Food, above all, is the constant cure and forms the foundation of Chinese preventive medicine…. Chinese physicians try to follow Sun Simiao’s ancient dictum: first try food; resort to medication only when food fails to effect a cure. — Daniel Reid, Chinese Herbal Medicine
As people arrive at the realization that diet has a significant effect on their, or their child’s, hyperactivity, Tourette syndrome, emotional balance, energy level, or general health, the question arises: Is there a systematic way, a way other than trial and error, to determine how one will be affected by specific foods?
Such a way is an integral part of Chinese medicine. The Chinese system is based on the concept of energy, or chi (pronounced “chee”). The polarities in nature, such as day and night, winter and summer, male and female, positive and negative, expansion and contraction, are seen as characteristic of two forms of energy: yang (pronounced “yong”), among whose attributes are heat, light, and expansion, and yin (pronounced “yeen”), characterized by cold, darkness, and contraction. All physical phenomena exist on the energy continuum between the two extremes. Foods exist on this continuum and may be characterized as predominantly yin or yang, according to the effect they have on the body.
Yin foods — primarily sweeteners, oils, liquids, and most dairy products — have a cooling and lethargizing effect. (This occurs regardless of their temperature. The effect is compounded when they are chilled.) Overconsumption of such foods disperses our internal energy and is a primary cause of the weakness and degenerative diseases now prevalent. Caffeine, alcohol, and many drugs are also in this category. Although some of the latter substances (and many sweeteners) produce an initial burst of energy, their effect quickly abates and is followed by a letdown. Because their overall effect is lethargizing and cooling, they are classified as yin. Clearly, foods that may aggravate hyperactivity or Tourette syndrome are often yin, such as dairy, sugar, and chocolate.
Yang foods — primarily meat, salt, eggs, and hard cheeses — have a heating and animating effect on the body; overconsumption results in tension and rigidity. In addition to its effect on our internal energy, meat is too rich for us to consume on a regular basis; the products of decomposition clog and poison our systems, and this is not even to mention the effects of the chemical fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics found in or added to animal feed. (According to Stuart Levy, MD, of the Tufts University School of Medicine, quoted in Orville Schell’s Modern Meat, approximately half of all antibiotics produced in this country are used in animal feed. Most people consume far more antibiotics in their food than they ever do by prescription. Dr. Levy has elaborated on the disastrous consequences of this practice in his book The Antibiotic Paradox.)
Regular consumption of either category — now considered normal in the West — leads to imbalances in the body’s energy that ultimately become manifest as physical problems. There are yin diseases and yang diseases, characterized by an excess of one or the other, and diseases resulting from both. It is therefore advisable to subsist more toward the center of the food-energy spectrum.
A diet based on this principle — the principle of balance is grain-centered rather than meat-centered and is therefore largely vegetarian. Canned, frozen, highly processed, or chemically treated foods are avoided, because their chi has been stripped or decreased. (Toxins and chemical residues in the food are, of course, harmful in themselves.) Methods of preparation affect the energy in foods and are also important — ingredients and preparation are suited to the season and locale, variety is emphasized, and gas is preferred to electricity for cooking. The five elements, manifested in our diet by the five tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and pungent), are also taken into consideration, allowing us to augment energy deficiencies in particular organs and curb excesses in others.
Eating according to the energy in food is the basis for the dietary practice known as macrobiotics. Although the unfamiliar concepts and lack of rigid guidelines may seem daunting at first, it is not difficult to learn to perceive food in terms of its energy and, therefore, its effect on the body. The control this allows us over our health, vitality, and emotions abundantly repays the effort.
Michio Kushi, one of the foremost exponents of macrobiotics, and his wife, Aveline, have written (individually, together, and with others) many books on the subject, covering various health problems, aspects of Eastern diagnosis, and cooking techniques. His Book of Macrobiotics (rev. ed., 1987, pp. 223-4) contains brief descriptions of several medical studies showing the effect of macrobiotics on volatile behavior.
Aveline Kushi’s Introducing Macrobiotic Cooking, Wendy Esko and Aveline Kushi. Wendy Esko’s original macrobiotic cookbook, here revised and expanded, provides helpful information on macrobiotic principles, cooking techniques, and stocking a kitchen.
Mark Lipsman is a longtime practitioner of macrobiotics and chi kung (internal energy techniques).