kale, asparagus, alfalfa, turnips and celery may help those who are overweight, or plagued by constipation, excess mucus and skin eruptions.

The sour flavor and the bitter flavor tend to be underrepresented in the American diet. Examples of sour foods are lemon, lime, sauerkraut, tomatoes, and fruits such as raspberries, apples and tangerines. The latter fruits, however, are considered to be a combination of the sour and sweet. Combinations such as these are not uncommon in this system. Another example is vinegar, which is a combination of sour and bitter. Interestingly, many people use raw apple cider vinegar as a weight loss aid and general health tonic. For example, adding vinegar to salad dressings improves digestion and stabilizes blood sugar levels.

The Standard American Diet relies too heavily on the salty flavor, due in part to the abundance of processed foods that are high in sodium. Healthier alternatives for this flavor avoid using processed products and table salt. Mineral salt, in moderation, or soy sauce can be substituted for refined iodized salt. Sea vegetables such as kelp, dulse and kombu are natural sources of iodine, as well as many minerals.

Using herbs and spices to enhance our foods can reduce our reliance on salt, as well as provide balance by including the pungent flavor. This flavor includes most herbs and spices, each with unique properties. In general, they are helpful for digestion, circulation and counteracting the effects of mucus-forming foods.

Incorporating all five flavors into each meal helps us feel more satisfied. We become less likely to overeat or develop later cravings for sweets and salty snacks.

There are many other ways we can benefit from the wisdom of Chinese nutrition. Balancing the five flavors is just a small part of this ancient health system. Yet, it opens the door for us to learn more about a balanced way of eating that will secure lifelong health and weight management.


Marianne Crafts-Brandner is a certified nutritionist. She offers individualized nutritional counseling, specializing in special diets. or 602-615-8065.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 25, Number 5, October/November 2006.

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