When Food is Medicine

I was an incredibly picky eater as a kid. Dinnertime was a stressful battle between me, my parents, and the green stuff on my plate—most of which came from a can or the freezer and was cooked to within an inch of its life. It wasn’t until I discovered spinach salad with creamy ranch dressing that my life turned around. It was a breakthrough that allowed me to add foods like red bell peppers and strawberries and arugula and kale to my diet—and like them.

Chinese food therapy near MinneapolisI’m thankful that my pickiness is in the past, because as a practitioner of Chinese medicine, food plays a huge role in the healing process. The Chinese believe that food is medicine that you get to eat three times a day. In addition, if you are sick, it is believed that you should first try to heal yourself by eating the right foods, and only if that fails, should you turn to acupuncture and herbs.

Chinese food therapy is considered a healing modality unto itself. Used alongside acupuncture, herbal therapy, and Asian bodywork, food therapy is based on a number of principles that align with Chinese medicine. In fact, the properties of foods, while not as strong, are similar to the properties of herbs. Here are some things to know about healing with food in Chinese medicine.

-Foods have an inherent temperature. This is not about your food being served piping hot, but rather about whether it warms you up or cools you off after you have eaten it. Foods can be hot, warm, neutral, cool, or cold. For example, ginger, scallions, or cinnamon are considered to be warming foods. In contrast, mint, mung bean sprouts, and melons will cool you off.

-How you cook your food affects its thermal qualities. In general, the longer you cook a food, the more warming it is to your body. For example, potatoes that have been roasted in the oven for 45 minutes are energetically warmer than those that have been boiled for ten. Raw foods are considered to be the most cooling, which is why people tend to eat lots of fresh, raw vegetables in the summer and prefer warmer, roasted foods in the colder months.

-In general, how long a food has taken to grow affects its temperature. So a squash that has taken most of the summer and fall to ripen is more warming than tomatoes or cucumbers that are ready to eat during the height of the summer.

-Foods also have inherent actions on your body. Some foods are good for building up your energy or strengthening your blood, other foods are used if you’re retaining water, and others are used to enhance your digestion. For instance, if you are retaining water, adding celery would be a good choice. However if you have been sick and have a dry raspy cough, you would be better off eating apples and pears for their ability to moisten your lungs without building up phlegm.

-Digestion is a huge component of Chinese food therapy. Simply put, you need good digestion to get the most energy and nutrients from your food. If you are having any kind of symptoms, from heartburn to gas, bloating, stomachaches, or bowel problems, then your digestion needs a little help. In the world of food therapy, good digestion is the foundation for everything else that follows.

-When it comes to what’s best to eat, all people are not created equal. Each of us have different health needs and derive different benefits from foods. This has been backed up recently by Western researchers, who have found that eating the same food affected insulin levels differently in study subjects. In addition, the stated calories for a food is just a guess, based on your digestion and metabolism. Practitioners of Chinese medicine have long known that each of us have unique dietary needs, and thankfully Western medicine is finally catching up.

It’s been a long road from my formerly picky self to searching out the best leeks, sweet onions, or Swiss chard. It has involved acquiring a taste for new foods, being open to cooking differently, and understanding the impact what I eat has on my health.

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