It’s a struggle getting through the holidays and eating well. If you’re like me, you have been gifted with plates of frosted cookies, candy canes, and all manner of chocolate treats. This celebrating with sweet treats hasn’t changed much since I was a child, in which every holiday was be celebrated with a love-fest of jelly beans, chocolate kisses, candy canes, and baked goods.
As much candy as we ate as a kids, most of us eat far more sugar today than we did as children, both in the form of sweets and unknowingly in sugars hidden in foods that have no business sporting sugar at all. Knowing that sugar isn’t particularly good for our health or waistlines, most people make good intentioned attempts to limit the amount of sugar that they eat on a daily basis. However, according to Chinese food therapy, the nature of sweets is far more nuanced than simply being labeled as good or bad. Here are some things to know about the sweet stuff according to Chinese medicine:
1) Each organ system has a flavor associated with it, in which a little bit of that flavor strengthens the system, but too much overwhelms it. In Chinese medicine, the flavor of sweetness affects your Stomach and Spleen; your body’s system of digestion.
2) It’s natural to crave something a little sweet after a meal, because the sweet flavor acts as a digestive aid. So a piece of fruit or a small square of chocolate helps you relax and digest your food. A problem arises when you try to satisfy that mildly sweet craving with a piece of triple chocolate peanut butter cheesecake with a side of ice cream. It completely overwhelms your digestive process.
3) When your digestion is overwhelmed with sweets, the most common result is something called dampness, which is the digestive process getting bogged down and not metabolizing fluids very well. This is another case of a little is good, but too much…not so good. Your body needs to be moist, but when your digestive process gets boggy, it becomes too damp and the resulting moisture settles in puddles. Problems like yeast infections, athlete’s foot, bladder infections, water retention, oral thrush, and even excess body fat are considered your body’s damp puddles.
4) The sweeter a food is and the more you eat of it, the more dampening it is to your body.
5) There’s more bad news. If that dampness sticks around over time, it also becomes hot. In Western medicine, that translates into inflammation. Conditions such as gout, arthritis, infections, shingles, IBS, and sinus problems are in most cases considered to be damp plus heat in Chinese medicine.
6) When you have crazy, out-of-control cravings for sweets, it is a sign that your digestion is struggling. Unfortunately, giving in to those kinds of cravings only make the problem worse.
7) Now some good news. Foods that are slightly sweet are actually nourishing because eating those foods and digesting them well replenishes your body’s energy, blood, and nutrients. But you only need a little sweet, and the right kind.
8) The right kind of sweet flavored foods are those considered to be full sweet. They are warming and nourishing, and include complex carbohydrates, proteins, rice, sweet potatoes, and root vegetables. (Think of yams or carrots…sweet, but not overwhelming.) Empty sweets are the ones to avoid or eat only in small amounts. They tend to be cooling and dispersing (moving), and include simple sugars, refined carbohydrates, juices, honey, raw sugar, artificial sweeteners, and fruits. With the exception of fruits, they tend to offer up empty calories, are not very nourishing, and engender dampness.
9) Unfortunately, the kinds of things that you crave when your digestion is funky or your energy is low are the empty sweets–cake, cookies, candy, doughnuts, and the like. However, it’s the full-sweet foods that your body really needs to satisfy those cravings, and make them go away for good.
While I don’t eat the kinds of sweets that I did as a kid, every once in a while, I will have something that is very empty sweet. It reminds me of the doughnuts, chocolate chip cookies, and thickly frosted cakes that I ate growing up. The bloated, tired feeling I get afterward also reminds me why I don’t eat them more often.