Foods To Help Digestion: A Chinese Medicine Perspective
By Madalina Hubert
Food is an important part of traditional Chinese medicine, often used to prevent or even cure diseases. For thousands of years, traditional practitioners have studied the properties of various foods and their interaction with the body. Understanding the digestive system is an especially important aspect of dietary therapy since this is the central place for processing food into the body.
Foods That Help the Digestive System
Chinese medicinal practitioners recommend a balanced diet according to the following food proportions: 50% fruit and vegetables, 25% grains, and 25% proteins.
- Vegetables – These include leafy vegetables (i.e. kale, spinach, cabbage), root vegetables (such as carrots, beets, sweet potatoes), mushrooms, and other varieties. Vegetables such as ginger, onion, and garlic are particularly good to stimulate digestion, but they need to be eaten in moderation since they are potent. Among the fruits, plums and apples are particularly beneficial in regulating bowel movements.
- Grains – It is best to eat whole grains since they have more nutritious properties. These include brown rice, millet, quinoa, and barley.
- Proteins – These may include animal-based foods such as meat and eggs and plant-based ones such as beans and nuts.
It is also important to drink water, although Chinese medicine recommends warm water at body temperature. At the same time, don’t overdo it. Listen to your body and drink as much as you need. Other foods that help with the digestive system include fermented foods (i.e. sauerkraut), vinegar, and honey.
Foods That Harm the Digestive System
A balanced diet that includes a variety of foods is good for you, but there are also some that harm the body. These include fast food and processed food. Often times, these have artificial seasonings, additives and preservatives that have been chemically modified, which makes it difficult for the body to digest them. Deep-fried and excessively oily foods also increase the fat, strain the digestive system, and reduce the nutritional value of the food. Products with excess sugar and salt can also be harmful because they throw the body out of balance. They also tend to contain few nutritional properties.
That said, even some healthy vegetables, proteins or grains may be beneficial to some people and harmful to others. People have different bodily constitutions and may also have various illnesses, so these determine how food interacts with the body. For example, some of us naturally have a cooler body constitution and others a warmer body constitution. Thus, those with a warm body constitution may benefit more from cooler foods, such as leafy greens. Others with a cooler body constitution may need more warming foods, such as pungent or spicy foods to warm them up.
Healthy Eating Habits
Here are some Chinese medicine tips for healthy eating and keeping the digestive system in good shape:
- Listen to your body’s digestive clock – The digestive system is most active in the morning and slows down as the day goes by. That is why, it’s recommended to have a large breakfast, medium lunch and lighter dinner.
- Eat until you are two-thirds full – This ensures that you don’t eat more than your body needs and you don’t overstretch the stomach. This can reduce the risk of weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and other related diseases.
- Respect meal times – Sit down, relax and enjoy your meal. This lets you take a break and helps the digestive system to work properly. Chewing the meals properly also speeds up digestion and reduces cravings.
- Eat warm meals – This is an important precept in Chinese medicine. In the article “The Chinese Medicine Diet,” acupuncturist Margaret Celli writes: “In order for your digestive system to extract the essence of food, it must ensure the food is approximately body temperature before it can begin breaking it down. Heating the food inside your body strains your energetic resources, weakening your energy system over time.” Thus, if we feed the body warm food, we can reduce the work of the digestive system.
- Balance the flavours – Traditional Chinese medicine has identified five main flavours of food: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, and bitter. Balancing these five flavours at mealtime keeps your body balanced, and thus reduces cravings.
- Exercise regularly – This can include a variety of activities, from jogging to walking. Slow-moving exercises like Taichi and other qigong are particularly effective at harmonizing the body. A holistic practise that focuses on character improvement, such as Falun Dafa, can have an even better impact because it addresses underlying factors (i.e. anxiety, anger, impatience) that lead to illnesses.
While there are many factors that govern digestion, these are some basic principles to keep in mind.
Here are some helpful links for further reading:
Madalina Hubert is a Toronto-based writer specializing in art, culture, travel, and culinary explorations.