What Does My Chinese Upbringing Teach Me about Food and Health? (Part 2)

What Does My Chinese Upbringing Teach Me about Food and Health? (Part 2)

This is a continuation of my blog post on how I experience my native Chinese food culture and adapted it to my current health needs. See Part 1 here.

In Chinese society, food and health are never separated. Even as a kid, I often heard about the medicinal effects of this food and that food.  Traditional Chinese Medicine concepts are deeply ingrained even in everyday conversations. When you have eaten too much of a certain food or some junk food, you would immediately hear someone tell you, “That would give you ‘hot air”—meaning you’re flared up inside. “Drink some cool tea!” (traditional herbal tea). So the awareness of achieving “internal balance” is in each and every fiber of the Chinese soul. Even Western-trained physicians in Hong Kong would tell you what to eat and what to avoid after a physical exam.

In addition, I would often hear my mom talk about the medicinal values of certain foods, such as how the goji berry improves our eyesight—even before this berry became known as a “Super Food” in the West. My dad, who loved to serve us fruits after the dinner, would often say, “Fruits are good for your digestion.”

No wonder I had a cultural shock when I first arrived in America and found the food culture completely different! One time, I asked my college roommate if she wanted an apple. “No, thanks! I’m not hungry.” I didn’t realize until then that fruits were considered something to fill you up. For me, fruits were more like a snack for enjoyment and for the various nutrients and digestive power in them, and weren’t necessarily eaten when one was hungry.

One day, also at college, I had a strep throat and went to see the doctor. At the end of the consultation, I asked him what food I should avoid. He said, “Nothing. Just eat anything you like, as usual.” I asked if I should avoid drinking soda or eating ice cream. He said, “No! It doesn’t make any difference.” I was shocked. In Chinese culture, when you are sick, eating or drinking cold food or drinks is a big No-No.

I didn’t think much about these “weird” statements after being “assimilated” by the American culture.

Only until almost 20 years later, when I developed huge tumors inside my body, did I start to remember the connection between food and health once again.

Merits of the Traditional Chinese Diet

Having studied and experimented with dozens of different diets (not weight-loss programs but ways of eating), I can finally appreciate the traditional Chinese way of eating. Mind you, what I appreciate is its essence, not necessarily the details. I’ll talk more about that later. But what is the essence I’m talking about?

As I mentioned in my last blog, or Part 1 of this series, the beauty of the Chinese diet is a wide variety of ingredients in small amounts every meal to achieve a balance. The French do so par excellence as well, and so do many other traditional diets. Today, because of how deeply the modern way of “convenience eating” has impacted people’s health, “movements” have sprung up to correct the general nutritional deficiency or imbalance in the modern human population. Among these movements are the paleo diet, various autoimmune disease protocols, as well as the Wise Traditions Diet promoted by the Weston Price Foundation.

These various ways of eating aim to reintroduce a “wiser” way as espoused by our ancestors. It would be easier to relate to these diets if we simply imagine how our grandmothers or great grandmothers would cook and eat. They did not avoid fat, meat or animal organs. In fact, almost all parts of the animal were consumed, as it was not that often that they could get a hold of meat. Broth was drunk regularly and considered the key to good immunity and healthy skin. There was no processed or packaged food whatsoever. Artificial preservatives and flavorings were non-existent. Fermented and cultured food was a regular part of the diet.

All of these qualities can be found in Chinese culture as well. So when I read “The China Study,” I was flabbergasted. OK, it is very likely that a certain part of the Chinese population eat mainly vegetables and remain healthy, but my understanding is that, throughout the thousands of years of Chinese history, people ate mainly vegetables out of poverty and not of choice, and whenever there was a chance to eat animal flesh, it was a sign of abundance. There is a funny concept within the Chinese diet and Traditional Chinese Medicine called “nourishing the same shape with the same shape.” In practice, it means if you have an illness in one organ, you can simply eat the same organ from another animal to cure the disease. I remember that when I was a child, my mother cooked pig’s lung soup for me to cure my bronchitis. One theory says that because of the general lack of animal protein in the old days, any part of an animal, when ingested, would augment the person’s health. That kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, when a modern diet attempts to leave out an entire food group that has been traditionally eaten throughout human history, one has to question why. I’m not going into details about why I think it is problematic as this is not the main theme of this article. But I do want to make one point: It is totally understandable to leave out specific types of food in order to avoid toxins and harmful effects they have on our body. And this attempt can often reap dramatic positive benefits in the short run. But to permanently leave out an entire food group, which our human body has evolved to consume for our optimal nutritional needs, is inherently flawed. There are almost always ways to find alternatives within the same food group and sources that are clean.

