Choosing a nutritionist to work with can be a challenge. The media is flooded with ideas of what is good and bad in the realm of food. Many of these ideas seem to change from week to the next. Let’s face it, we are often inundated with fads. For this reason it is important to have a clear picture of the nutritionist’s approach to nourishment.
I am an AOBTA® certified instructor and practitioner of Asian medicine and Holistic Nutrition. My foundations in food come from my upbringing on a small, productive family farm and my chosen career in Asian medicine. Asian medicine’s energetic understanding of foods and herbs is amazingly simple yet profound. It works well with western nutrition’s understanding of food and healing – if we let it. The food we choose to ingest can be our best source of vitality and healing or our biggest self hindering process.
I do not believe there is one “right” diet. We are not static beings and our needs vary based on our age, constitution, gender and general health. The digestive system – ruled by the Earth Element and its organs the Stomach and Spleen – loves the middle ground, stability and integrity – the center path. It is the source of all energy and healing in the body so it is always central to my treatments and focus in treatment and just living. If you have a very weak or compromised digestion, regularity and routine in eating habits are perhaps, the most important habits you can have. I am also acutely aware of the state of health of our planet and our food industries. Food sustainability is a primary concern of mine and it is reflected in my recommendations.
I use the term Asian medicine rather than Chinese medicine as I acknowledge the medicine’s foundations in China but I have heavy influences from the Japanese and Korean culture’s usage in my personal practice and teaching.
The following are my broad recommendations for eating well – meeting you where you are at.
These are the center or central path recommendations – home base, if you will. The starting point for anyone. From this frame work, nutritional recommendations are then modified based on the person’s specific needs. What a senior of 95 needs compared to an active athlete in their puberty years is vastly different. What a person in health can eat in a state of health versus what foods are recommended for a person undergoing radiation or chemo therapy. A good nutritionist should meet the client where they are at and help them learn themselves and how to adapt their diets as needed.
Eat whole foods
If grandma wouldn’t recognize it – reconsider and eat something else. Okay, honestly, my grandmother wouldn’t recognize much of the Asian and Mediterranean food I love – but she would have recognized them as veg, fruits, grains and meats. Our modern diets are plagued with foods stripped of their nutrients. They have been broken down, fractionalized and then reformed into something totally different. Food has been dyed, bleached, flavored and preserved with chemicals. These foods are also usually ‘made’ in more than one location. It is not surprising that many of our children have problems recognizing whole foods – what a potato, onion or pea even looks like. If you have problems imaging a food in its original form or it sports a horrendously bright color or smell, steer clear if possible. Want to really clear it up? Go through your kitchen and clear out processed and refined foods. Meander through the farmer’s market, look and explore unfamiliar whole foods.
Attitude is important
Food should nourish us to the very deepest level. Eat with joy and gratitude whether you are eating a gourmet meal, a simple carrot or eating fast food. Harbored thoughts of anger, guilt or disgust while eating can block your ability to nourish yourself. Even if you are eating a meal that you might consider “bad”, it is better to resolve to enjoy it – for your body’s sake. I often work with people with orthorexia. These are people who have become so obsessed with eating ‘correctly’ they have lost the ability to enjoy food. They have created a highly controlled and restrictive diet that allows for no deviation. In the process, they may loose the ability to find joy in nourishment and community that come with eating with others.
Don’t skip meals – unless you are choosing to fast or cleanse
One of the most common recommendations I end up making is to not skip meals. Our bodies need energy to run on and that energy comes from the foods we eat. If meals are skipped we run the risk of blood sugar swings. Choosing to cleanse, fast or clear out certain foods for a period of time can be exceptionally helpful on both the physical and the spiritual level. However, if you’ve never cleansed or fasted before seek wise guidance that takes into consideration your current health, constitution and goals. Wild dieting and cleansing patterns are one of the biggest causes of Spleen and Stomach Qi depleting I’ve seen. The Earth element and its organs, the Stomach and Spleen don’t like radical food shifts fad diets. Frankly, I see clients do best with eating within an hour of rising, and eating every 3 hours. Breakfast, a snack, lunch, a snack and the old dinner. Yes, there are numerous fad diets out there, and I can find truth and possible benefits in all of them. The hierarchy of questions that goes through my mind is
1 – What is the intention of the client’s desire to do this fast or cleanse?
2 – What is this fast? Is it extremely limiting or does it rule out an entire category of food? (Yes, those diets that eliminate complex carbohydrates and fibrous foods will come around to kick your Liver enzymes in the booty – please be careful).
3 – Does this client have any particular health issues that make this diet inadvisable? For example – someone who is very Blood deficient should not fast. Same goes for a nursing mother.
4 – How long do they plan on using the fast for? Some cleanses and fasts are fine for short periods of times, but I don’t advise being on any diet that eliminates entire categories of whole foods for long periods of time. This has become an extreme problem in the generation of carbohydrate confusion and all carbs are evil. Everyone started tossing out all whole grains, lentils, legumes and whole roots – ah! Complex carbohydrates are not evil. They regulate blood sugar, provide long standing strength, keep the muscles tone and warm and stabilize the core.
Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper
Remember this one? From an Asian medicine perspective our ability to digest food is at its peak in the morning. From the hours of 7-11 am, during Spleen and Stomach energy times, to be specific. When we skip meals our blood sugar fluctuates which may lead to more health problems including diabetes. When you eat breakfast you utilize the energy from that food to make it through your day, rather than stealing energy needs. Skipping meals also will not help with weight loss – many studies agree, eating regular and appropriate sized meals makes for better and more sustained weight loss if needed. If weight loss is not a concern, regular and stable meals continue to allow the body to heal, strengthen and maintain vitality. Yay!
