Chinese medicine theory strongly emphasizes balance and moderation in all things, including diet. Diet therapy is advocated in this tradition and is widely practiced culturally in China. A balance of flavors, eating regularly (not skipping meals or overeating), sitting and chewing food thoroughly, and eating seasonally and locally are all recommended practices (as well as proper hygiene with meal preparation). Food is divided into 5 basic categories of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and pungent and these flavors resonate with specific internal organs, respectively: Spleen, Kidney, Liver, Heart, and Lung. Food is further divided into yin and yang and hot, warm, neutral, cool and cold energies. Some foods may also affect the movement and direction of qi within the body. Consuming too much of any of these flavors or properties may compromise the linked organ, especially the Spleen and Stomach. The Spleen and Stomach are most involved in digestion because they transform the food into qi and blood for the rest of the body to utilize and help transport and transmit nutrients. Over-indulging a sweet tooth may cause the Spleen to become sluggish and lead to an imbalance called “dampness” which might affect other organs negatively. Symptoms of this situation can vary but may include poor appetite, diarrhea, distension, edema, weight gain, fatigue- and eventually lead to more chronic systemic symptoms. Specific dietary changes have therapeutic potential. For example, a person with a congested liver should consume more sour foods (such as lemons, plums, vinegar) and avoid greasy foods and alcohol to help their liver heal. Many of the dietary prescriptions for illnesses corroborate with what we know from western medicine and the nutritional value of various foods.
Several weeks ago, I saw a nutritionist at the suggestion of my doctor. I thought it might be helpful to fill in the gaps of my knowledge and to see where I could make improvements, especially because I had been trying to eliminate excess salt. (It was winter, and this time of year the kidneys are especially vulnerable to excessive salt intake.) I was told to keep a food journal for two weeks prior to the appointment: simply record everything I ate and drank for 14 days. I had done this before and I often suggest this process to patients who are trying to identify food sensitivities.
To my horror, I subsequently realized how often I eat out, and that these impromptu meals are usually awfully unhealthy. Restaurant food contains an enormous amount of salt unless you tell your server you are “allergic” to it when ordering. Even cookies and baked goods have a ton of salt in them. Organic soups? Check the label- as well as the serving size. I realized that the “healthy organic” canned soup I had been eating regularly cited a reasonable amount, but the serving size was ½ can! So, I was actually consuming DOUBLE the amount of salt than I assumed. The recommended amount of salt per day is 2000mg and I clearly was WAY over the limit- not only taxing my kidneys, but probably causing a bit of daily dehydration. I started bringing my lunch to work again and looking much more closely at labels. Very quickly my palette adjusted, and now some of my old favorite snacks are too salty for my taste. My energy level is since more stable throughout the day.
I encourage you to keep a food journal for at least two weeks. It can be very revealing to see if you are truly eating well or if you experience any symptoms that might be linked to your diet (bloating, headaches, inflammation, fatigue and so on). Check the labels of the food you purchase to monitor your intake of sugar and salt. If you have an interest in Chinese diet therapy and are curious to know more about the properties of the foods you eat (vegetables, meat, fish or grains), please ask me at your next appointment!