Diet and Nutrition
Food and drink are relied upon to nurture life. But if one does not know that the natures of substances may be opposed to each other, and one consumes them altogether indiscriminately, the vital organs will be thrown out of harmony and disastrous consequences will soon arise. Therefore, those who wish to nurture their lives must carefully avoid doing such damage to themselves.
[Chia Ming, Essential Knowledge for Eating and Drinking, 1368]
One of the great advantages of learning Tao is that the same basic principles apply to everything from the macrocosmic to the microscopic. In the case of diet, the overriding Taoist principle of balance between Yin and Yang is established by harmonizing the Four Energies and Five Flavors in foods.
The Four Energies in food are hot, warm, cool and cold. These categories define the nature and the intensity of energy released in the human system when food is digested. Hot and warm foods belong to Yang; cool and cold foods belong to Yin. The former are stimulating and generate heat, while the latter are calming and cool the organs.
The Five Flavors are more subtle distinctions based on the Five Elemental Activities: sweet (earth), bitter (fire), sour (wood), pungent (metal) and salty (water). Each of the Five Flavors has a ‘natural affinity’ (gui-jing) for one of the five ‘solid’ Yin organs and its Yang counterpart: sweet influences pancreas/stomach; bitter moves to the heart/small intestine; sour has affinity for the liver/gallbladder; pungent affects the lungs/large intestine; and salty associates with the kidneys/bladder.
The therapeutic effects of the Four Energies and Five Flavors are as follows:
* Cool and cold Yin foods calm the vital organs and are recommended for summer menus, as well as for combating ‘hot’ Yang diseases such as fever and hypertension. Yin foods include soy beans, bamboo shoots, watermelon, white turnips, cabbage, pears, squash and lemons.
* Warm and hot Yang foods stimulate the vital organs, generate body heat and are recommended for winter consumption, as well as palliatives for ‘cold’ Yin diseases such as anemia, chills and fatigue. Yang foods include beef, mutton, chicken, alcohol, mango and chilies.
* Sweet ‘earth’ foods disperse stagnant energy, promote circulation, nourish vital energy and harmonize the stomach. Corn, peas, dates, ginseng and licorice are examples of sweet foods.
* Bitter ‘fire’ foods such as rhubarb and bitter melon tend to dry the system, balance excess dampness, and purge the bowels.
* Sour ‘wood’ foods such as olives and pomegranate are astringent, tend to solidify the contents of the digestive tract, stop diarrhea and remedy prolapse of the colon.
* Salty ‘water’ foods such as kelp soften and moisten tissues and facilitate bowel movements.
* Pungent ‘metal’ goods such as ginger, garlic and chili neutralize and disperse accumulated toxins in the body.
Taoists balance their diets according to favorable combinations of energies and flavors and strictly avoid combinations that conflict. They also avoid excessive consumption of any single variety of food-energy. For example, frequent excessive consumption of ‘hot’ fatty Yang foods can cause fevers, heartburn, congestion, chest stagnation and other unpleasant effects of ‘heat-energy excess’. As this excess ‘evil heat’ seeks escape from the body, carbuncles and absesses may develop. Too much pungent food can cause gastro-intestinal distress, upset the stomach and result in hemorrhoids. Even the freshest, most wholesome foods are rendered nutritionally useless if consumed in combinations that interfere with digestion, cause putrefaction and fermentation, block assimilation and cause internal energy conflicts.
Mother Nature’s Menu
When formulating personal dietary guidelines, it is helpful first to determine your own basic metabolic type, of which there are three: vegetarian, carnivore and balanced. The vegetarian and carnivorous types each represent about 25 per cent of the general population, with the remaining 50 per cent falling into the balanced category. These human metabolic types stem from the prehistoric switch by some segments of the human species from a fruit and nut based diet to a meat diet.
Vegetarian metabolisms are ‘slow oxidizers’, which means that they burn sugars and carbohydrates slowly. Because the body must burn sugar in order to provide sufficient energy to digest meat and fat, slow oxidizers have trouble burning sugar fast enough to efficiently digest large quantities of meat, eggs, fish and other concentrated animal proteins. Consequently, large doses of protein foods tend to make vegetarian types feel tired and sluggish after meals. An easy test for metabolic type is to eat a large steak or a whole chicken and see how you feel afterward. If it leaves you feeling ‘wiped out’, mentally depressed and lethargic, then you probably tend towards a slow-oxidizing vegetarian metabolism, in which case you should restrict protein and fat consumption and favor vegetables, fruits and carbohydrates in your diet. If a large intake of concentrated animal protein leaves you feeling strong, vital and mentally alert, then you probably lean towards a fast-oxidizing carnivorous metabolism.
Since carnivorous metabolisms burn sugar and carbohydrates very rapidly, excess consumption of sugar or starch tends to make them excessively nervous and agitated due to overstimulation of the nervous system. Fast oxidizers derive energy by digesting large quantities of animal fats and proteins, which are sent to the liver for conversion into glycogen. The liver then dispenses the glycogen into the bloodstream in the form of glucose — the only form of fuel the body can burn — in gradual measured doses, as needed. That’s why fast oxidizers require a steady supply of protein and fat in their diets and should restrict intake of sugars and starches.
Fortunately, most of us have balanced metabolisms that can handle both varieties of food when properly combined. Although our digestive tracts were originally designed by nature for a diet of fruit and vegetables, our digestive systems have evolved the capacity to produce the gastric juices required to digest the meat that became part of the human diet 50,000-100,000 years ago. If large quantities of animal protein don’t leave you feeling depleted, and if large doses of sugar and starch don’t make you nervous, then you are probably a balanced metabolizer who needs only worry about selecting wholesome foods from both categories and combining them properly for consumption. In the Tao of diet, however, these are just the first steps in regulating diet. Season and climate, for example, must also be considered in order to ensure that the extreme external cold winter is balanced by the extra internal heat of Yang-foods, hot summer weather is complemented by cooling Yin-foods, dry climates are compensated with extra moisturizing foods, and so forth. Foods consumed out of harmony with season and climate can cause all sorts of problems, including skin eruptions, constipation, gas, fatigue and bad breath.
Taoists tend to favor local produce because it is far more likely to be fresh and brimming with the vitality of its own chee. Today, the modern food-processing industry, in conjunction with high-speed transport, has made it possible to eat Florida oranges in Alaska, frozen prawns in the middle of the desert and all sorts of processed packaged ‘junk food’ any time of day or night, anywhere on earth. As a result, modern diets are completely out of synchrony with the natural prevailing conditions of geography, season and unseen cosmic forces.
Taoists also make a point of eating foods with natural affinities for their weakest organs and related energy systems. Taoist diets aim at strengthening four major systems in the body: digestive, excretory, respiratory and circulatory. When these four functional systems are properly nourished, harmonized and healthy, the health and vitality of the entire organism are assured.
A major goal of Taoist diets is to enhance sexual potency by stimulating sexual glands and strengthening sexual organs. The purpose here is not to increase sexual pleasure — though that is a definite side benefit — but rather to increase the body’s store of hormones, semen and other forms of ‘vital essence’ required for optimum vitality and immunity. Sexual essence provides our greatest internal source of chee, and sexual potency is a major indicator of good health.