“Eating is as important as the sky” a traditional Cantonese saying. Kate Hoyland describes the Chinese traditions associated with food; nutrition and health.
Chinese medicine recognised the connection between food and health many years before the first frozen yoghurt drink went on sale in the West. But just how healthy is the Chinese diet?
It is now accepted wisdom in the West that food and health are related, although the specific connections between various diets and illness is still a matter for heated debate. Traditional Chinese medicine, however, has long recognised a relationship between food and overall wellbeing, and specific foods will often be recommended as part of the treatment for certain disorders. The philosophy and practice of Chinese medicine sounds unfamiliar, even bizarre, to a Western car. However, there does seem to be evidence that the traditional Chinese diet is a healthy one. A study comparing the eating habits of 6,500 rural Chinese and their health with Western eating habits and health (jointly undertaken by Oxford University, Cornell University and the Chinese Academy for Preventative Medicine in Beijing) recently found:
This seems to square well with current nutritional practice in the West, which advises that grains and complex carbohydrates should be the basis of a healthy diet, supplemented with vegetables and fruits, with dairy products and animal proteins used in smaller proportion and fats, oils and sweets used only sparingly.
Ninety percent of the Chinese selected for the study were from rural areas where they ate locally raised food and stuck to a 'traditional diet'. What then is a traditional diet? Very generally, Chinese medicine suggests that we should eat mostly vegetables and grains, with small amounts of everything else. The ancient medical classic Suwen recommends 'five grains for nutrition, five fruits, five meats for benefit, five plants for fullness'. Cooked and warm food is preferred as cooking is a form of pre-digestion on the outside of the body. Food should not be too sweet, as according to Chinese medicine excessive sweetness overwhelms and weakens the spleen. Also food should not be excessively oily, or too 'damp'. 'Dampness' refers to the extent to which different foods generate body fluids. In Chinese medicine, excessively damp foods are believed to interfere with the digestion.
Chinese medicine becomes baffling when instead of familiar terms such as protein, nutrients and vitamins, we are faced with esoteric concepts like dampness, hotness and qi. The philosophy of Chinese medicine is certainly very different from conventional Western medicine with its stress on the causes and symptoms of illness. It is easiest to understand in terms of balance and harmony: the idea of yin and yang, two opposites in the universe which must be brought into balance, is at the root of thinking in traditional medicine. As with everything else, some parts of the human body are regarded as yin and others yang, and certain foods can alter the body's delicate balance, or restore it if it has been disturbed by illness.
According to Chinese medicine, yin organs are those which store body materials: blood, fluids and qi or energy. Yang organs control functions (see table).
Any particular organ may suffer from an excess (yang) or deficiency (yin) which can be corrected with appropriate foods. There are even yin and yang personality types: for example, a yin person may be introverted, easily tired and suffer from depression, whereas a yang person is said to be excitable, restless, irritable and active.
Food, as you might expect, is also categorised in this way. It is also often described as 'heating' or 'cooling': 'hot' food is said to stimulate the body system, so that too much of it can push the organs into overproduction, while 'cold' or calming food does the opposite, having a sedative effect on the organs. Obviously, the ideal is to balance the food in such a way that harmony is maintained.
Reading this far you may be thinking that it doesn't seem to square with your last experience of a Chinese takeaway. Of course there is always a flip side to every story. In January of this year the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researching the nutritional value of Chinese food, showed that ingredients popular in Chinese cooking such as aubergine, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, spinach, onions or carrots absorb oil easily If they are stir fried in oil containing 15 grammes of fat, they can soak up 12 grammes of fat or more. One serving of Kung Pao chicken contains 76 grammes of fat, as much as four hamburgers.
However, although such dishes are the staple of many Chinese restaurants, in traditional medicine they are considered to be high in fat and would not be recommended. Chinese eating habits should also be taken into account: normal practice is to have a selection of shared dishes with lots of rice, which generally makes for greater variety and balance.
Perhaps the lesson is that prosperity brings with it its own problems. With China getting wealthier there is a danger that the familiar diseases of abundance coronary disease, obesity, high blood pressure - could start to take hold there too. It seems that the ancient stress on frugality, simplicity and balance is just as relevant now as it has ever been.
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© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 reprinted from: China Now 149, Page 14, 1994
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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