What is a healthy diet?

There is much conflicting information in the West about how best to enhance your health through diet. What are the simple facts? What should you do to make your diet healthy?

Traditional Chinese acupuncture is a complete healthcare system that has been practised in China for around 2,000 years. Over this time, the Chinese have developed a detailed understanding of how to enhance your health through your diet. The ideas evolved alongside the development of acupuncture, and are based on the same thorough understanding of how the body really works.

How to eat well

In Chinese medicine, your pancreas [1] is the central organ of digestion. The stronger your pancreas function is, the better you are able to extract nourishment from any food. When you eat, the question is not so much whether a particular food is good for you but rather how well your pancreas can extract the nourishment from it.

The first step towards eating well may not involve changing your diet, but rather strengthening and maintaining your pancreas. So how can you do this?

  • Gentle exercise assists the stomach and pancreas function.
  • Overuse of your mind can weaken your pancreas (this might be by: prolonged periods of study; tasks that involve hours of sitting and processing information; or constantly brooding on your problems). It is important to balance mental work with physical exercise and fresh air.
  • When done with awareness, all activity that connects you more deeply with the Earth can ground you in your body and in the natural environment. This will support and strengthen your pancreas (whose element is 'Earth' in Chinese medicine). These activities include: gardening, or simply being outdoors with the seasons, the elements, and with the trees, plants, and soil.

The dietary approach to supporting your pancreas

The key to eating well is choosing foods, cooking methods, and eating habits that assist your pancreas in its digestive function.

Some general guidelines

Firstly, rather than considering which foods are 'good' or 'bad' for you, most people will benefit more from following some general guidelines on eating habits:

Don't mix food and work. Your digestion works best when you are focused on your enjoyment of the meal, and are not distracted or troubled by other influences, such as reading, watching television, doing business, dealing with family tensions, and so on. Where possible, mealtimes should be relaxed. And this includes posture: breathing calmly, sitting with uncrossed legs, and not being hunched or twisted.

Chew food well. This lessens the work our digestive organs have to do and increases the efficient extraction of nutrients. Chewing also warms chilled food (though these should be generally avoided; see later). There is a saying in China: The stomach has no teeth.

Stop just before you are full. If you overeat at any one meal, you create a temporary queue of food waiting to be processed. As a result you feel tired while your energy is occupied digesting this excess food. If this is a habit, your pancreas becomes over-strained, which leads to other health problems (see below).

Don't chill your pancreas. Too much raw or chilled food or fluid will also weaken your pancreas. Each time you eat raw or chilled food or liquid, your body must first heat this up to body temperature and then 'cook' it much more than with 'pre-cooked' food. All this activity is a great drain on your digestive energy. Prolonged or excessive use of chilled or raw food will eventually severely weaken your pancreas, possibly leading to the collapse of its function.

Don't flood your pancreas. Your pancreas does not like too much fluid with a meal. A little warm fluid is helpful, but too much dilutes your pancreas's action and weakens digestion: a teacupful is generally sufficient. Most fluid is best consumed between meals.

Eat your main meal early. Your pancreas's function is at its peak at 11am. This is why most people feel a pang of hunger at about 11am. This is your body telling you that its digestive energy is at its strongest and that you should eat now. Where possible, take your largest meal during the day. If you eat late at night, your pancreas is at its weakest and it will be far less able to cope with the food.

Choose foods with good 'energy'. Include as much organic and locally grown food in your diet as possible. In both cases, the nutritional energy of this food is more strongly preserved. This is also true of all fresh food. On the other hand, the nutritional energy of food is significantly damaged by microwave cooking, by excessive processing, by chemical preservation, and is destroyed completely by irradiation. All foods processed in these ways should be avoided. In general, you will know when the food you are eating has good nutritional energy, when the food's natural flavours are still strong. The above processing methods all weaken the flavour of food.

