Dietary therapy has long been an important part of Chinese medicine. It places as much emphasis on how and when to eat as on what to eat. Here are ten (fairly common-sense) pieces of advice for eating well.
1. Enjoy eating, just eat and relax while eating.
While you’re digesting your food, there is increased flow of Blood and Qi to the stomach. If you’re also reading, watching TV and so on, some of this Blood and Qi is diverted to your eyes and brain, and your digestion will be less efficient. It’s also important not to feel guilty if you are indulging, and much better to feel good about your food. If you’re able to really pay attention to the smells and tastes of your food, you’ll enjoy it more too.
2. Take time to digest after eating – don’t rush into the next thing.
An extension of the last point, the digestive process continues long after you finish eating. If you can wait at least half an hour after eating before starting the next thing, you’ll be able to extract more Qi from your food and it is less likely to sit in your digestive organs, making you feel bloated.
3. Avoid eating late at night, and try to eat at regular time.
Eating late at night means you’ll be lying flat while you’re still digesting. Your energy is also much more Yin (less active) at night, so the digestive process will be inhibited. According to Chinese medicine, the best time to eat is between 7am – 9am when the energy of the Stomach is at its height (it is at its lowest at 7pm – 9pm so this is actually the worst time to be eating large meals). For this reason, the saying goes: “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a Prince and dine like a Pauper”.
4. Chew your food well and stop before completely full.
The Chinese saying is “the stomach has no teeth” – aid your digestion by chewing your food well. Chewing well also encourages the release of chemicals into the brain that make you feel full. Especially if you eat quickly, you will not feel full until long after you have had enough to eat.
5. Eat a varied and balanced diet.
What makes for a balanced diet is a source of considerable confusion for many, and the right balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fibre, fats and so on will vary for different people according to their lifestyle and constitution. Eating a wide range of different foods and avoiding eating the same type of food all the time will make it much more likely that you are getting all the nutrients you need without putting your system out of balance.
6. Increase whole grains and leafy green vegetables – ideally fresh, local, organic.
Whole grains contain many more nutrients than their refined alternatives. Chinese medicine considers us as part of nature, and eating seasonal, local and organic produce helps us to eat in a more natural way, as well as helping to support the natural world.
7. Drink more water between meals, and just a small amount of fluid with your food (water, wine, green tea).
Most people don’t drink enough water, as we tend not to feel thirsty until we are dehydrated. Most of the fluid we drink should be water, though some tea (especially green or white tea) or fruit juice is ok. It’s best to drink only a small amount with meals, otherwise it is possible to dilute the digestive juices and impair digestion.
8. Reduce refined and artificial foods, coffee, alcohol and tobacco.
These kinds of foods don’t contain as much nutritional goodness as whole foods, and are in some cases harmful. A small amount of alcohol and coffee can be beneficial depending on your constitution, but moderation is especially important in this case.
9. Replace sugary sweetness with sweet vegetables.
Eating refined sugar causes our blood sugar levels to rise dramatically. Soon afterwards, the blood sugar drops suddenly, leaving us feeling tired and hungry (actually craving sugar). Many people’s blood sugar levels rise and fall dramatically throughout the day, taxing the pancreas and ultimately contributing to the development of diabetes. Replacing refined sugars with more complex carbohydrates, such as those found in root vegetables (and to some extent with the natural sugars in fruit, honey etc) helps to reduce the sudden changes in blood sugar levels.
10. Engage in some kind of physical activity (that you enjoy) – but not straight after eating. This will aid your digestion.
Not strictly anything to do with eating, but Chinese medicine considers a moderate amount of exercise to be important for the health of the digestive organs. It’s also good for your general fitness, heart health and emotional wellbeing.
If you’re interested in making some changes, start by just picking one or two that resonate with you, and try it for 30 days. See how you feel at the end of the 30 days, and you can choose whether to maintain the change and whether you want to add any more. This will make the changes much more sustainable than trying to change everything at once and then giving up when it’s too difficult to maintain it.
If you want some more information on what to eat, here’s another article: Introduction to Chinese medicine food energetics.
Daverick Leggett – Helping Ourselves
Danny Blythe & Greg Lampert – Chinese Dietary Wisdom
Joshua Rosenthal – Integrative Nutrition