- By Rebecca Wong
Diet for Natural Health and Healing
One of the most important, yet difficult, parts of the healing process is ensuring that you are following a good diet. In our modern, fast-paced lifestyle, it is very easy to fall into bad dietary habits because nutritious and healthy snack foods can be hard to find, particularly when you are away from home. After a long day of work, you may also be too hungry and too tired to spend much tie cooking a balanced, nutritious meal. Since these busy lifestyles are not about to change, we must learn to change our cooking and eating habits, a task that is very hard to do, but which can be managed with good preparation.
The first recommendation for any healing dietary plan, is to make sure that you have healthier snacks on hand when you are away from home, so that you can minimize any large fluctuations in blood sugar. At your home, your cupboards should also be filled with better snack choices, so that when your blood sugar drops, you will not be tempted to indulge in rich fatty, salty or sugary foods, such as potato chips, crackers, cookies or ice cream. Instead of these foods, try to have on hand more nutritious snack choices, such as fresh or dried fruits, yogurt, unsalted nuts, protein powders, and/or fresh fruits and vegetables that you can use to make a quick smoothie when your hunger is getting the better of you and you don't have any time to cook. Most of these choices can be assembled beforehand and brought with you when you leave your house, so that you have a quick and healthy snack available to you at all times.
As for regular meals, when our customers ask us about what they should be eating, we usually recommend a mostly Asian-style diet, with lots of lightly cooked vegetables, small amounts of lean meats, and rice. In essence, the best style of diet is one which is based on vegetable stir-fries. If you have never made an Asian stir-fry before, there should be a variety of cookbooks available at your local book store to help get you started. Once you become used to cooking stir-fries, you will see how endlessly variable they are, and how quick and easy they can be to assemble, cook and eat.
Essentially, the bulk of your diet should be made of lightly cooked vegetables. A good rule of thumb is to always ensure that half of your plate at every meal is made up of vegetables, while the other half is shared equally by lean meats and grains. Ideally, the grains you eat would all be whole grains, and the meat organic. However, you should do the best that your budget will allow.
There is no particular rule for the vegetables you choose to use in these stir-fries. Most people in North America do not eat nearly enough fruits and vegetables each day, so if you have a particular vegetable that you enjoy eating, you can substitute that into any stir-fry recipe, as most of them are very flexible. Root vegetables are heavier and more nourishing than vegetables made of stems or leaves, so they are good staples during the winter months. Examples of root vegetables would include; carrots, beets, parsnips and potatoes. During the summer months, lighter and faster cooking vegetables can be emphasized, such as leafy greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard), celery, cucumbers, summer squash, and asparagus.
These classifications need not be followed explicitly. Any vegetable is good any time of the year. However, you will likely find yourself more drawn to denser root vegetables in the winter, and lighter, more water-filled vegetables in the summer. This is because the denser vegetables are more warming, or more yang, according to Chinese medicine principles, while lighter, leafy vegetables are more cooling, or more yin. When you are cold during the winter months, you will naturally gravitate to denser root vegetables that will help to warm your body internally. In the summer months when your internal body is already considerably hotter, you will naturally gravitate towards more cooling, leafy vegetables that will help to reduce any build up of heat.
Fruits are best eaten in season, when they naturally ripen. During the summer months, you can therefore indulge in a wide variety of fruits including strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, plums, peaches, bananas, citrus fruits, and melons. In Chinese medicine, these fruits are all considered more cooling in nature. This naturally cooling nature will provide a needed balance when the temperature is hot outside and your body can easily become over-heated. While you can still eat these fruits in the winter as well, it is best to eat them only sparingly so that their cooling nature doesn't cool your body down too much at a time when the temperatures are already low. If you eat too many cooling foods when your body is already cold, it can weaken your digestive energy and slow your metabolism, creating a situation where disease can take hold more easily.
The best fruits to eat during the winter months are apples, pears and grapes. These are all fruits which tend to ripen later in the growing season, and so have a more neutral energy. If you like, you can make the temperature of these foods warmer by baking them, particularly if you add warming spices such as cardamon and cinnamon. Both baking, and adding more warming spices, help to add extra heat to these particular fruits, which can help to balance the cold temperatures during the winter months.