Adapting Chinese Cuisine to Modern Scientific Findings

For the same reason, I personally have changed the ingredients of my meals from what the Chinese traditions call for, to those that are specifically geared toward the unique needs of my body. After having learned about the scientific basis of the Blood Type Diet, Genotype Diet and SWAMI, I started to apply that knowledge to my own food tradition. The result was a revelation of why there have been some contradictions in the advice given by Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners.

For example, when a person is sick with a cold or flu, a TCM practitioner would give the advice of not eating chicken because it is “poisonous” to the patient at this time. But sometimes one would hear another practitioner say, “Don’t eat beef.” Well, which one is right? Personally, I have put this to a test. I had eaten beef when I was sick, but it didn’t make me feel any worse. In fact, I gained energy and recovered faster. The same goes for chicken. But how come some other people feel worse when they eat either of these when sick? Another example is that I often hear people say that eating mangoes is “damping,” which means it promotes stagnation inside the body and leads to digestive and skin problems. But I have found that even if I eat a mango every day for a sustained period of time, I never have any problems.

I have found that the answer lies in individual blood types. Chicken is an “avoid” — and thus acts like a poison — or Type B and AB individuals, whereas beef is an “avoid” for Type A and AB individuals. Because I am of Type O blood, I never have any problem assimilating these two types of meat. In fact, I thrive on them, provided the sources are clean (i.e. free range chicken and grass-fed beef). The same goes for mangoes — a beneficial fruit for Type O. Those who experience issues are likely to be Type A and Type AB folks.

Since Chinese Medicine is an amalgamation of wisdom gathered from folk medicine, and regional differences in China are huge and numerous, each piece of advice collected could have come from a particular region where a certain blood type is dominant. For the same reason, I suspect that the predominant proportion of the subjects studied by T. Colin Campbell in “The China Study” were likely to be Type A individuals, who thrive on a largely plant-based diet supported by soy protein. Of course, I don’t have the capability or resources to analyze this thoroughly, so my theory, which I am putting out there as food for thought, comes from my own intuition and long-time observations within Chinese society.

Typical Chinese Ingredients to Avoid

I also have realized that the traditional Chinese way of eating, which has become “bastardized” in today’s fast-paced urban areas of China and other large Chinese communities around the world, does have a lot of room for improvement.

For example, because of the general lack of nutrients and dubious way white rice is grown and processed, and because white rice is at the basis of a typical Chinese meal—the volume of which is way out of proportion for a healthy diet—I would recommend eating basmati rice, especially basmati brown rice, as well as other unmilled rice from organic sources. In terms of the volume, I would de-emphasize it for Type O folks, who generally don’t do well with grains, and those who are either pre-diabetic or diabetic.

There are a number of ingredients that are very common in traditional Chinese cooking that certain blood types should look out for. Soy sauce is one of them. Soy sauce is made with two main ingredients, soy and wheat. Soy is beneficial for the majority population within Type A and AB individuals (known as Secretors), neutral for the rest and an “avoid” for the minority population within Type B and O (“Non-secretors”). However, most soy today is GMO. As for wheat, it is an “avoid” for all except for being “neutral” for Type A and AB Secretors. However, wheat is a very problematic food for most people today, the reason of which will fill an entire book! Suffice it to say, for the purpose of this article, that wheat-germ agglutinin in the wheat, the higher proportion of gluten than any time in wheat’s history, and the carcinogenic glyphosate that is widely sprayed on today’s wheat crop, are three big reasons to avoid it totally, especially if you have any chronic diseases or weight issues. What it all boils down to, is that really only Type A Secretors can benefit from soy sauce, provided that it is the wheat-free version, known as tamari.

Personally, I have eliminated soy sauce from my diet since eight years ago. The excessive mucus that I had to contend with every single day has completely disappeared. To find out what I use in lieu of soy sauce, click here and download the recipe. Sometimes I would joke that the reason why you see so many Chinese people spit or cough up phlegm is that they eat too much soy sauce!

As I mentioned above, wheat is indeed a problematic food, but you will find lots of wheat-based items used in traditional Chinese dishes, such as noodles, won tons, dumplings and all the wraps you find in “dim sum.” I would go for rice-based alternatives instead, such as rice noodles.

Another common ingredient is corn starch. Cornstarch is inflammatory and an “avoid” for all except for Type A Secretors (neutral for them). But you see it being used in all the sauces in Chinese stir-fries at restaurants.