Meaning most of the time, eat well. This will allow you room for play 20% of the time. By increasing the quality and nutrition food in your diet you will naturally start moving towards greater health. Likewise, it can be detrimental to our well-being if we are so rigid and strict that we don’t allow ourselves to enjoy another’s cooking a bit of decadence here and there. What I have observed with clients that as they practice this rule, their choices in foods continue to refine so that even in their 20% time they make better and better choices.
Lots of them. I recommend people eat 7-9 servings a day or about 65% of your daily intake. What’s a serving size? About 1 cup of raw or 1/2 cup cooked. Why? Besides nutrients, fiber and vitamins vegetables alkalize the blood. No, I’m not saying you should eat 3 cups of mashed potatoes a day. Enjoy variety–roots, squashes, leaves, stems and stalks – which all provide different energetics and healing values. Another way to look at this fill 1/2 of your plate with vegetables and divide the other 1/2 equally between your protein source and whole grain or starch. Vegetables and grains are also our primary sources of fiber which is essential for good bowel health.
Chew your food
It’s true, digestion begins in the mouth with an enzyme called salivary amalyse. When you take the time to chew your food well, your digestion improves and decrease problems like gas, bloating, acid reflux and the sensation of food ‘just sitting’ in the stomach. Eating slower is beneficial for those who want to eat less, as well as, those who might need to gain. The process of chewing also slows us down, enabling us to make the most out of the nutrients we are taking in.
Good, the bad and the…
“Red meat and carbs are bad, right?” I am often asked if one food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – but there really isn’t such a thing as bad foods when you are looking at whole, real foods. What matters is your relationship to a particular food and whether it is appropriate for your needs. A little red meat may not be ideal for someone with high cholesterol and high blood pressure, yet it may be very beneficial for a very cold, weak and anemic person. Another example is wheat. Wheat isn’t a bad food, however, energetically it is cold and cloying and highly allergenic. It has been overused in our diets and much of the ingested wheat has been heavily sprayed or engineered. All of these components meant that people have become sensitive too it. Many people are now allergic or sensitive to wheat but another may benefit from its cooling principles – if the wheat is used in its purest of forms. Some foods – like winter squashes – can be eaten by nearly everyone. These are often foods in the Earth element category and are neutral in temperature and nature. In my 25+ years of practice, I’ve never had a case of a client who is allergic to winter squash). While foods with strong energetics are often overused like soy and corn. These may need to be removed or moderated in the diet. Again, enjoy variety, try something new. One of the biggest contributors to clearing up food sensitivities and allergies is to increase variety and reach for foods that are no longer common in the diet.
Eat local, organic and sustainable whenever possible
Whenever possible, I try to eat what is available around me and in season. This helps support my local community, encourages good farming and husbandry (raising animals) and helps reduce environmentally habits of food production including use of resources for shipping and pesticides. This also aids your body like only live, nutrient dense food can. Do I eat out of season? Yes, sometimes. Do I eat imported? Yes, sometimes. However, these are the exceptions rather than the rule in my book. For example, I live in Idaho. We have no ocean nearby, to bring in fresh seafood means a lot of use of resources, and I take this as a personal conscious choice to consciously limit my intake of items that have to be rushed here. It’s also cold during the winter in Idaho, so raw food rarely crosses my plate in the colder months where I enjoy a lot of soups, stews and slow cooked foods.
Eat with the season
It is a tremendous benefit to our body and mind to eat with the seasons. Eating with the season supports the local community and growers, the food of each season helps your body adapt the condition of the season. For example, a coconut, pineapple ambrosia might be lovely if you are in a hot country, but it’s too cooling if it subzero outside. Then perhaps consider a lovely root and mushroom stew. Each season has its own bounty, benefits and patterns of disharmony. Check them out. Spring, Summer, Late Summer, Autumn, Winter. Wait – 5 Seasons? Yep, check out Late Summer which is the buffer season, the balance and center season that corresponds with the digestive organs.
Know your body
Our bodies are amazing and dynamic. Asian medicine does not view health as a static state, rather it is one with ups and downs. We shift and change in different life stages, ages and situations. Health as an overall state of well being (in body and mind) that is able to handle the impact of life and situations and then bounce back. This is highly individualized; some of us are born physically strong, some are born weaker. What matters is what you do with what you have. My goal is to help people recognize a person’s individual state and to improve on that, no matter how strong or weak. There is always room to for improvement.
Eat with people you like
This is partly an attitude thing, but contention or uncomfortable situations will stagnate the Qi slowing digestion. This might mean you need to turn off the TV too.
Keep your Spleen warm
Our digestive systems are a fire which can be snuffed out by extremely cold or raw foods. For best absorption eat your food warmed up. A little raw here and there for those with strong digestion and during the summer is fine unless you have a specific disease where raw food is contraindicated.
Have a seat
When you eat, take the time to sit, taste your food, savor it and be thankful. We’ve lost this simple habit that helps tremendously. When you want your body to digest food to transform it to vital energy–give it the opportunity to do so. Enjoy pleasant company, maybe go for a gentle stroll, turn off the TV. The Qi will flow into the digestive track. Remember grace and gratitude.
This is where the Asian medicine and food energetics of food shines. Five clients can walk in with the same western diagnosis – let’s say, high blood pressure. Each of these five may come out of my office with a different nutritional recommendation from the others. In Asian medicine, there are several patterns that can give rise to high blood pressure, that we see as a result of functional disharmony in the body. One client may be cold, have a pale/purple hue to the tongue and a slow pulse while another’s tongue is dark/red, a rapid pulse and they feel hot all the time. Two very different patterns that can both cause the same western pattern of high blood pressure. Each of these clients would leave with differing nutritional recommendations. Tongue, pulse, Q & A, and other assessment skills will help me identify and layout a plan that is individualized.
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