East Meets West
Learn about Holistic Eating with Traditional Chinese Medicine
By Kirsten Harrington
If you think Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is all about exotic potions and sharp needles, think again. While it’s true that herbal remedies and acupuncture figure prominently, TCM is a holistic approach that also incorporates dietary and lifestyle modifications to achieve optimal well-being.
Do you need a jump start on your fitness journey or have a desire to get healthier overall? Why not try a few basic principles of TCM?
Eat for the Seasons
TCM teaches that the way we fuel our bodies should change with the seasons.
In the winter, it’s suggested you eat warming foods including dried beans, legumes, walnuts, chestnuts and seeds like flax, black sesame and sunflower. Include some lamb, pork or eggs for protein, and incorporate dark leafy greens, onions, garlic and cilantro into your meals. Enjoy peaches, apricots, coconut and raspberries and add a hint of salt to your diet with miso, tamari or sea salt.
In the spring, the focus is on the liver and gallbladder for rebirth and renewal. Focus on leafy and bitter greens, sour foods, and radishes which can help move Qi around the body.
The summer heat means focusing on cooling, sweet, hydrating foods. Rice, and mushrooms are neutralizing; cucumber, watermelon, lettuce, and strawberries hydrate. Incorporate sweet potatoes and corn, coconut, and hot chilies plus light broths to help keep your cool.
Fall is similar to winter in that TCM says we should be eating warming foods, seasonal fruits and veggies, and braised warm stews.
Eat a Rainbow
In TCM, each organ is energized by specific foods, according to color: black for the kidneys, green for the liver, red for the heart, yellow for the spleen and white for the lungs.
Feifei Liu, a Longwood Acupuncture Physician, uses the analogy of a car.
“Think about it this way. If you drive a BMW, it needs gas. If you have a Tesla, it runs on a battery. A truck needs diesel,” she says. In the same way, each organ needs to be fueled properly to function. Eating a rainbow of colors will facilitate this process.
Timing Is Everything
It’s not just what you eat, but when you eat. Are you guilty of skipping breakfast, grabbing a salad for lunch and then eating a heavy meal late at night?
Liu describes this diet as “too cold, too late and too much.” Instead, she counsels patients to eat like a king at breakfast, a middle-class person at lunch and have a light meal like a pauper at dinner.
According to TCM, our bodies run on a clock, where certain organs are stronger or weaker as energy ebbs and flows throughout the day. Optimal digestion occurs from 7 to 9 a.m.—breakfast time. Conversely, after 7 p.m., the stomach is at its weakest, so evening meals should be light.
“As soon as you wake up, your body needs energy. If you don’t eat a good breakfast, your body is going to borrow the energy from your organs,” says Liu. Over time, this deficiency can lead to problems.
Boost Your Immunity
TCM relies on more than 6,000 herbs, berries, spices and other plant parts to create natural remedies. If you’re feeling the aftermath of a few too many high-fat holiday meals or cocktails, consider giving your body a tune-up with herbal supplements.
To detoxify the liver, Steve Moreau, an Acupuncture Physician (AP) at Plant Street Acupuncture recommends a daily dose of milk thistle (check with your doctor first) or adding turmeric to your diet.
If you’re running low on energy, adaptogens (plants that promote stress recovery) can help. Some, like holy basil or shiitake mushrooms, can be incorporated into cooking; others, like astragalus, maca or Siberian Ginseng, are more commonly taken as supplements or brewed into tea.
“All herbs can be used for tea. Chrysanthemum is good for dry eyes, rose tea cleans up acne and goji berry tea clears up the liver and brightens eyes,” says Grace Lin, Doctor of Oriental Medicine at Health Food City.
Cruising the aisles at a local herbal pharmacy, you’ll find teas for balancing blood sugar, warding off the flu, aiding digestion and regulating cholesterol. Who knew a simple tea bag could help maintain your blood pressure, revitalize your skin and boost your libido?
For a stronger effect, buy some raw herbs and brew your own.
“The most common tea I recommend is 15 grams of astragalus, five Chinese dates and 10 grams of goji berries. Add it to two cups of water and boil it down to one. You can drink it every day; even kids like the taste, and it has been proven to increase immunity,” says Lin.
Balancing Yin and Yang
In TCM, yin and yang are two opposite forces that are constantly in flux, governing everything in the universe, including how our bodies function.
“Your yin and yang need to be in balance,” says Lin, since an imbalance can manifest itself in symptoms such as illness, fatigue or mood swings.
“If your yin is deficient, you will feel too hot. This can happen during menopause when women have night sweats and hot flashes.” A lingering feeling of heat can also occur after a long-term illness. Dry skin, hair and nails can be indication that there is too much heat in your body and your yin needs a boost.
Lin can prescribe an herbal remedy to tonify your yin, or you can add some cooling foods like tofu, coconut milk, tomatoes, kidney beans, apples and pears. Avoid spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine.
On the other hand, if you feel cold all the time and your spouse complains that you hog the blankets at night, you might be yang deficient. A lack of energy or focus, digestive upset or low back pain can also be signs that you need to invigorate your yang energy. Try incorporating warming foods and spices in your diet.
Give It a Try
Victoria Williams of Altamonte has experienced the powerful results of TCM in her own life and encourages others to give it a try. After relying on steroids and antibiotics for years to address her lung problems without resolution, Williams turned to TCM.
“I’ve been seeing Feifei (Dr. Liu) for seven years. I take her Chinese herbs and adhere to her advice on eating warm foods and not getting too cold,” says Williams, who is now healthy and free of Western medicine. If she feels a sniffle coming on, she adds chicken congee (rice porridge) to her diet and tries to follow the seasonal eating advice as much as possible.
Williams has also referred several friends with severe COVID symptoms to Dr. Liu and witnessed their dramatic healing. “I don’t know how it works, but it does,” she says.
Invest in Yourself
“People say ‘oh it’s too much work.’ Yes, but seeing the doctor is a lot of work, too. It’s better to take the time to stay healthy,” Liu says.
Simple changes, like preparing congee or oatmeal in a slow cooker the night before or taking a break at lunch for a real meal, can yield big results. Try a different flavor or food color every day and take time to rest.
“The biggest investment in your life is your health,” Liu says. “Be open-minded and make some changes to your diet. Your new body will be the best return on your investment.”
Disclaimer: This article is not meant as a substitute for medical advice; make sure to check with your doctor before beginning any TCM regimen.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Edible Orlando. Check out more features here!