Organically grown vegetables contain significantly more nutrients than non-organic vegetables. This is because the fertilizers used in non-organic production prevent the vegetables from absorbing minerals from the soil. Organic vegetables take longer to grow and produce a smaller yield and are therefore more expensive, but are nutritionally far superior [2].

Some specific considerations

Although the essence of Chinese medicine is that each person eats according to their constitution, it is possible to set out some broad guidelines about what constitutes a healthy diet. There are two main considerations:

1.Establishing a broad and balanced base

Grains and vegetables provide a central core of nourishment that is easy on the digestion. If we divide food into three main categories, the following proportions are recommended:

  • Vegetables and fruits: about 50%
  • Grains: about 30%
  • Beans, Dairy, Meat, Nuts: about 20%

2.Making food easy to digest

The process of digestion involves breaking food down into a warm soup in your stomach. Your pancreas can then extract the nutrition from this soup and send it to where it is needed in your body. The cooking method most resembling the stomach's action is the preparation of soups and stews. This soupy mixture is already warmed and broken down for your pancreas to act upon it. Soups and stews are therefore the most pancreas-supportive meals.

This, of course, means that salads and raw foods are not good for you, though a small amount of raw food can be helpful, such as certain fruits.

This does not mean that you should limit your diet to soups and stews. However, the weaker your pancreas is, the more these methods will be useful to you. They are less work for your digestive system, and nutrients are more easily absorbed. Your pancreas has to work hardest when food is very rich (like fatty meat), raw or chilled. So to support your pancreas you need to eat only moderate amounts of rich foods, chew all food well, and avoid too much chilled or raw food. Meat is easier to digest when broken down in soups or casseroles. Finally, the moderate use of warm and pungent spices with cooked food will support the digestive process.

How do you know if your pancreas is weak?

If your pancreas is weak, then changing your diet and eating habits is likely to make some improvement to your health. However, for you to return to full health, you are likely to need treatment for your pancreas.

In Western societies, it is common for people to have a weakened pancreas - due to the pressures of work, lifestyle in general, and a poor diet (in Chinese medicine, this condition is usually called 'Spleen Qi Deficiency', though it is the pancreas that is being referred to). If your pancreas function is poor, you will probably have some of the following symptoms:

  • you feel bloated or tired after eating;
  • you experience abdominal pains, or have a bloated abdomen
  • you have low energy, and weak limbs (your body may feel heavy)
  • your mind feels tired (in Chinese medicine, digesting thoughts is similar to digesting food, and relies on having a healthy pancreas)
  • you have a poor appetite (you only feel like eating small amounts of food)
  • you have problems with excess gas
  • you have a poor sense of taste
  • you are sensitive to certain foods, such as wheat, dairy, and so on
  • you sometimes experience loose stools, even to the point of them being runny (this is a more advanced stage of pancreas deficiency)

If you experience some of the above symptoms, you probably have poor pancreas function.

How can you most effectively strengthen your pancreas function

Traditional Chinese acupuncture is very effective at treating this condition (along with a vast range of other conditions). If you would like to explore the possibility of acupuncture treatment, do please phone me to discuss this, or to make an appointment.

In the initial consultation, I would take your complete case history, read your pulses and form my complete Chinese medicine diagnosis. I would then be able to tell you how my treatments would be likely to benefit your health, advise you on how many treatments you might need, and on how quickly each of your symptoms would be likely to clear.

I could also advise you on which specific foods would be helpful or harmful to you in your current state of health. This very much depends on each individual, and is not possible to determine until I have made my complete diagnosis for you.

How can I book an appointment?

For information on the acupuncture treatment of IBS and digestive disorders, please see Poor pancreas function.

FK, March 2009

FOOTNOTE 1: Note that in Chinese medicine, the pancreas is usually called the "spleen". This is due to the misattribution of organs when the ancient Chinese organ names were first translated into the Western organ names.
FOOTNOTE 2: Source: May 2000 survey using Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) statistics, which compared mineral losses between 1940 and 1991, due to using the common NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) fertilizers.