Ask Alex the Acupuncturist
Question from a client:
I steadily lost about 8 pounds over the 5-months I was on the carb diet. I went from NoCarb to LowCarb to SlowCarb. So when I came home last summer, I put back most of it back on – by eating carbs! My host kept making the most amazing spaghettini carbonara and other great pasta treats! And the local potato chip choices were prolific! I don’t know if it was habit or my body craving carbs, which is natural, that caused me to overindulge.
I’ve re-introduced my low-carb diet in an attempt to reduce my weight again. But since the cold winter started in Beijing, my body has been urging me to eat more brown/black rice, bread, and even occasionally white-flour noodles. Then, whenever I do eat carbs, I feel the urge to binge. Any advice?
Answer from Alex:
This is a common experience and we need to re-evaluate our dietary needs. Traditional Chinese Medicine has a very clear view that carbohydrates are a necessary part of the diet to be an effective human being. The trick is selection and preparation of carbohydrates and understanding they are not the focus, yet are an important component within a balanced diet. The urge to binge on carbs is the result of carb-mismanagement.
While referring to a gentleman of deep wisdom and universal respect, that passed through town, Confucius says:
‘The gentleman did not eat food that was not properly prepared nor did he eat except at the proper times. He did not eat food that had not been properly cut up, nor did he eat unless the proper sauce was available.’ Confucius, The Analects, C.500 BCE
What people refer to as ‘carbs’ are generally grains. Grains are sweet, earthy and they ground and provide energy. They are referred to as staples in most cultures and a meal is not a meal without a staple.
In the home staples often form a substantial part of the meal, while when eating out, the meats and vegetables hold preference with lesser emphasis on staple. In dietary terms, staples include rice, wheat, millet, corn, oats, rye, barley, and a whole host of other grains specific to local regions.
The common thread in these staples are that they are seeds that come from grasses, which are generally grown, harvested, dried, processed, cooked and then eaten. Potatoes, taro are starchy root vegetables, and often not considered true staples. In China, these root vegetables are referred to as 菜 cài, vegetable dishes that make up the cooked vegetable component of the meal. For example, in Ireland, and much of Northern Europe, you have potatoes with your meal, like a staple, however, you often still have bread as a starter or with your soup. The bread, pasta, rice, noodles, tortillas, naan, pancakes provides the ‘earth’ to the meal.
Now, here comes the tricky bit. Grains are very nutritious, very ’earthy’, and tend to be difficult to digest for modern humans. This has the potential to cause weight gain – excess earth. Grains build Qi & Blood, give us energy and are grounding.
Our need for grains has not changed in thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of years. What has changed is how we have chosen to eat them. Look into all traditional cultures and they have found ways to make grains easier to digest. Preparation and cooking are the primary ways we make it easier on digestion. Our ancestors used observation based knowledge to identify the greatest benefit to our culture and this becomes the staple.
‘Using raw unprocessed grains for modern humans is like using two-stroke mix for your Ferrari. Performance is compromised’
Humans have lived on cooked foods for so many generations, and the staple plays a major role in human development. In fact, it is believed that cooked food played a central role in the evolutionary process to create the pre-frontal cortex and our rapid development as a species from primate to human. In Chinese Medicine, staples play a major role in the production and maintenance of Qi and Blood.
For example, Chinese medicine considers white rice to be the ‘holy grain’. Using the theory and methodology of Chinese medicine cost-benefit analysis, white rice is considered the easiest for humans to digest and produce clean energy. De-husk the rice, even easier. Cook for a long time with extra water until grains are broken, even easier.
Remember, the emphasis of Chinese dietary therapy is not high nutrition. It is first, ease-of-digestion… there is nothing easier for a human to digest than rice porridge!’
This goes back a long way – think about the original character for the all-important concept of Qi – vital energy, information and consciousness. The modern simplified character is 气 and the traditional character is 氣 – it is a rice grain with steam coming off it!
Now, it is true that these processing and cooking can reduce raw nutrition, and nutrition is what we are looking for, so we need balance. The goal is generally easy to digest grains, with fresh cooked vegetables and small amounts of protein (meat, eggs, tofu etc).
‘When referring to nutrition we tilt the focus, less on total revenue, more towards net profit’
For example, if you are craving sweet foods and grains, from a Chinese medicine perspective, you are lacking nutrition, and therefore not in balance. Think about using easy to digest staples three times a day with meals as a proactive way to produce and maintain Qi and Blood.
Remember most meals (breakfast is an exception) should not be dominated by grains. Grains are part of the meal. Focus on the dishes and soup and use grains as a side – but the side needs to be there. Think of the word staple, originally a place of trade, supply, a source and then to an item of basic or essential supply. I like to think about it as providing stability.
‘The short-term gains of low-carb diets, if continued over time are compromised by long-term deficiencies in Qi and Blood, translated as instability of mind and body’
If you are not using a staple, I fear you will not only struggle with your health, you lack the fuel to reach full human potential.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexander K Tan is a licensed Acupuncturist. After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China. A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex’s bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives. He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients.
This is a part of Daoism and this is a typical quote you will come across:
“Those that feed on flesh are brave and daring but are cruel. Those that feed on Qi attain spirit illumination and are long-lived. Those that feed on grain are knowledgeable and clever but short-lived. Those that do not feed on anything do not die and are spirits.” (139 BCE) Huainanzi
This is true, there is a Daoist higher practice of fasting called 辟穀 bìgǔ – literally abstinence from grains – in practice generally refers to not eating or drinking anything to achieve immortality. I believe there are benefits of fasting and they need to be in balance with your lifestyle. It is important to understand that those attempting fasting in the past were living monastic lifestyles and seeking higher realms of spirituality. They were not not new to spiritual practices, working 50-hour weeks, with family and home to take care of.
In saying this, an annual fast, usually early spring, can bring benefits. Think about cultural festivals like Ramadan. Think naturally as part of the annual cycle, where the food stores are low and rotting while the new crops are not ready to eat. Fasting can also bring therapeutic change a pattern of your health, particularly if you are over-weight, and have a lot of what Chinese medicine calls, heat, damp, phlegm or stagnation. It can be a healthy annual ritual.
My concern is that fasting for modern working humans can stress and weaken the body. If you like the idea of fasting or would like to try fasting I caution against cold, raw or juice fasting. I can support a grain fast for a week or up to a month. A meat fast is generally welcome. Soups, steamed vegetables with rice for a week or two sounds like a good idea. Be wise to gauge your body’s needs, your lifestyle and remember to distinguish between short-term gains and long-term results.
To learn more about the role or porridge and practical tips on how to prepare tasty breakfast click here
To read more on Chinese Medicine ideas of Cooked vs Raw Food click here