With the popularity of never-ending diets and health kicks, people regularly look to new meal plans — or rather, old ones — some even as far back as ancient Taoism. Like other non-Western cultures, Taoism places an emphasis on the spirituality of food and a belief that it holds qualities beyond basic nutrition.
The Taoist concepts of yin and yang are all about balance and how we can manage our energies with various foods. Yin is thought to moisten and cool the body, while yang energy is attributed with warming and activating properties.
In a branch of medicine called Chinese Nutritional Therapy (CNT) that custom-tailors diets, food is assigned a temperature from hot to cold. This approach looks at the body as a system, finds patterns, and uses food to find balance. Walking through a Chinese market you can find a diverse selection of odd-looking produce and meats all with numerous health benefits; dried octopus is contracted, salty and therefore yang, the vitamin-rich durian fruit is sweet and therefore yin, and the bitter gourd is yin, cool and high in antioxidants.
Gillian Marsollier, an instructor at Pacific Rim College and practitioner at the Vancouver Island Naturopathic Clinic, explains how individual diet plans are more beneficial than jumping on bandwagon trends.
“(CNT) is a really different system than Western nutrition, which looks at calorie-counting and sodium count; they have a much more general view of giving food. (CNT) is good for anyone because you can find out which foods are good for you and which ones are not,” says Marsollier. “It’s not a blanket cure-all.”
Garlic is one example of a food that, while lauded for its health benefits, actually exacerbates certain ailments. In CNT, garlic is a very hot, yang food that particularly affects the skin, lungs and stomach. So for people prone to hot skin rashes and dry coughs, garlic could worsen their symptoms. This knowledge of individual patterns is crucial for choosing the best foods for our unique needs.
The holistic nature of Chinese nutritional therapy also promotes a lifestyle in accordance with the natural world. As fall weather sets in, Marsollier maintains that integrating CNT into our lives can help us transition rather than resist.
“In general we don’t live as in-tune. We used to live within the seasons; they’d watch the sun and the moon and they would live according to that, but we’re kind of out of that now. So intuition is gone for the most part. [CNT] is an intuitive way of being. Your food brings you up to the season, also brings your energy attuned with it, brings your personality attuned with the season.”
Specifically, in the winter we can add more salty and bitter foods, which help pull energy into our body’s core and keep warm, in place of sweet and pungent fruits that take energy to the surface of the body and are more suited to the summer months.
For many of us, our days are spent immersed in a synthetic, technological world rather than in harmony with nature.
Marsollier has some suggestions for recognizing imbalance before having a professional assessment to treat specific patterns of sickness.
“In our medicine, the energy should be flowing through the body balanced, and if there’s a block somewhere then you feel off in that area,” she says. “So if there’s a block in the digestive system then you’ll feel digestive problems. If there’s a block in the heart energy, you may feel emotional problems.”
While CNT is not as widely known, this branch of medicine has made significant strides in the past decade. As recently as 2001, Marsollier says mainstream practitioners would scoff at nutritional therapy and call it voodoo and witchcraft. Today, doctors often refer patients to alternative medicine specialists and B.C. health care even provides low-income individuals with coverage for supplementary benefits like naturopathy.
For skeptics of this alternative system, Marsollier points out that our very existence is intertwined with the strengths of Chinese nutritional therapy.
“The fact is, we just are energy. If someone has doubts about it I say ‘well what do you think pumps your heart? Electrical impulses. And what is that? That is energy.’ We are energetic beings and the earlier you catch things — if you have a symptom and you get it fixed at a more energetic level rather than letting it set in to a very chronic, physical state — the better [CNT] is at preventing disease,” she says. “And that goes for all medicines.”
Learning to read our intuition and examine our own energy patterns is vital for moving towards a state of optimal health and balance. And you can always skip the dried octopus. M