Eating is a hot topic in the United States--partly because we seem to do it so badly. For all of our modern scientific knowledge, our eating habits have made us one of the world leaders in obesity, diabetes and heart disease. We know all about vitamins, minerals, fats and carbohydrates--so why aren't we healthy? While the reasons are no doubt many (processed food, sedentary lifestyle, cheap calories, etc.), one way back to a healthier lifestyle can be found in the East Asian tradition, which has developed and honed the practice of food therapy over many thousands of years.
Here are five tips on healthy eating according to the East Asian tradition, which I explored while writing Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen: Recipes from the East for Health, Healing and Long Life (Da Capo Lifelong), with Chinese medicine experts Yuan Wang, L.Ac., and Warren Sheir, L.Ac.
In the West, we can be found casually eliminating whole food groups, say fats or carbohydrates, or trying to exist on a single type of food (the grapefruit diet, anyone?). That's an anathema in the East, where we're advised to pursue balance in our bodies and in our minds by eating a variety of foods to maintain health. No single ingredient or kind of ingredient is vilified or consumed to excess. As one Chinese proverb says, "Sour, sweet, bitter, pungent: all must be tasted." Food is also used to bring balance between the individual and his or her natural cycles and parts of the environment. Particular foods are thought to counteract an individual's personal tendency toward, say, restlessness or fatigue, and different choices are recommended for different seasons. Take a food's temperature, for example.
Are you the kind of person who runs cold? Or do you tend to feel hot? What is the weather like outside? According to the East Asian tradition, the answers to these questions can help guide your healthiest food choices. In the interest of balance, traditional Chinese medicine advises people who tend to run cold to gravitate towards "warm" foods and spices. This refers not only to the food's physical temperature, but also to its effects on the body (think of breaking a sweat when you eat a curry). On the warmer end of the spectrum are foods and herbs such as ginger, chili peppers, cinnamon, turmeric, nutmeg, green onions, and walnuts. Warm foods are also especially appropriate in the winter or an unusually cold day. Similarly, people who tend to run hot or who are in a hot environment are advised to consume more cool foods (think of the tingly cool sensation you experience when consuming a mint beverage). In addition to mint, cool foods and herbs include citrus, tofu, milk, lettuce, celery, cucumber and tomato.
In this era of orange cheesy doodles and blue cupcake frosting, you'd be forgiven for thinking of color as an artifact unrelated (or perhaps detrimental) to health. However, in the world of natural foods, traditional Chinese medicine teaches us to try to consume foods of various colors--purple eggplant, red tomatoes, green spinach, black sea vegetables, white garlic and yellow squash, for example--to fortify different parts of our bodies and to balance each other's beneficial properties. By paying attention to this rainbow of hues, Chinese food therapy transforms what we in the West often lump into a few categories, say "fruits" and "vegetables," into patterns more complex and inviting. Interestingly, scientific studies have related phytochemicals in colored plant foods to their healthful effects. For example, red tomatoes, peppers and watermelon contain lycopene (linked to cancer prevention); orange and yellow fruits such as squash, carrots and apricots possess beta carotene (which may reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease); and white garlic and onions contain a number of sulfides (which may possess anti-bacterial, anti-cancer and immune enhancing qualities).
In our society where over-processed foodstuff is encountered at every turn, members of the raw food movement need to be applauded for getting back to basics. However, assuming that you are selecting natural, mostly organic foods to begin with, traditional Chinese medicine would recommend a different approach in the kitchen. According to this tradition, cold, raw food such as salads are particularly hard on the digestion and should be eaten in moderation. Cooked foods are considered especially beneficial for anyone who is in a weakened state due to an illness, childbirth, or advanced age, since cooking helps unlock nutrients and facilitates their absorption. Warm food also relieves the body of the task of bringing the food to body temperature. One way to consider eating raw foods is to combine them with warming and digestion-enhancing ingredients--say, including garlic with that cucumber salad or using a miso-based dressing on your lettuce.
Perhaps it's no surprise that the East Asian tradition stresses moderation as key not only to the kinds of food to eat for maximum health, but also the amount of food to consume for longevity. In China, the saying goes "For long life, eat until you are 70 percent full." The Japanese have a similar maxim (although in that country you get to eat until you are 80 percent full). Eating too much food is seen as unnecessarily stressing the body, especially its digestive organs and related processes. So put down that fork (or chopsticks) before you are truly sated and reap the health benefits of moderation.
For simple, delicious recipes that build on these tips, see our book Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen and the Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen blog here.