Dairy products are another common dietary concern among our customers. Some popular diets recommend that dairy products be completely avoided because they are both difficult to digest and mucus-forming. However, when milk is warmed on the stove to help break down its protein bonds, it can be digested and assimilated much more easily than when it is taken cold. If you add a small amount of minced ginger to the milk as it is being heated, this will also help with its assimilation and prevent the formation of mucus as it is being digested. Other milk products, such as yogurt or kefir, are usually tolerated by most people, even those who are unable to digest lactose. In the case of these fermented milk products, the bacteria within them helps to break down the protein bonds so that they are more easily digested. All this being said, if you try to eat dairy products and find that you experience a lot of bloating, or are still producing copious amounts of mucus even if you warm them or add some warming spices, then you should stop eating dairy products. Not everyone is able to tolerate them, but for those who can, they are a good source of calcium and minerals.
Other foods that are more difficult to digest would include cold foods taken right out of the refrigerator, as well as raw foods. In the case of foods which are taken directly out of the refrigerator, their physically cold temperature will tend to chill your internal organs when you eat them. This constriction of the tissues of your digestive organs can make them less able to produce good quality enzymes during the digestive process, and your ability to assimilate nutrients will suffer. Whatever you put into your body would ideally be at room temperature, or slightly warmer. That way, your digestive organs do not need to expend needless energy to warm the food up before it can be properly broken down and assimilated.
Raw foods are difficult to digest because all of the nutrients within them are embedded in the cellulose matrix (plant fibre), which can only be broken down by heat. When you eat raw foods, your digestive organs will expend a lot of energy to create the digestive enzymes necessary to break down and assimilate these raw foods. However, because the nutrients are embedded in the plant fibre, these enzymes will be largely unsuccessful in their efforts. This means that your digestive organs will have expended a great deal of energy, with little reward in return. Over time, this can gradually weaken your digestive system. By contrast, when you lightly cook your vegetables before you eat them, your digestive organs will be well rewarded for the time and energy spent in the digestive process because most of the nutrients will be readily available and easily assimilated. Vegetables blended into vegetable smoothies are also easily assimilated because in this case, the cellulose matrix is physically pulverized, which allows the nutrients to be released. However, when you make smoothies, you should be sure to include both fruits and vegetables. If your smoothies contain only fruit, they can be very high in sugar. Although fruit smoothies also contain fibre, their high sugar content will tend to create blood sugar imbalances quite easily. When smoothies contain both fruit and vegetables, they will provide a wider variety of nutrients, and the slightly bitter taste of leafy vegetables and denser nutrient base of root vegetables will help to balance the energy of the smoothie and keep your blood sugar from rising too high.
Since our website has tended to focus primarily on liver health, many of our customers also ask us what foods they should eat to help nourish their liver, and what foods should be avoided to prevent liver and gallbladder problems. According to Chinese medicine, the foods which are known to congest your liver and hinder its functioning would include; deep fried foods, spicy foods, chocolate, caffeine, and high-fat foods like ice cream or avocados. Even though the fat in avocados is mostly mono-unsaturated fat, any kind of fat will still place greater stress on your liver because it must produce the bile necessary to digest this fat. This doesn't mean that you need to avoid avocados completely, only that you should eat them in moderation, and if you are prone to liver pain or gallbladder attacks, you should consider avoiding them completely. Foods which are very cooling in nature and which tend to weaken your spleen should also be avoided. Because your liver, gallbladder and spleen work closely together and help to balance each other, if your spleen becomes weak, your liver will be negatively affected as well. Foods which will tend to weaken your spleen would include; white flour, white sugar, and cooling fruits such as tomatoes, citrus fruits and bananas. Also, since raw vegetables (salads) and cold foods from the refrigerator will tend to weaken your digestion in general, they are also best avoided.
Foods which are helpful for liver functioning and which will help to nourish your liver over time would include anything which is green, such as leafy green vegetables, seaweeds, mung beans, cucumbers, and artichokes. Also, darkly coloured fruits such as raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and mulberries should also be helpful.