Speaking of Chinese restaurants, did you know that the most common type of oil used for the dishes is soy oil? Soy oil is by far the cheapest of all oil, and as I have mentioned, most soy today is GMO. So whatever dishes you order, most likely there is going to be some soy in it–if not the soy sauce, then the cornstarch or MSG.

MSG, a neurotoxin, is an all-too-common ingredient in dishes at Chinese restaurants and take-outs. As MSG is derived from corn, and most corn today is GM, even if you don’t get an immediate reaction from it such as headache or extreme thirst, imagine what long-term consumption of it would do to your body!

One more ingredient that I have sworn off of, which is ubiquitous in Chinese cuisines, is pork. Pork has the highest viral load among all domestic animals. And the way they are raised and fed, including how they eat their own feces, highly increases the presence of parasites. This could cause unimaginable harm to our body — some of which are hardly discussed in the medical community at all. Pork raised at the farmstead back in the old days in China might have been an extremely good and efficient source of protein. However, in today’s industrial farms, the reality is a far cry from that. Sometimes, my Chinese friends would joke that I am a Chinese Muslim. Well, in a way, I find that the Muslim and Jewish abstinence from pork to have some protective effect on their health.

The easiest way to adapt Chinese cuisine to healthier standards and to our bio-individuality, is to make stir-fries dishes using ingredients that are compliant to each blood type. If there are different blood types within a family, make sure all ingredients are either neutral and/or beneficial. Some ingredients that are “avoids” for certain family members can be cooked or set aside on the dish so the whole family can enjoy it.

What Does My Chinese Upbringing Teach Me about Food and Health? (Part 1)

What Does My Chinese Upbringing Teach Me about Food and Health? (Part 1)

I grew up in Hong Kong, a predominantly Chinese society. At home, my mother followed the food tradition of a typical Chinese household, providing the family with three meals a day, made with mostly fresh ingredients shopped in the outdoor markets on the same day.

Dinner was a full-on family affair. We always ate at exactly the same time every day—7pm, and the whole family would sit down to eat a meal that consisted of a big bowl of broth, a small bowl of rice, a dish each of vegetables, fish/seafood and meat. In each dish, there was a variety of different ingredients, and the colors of the food made the dinner table a wonderful sight to behold.

So, already in childhood, I established the habit of eating a wide variety of food with a broad spectrum of tastes, including bitterness and spiciness—all of which contributes to balanced nutritional intake and proper detox. In fact, the Chinese style of cooking packs a lot of different nutrients in a single chopstick scoop! In every meat or fish dish, there will always be a number of vegetables, herbs and spices. The “foundation” of the meal is a bowl of rice. So we never tend to eat too much, as we would pick from the dishes laid in the center of the table, and stop when we have finished the bowl of rice. Of course, when we are really really hungry, we would pick more often from the dishes and maybe refill the bowl with a bit more rice.

The reason why I am telling you this, is that I recently read about how the French family eats and how it contributes to healthy figures—and I wanted to add my two cents ;-). To my surprise, there is a great deal of similarities between the French way of eating and the Chinese way of eating, with the exception of how the dishes are laid out. The Chinese style is more “communal” whereas the French style is more “individual.” But in both cultures, we tend to eat a great variety of foods in moderate quantities at each meal. Freshness of the ingredients plays a very important role, and so does “togetherness.” All of these qualities add an extra dimension to the concept of healthy eating. Yes, it matters a great deal what you eat. But how much, at what pace, and with whom we eat our meals also play an immeasurable role in how our body assimilates food and makes it beneficial for our overall health. I am sure the Chinese and French ways of eating are not the only ones that value these qualities. I believe this is the case in most traditional cultures. It is with the prevalence of the “modern” lifestyle that we’ve gradually lost the wholesome habits that were once a norm.

First, the sit-down dinner gave way to TV dinner. Then, came the computer. For the sake of convenience and to save time, the prepackaged meal—loaded with preservatives and additives of poor nutritional quality—was born. And when we eat in front of the TV or computer, without focusing on the food itself, our internal sensors of whether we are full or not are turned off. We eat mindlessly, shoving down bite after bite into our throat and losing track of how much we have eaten and whether we are already full or not. On top of that, social isolation (e.g. not having someone to share meals with) and other stress factors could lead us to soothe ourselves by filling our stomach with “comfort food” (which, in many cases, take the form of ultra-processed junk food.) This could eventually lead to binge eating.

I had my first experience of binge eating when I was in college. Having moved from Hong Kong to the United States, I was all alone in dealing with all the stress related to adulthood, loneliness and cultural shock. On those lonely nights of studying for exams, I would drink multiple cans of Coca-Cola or Mountain Dew, and gobble up a whole box of graham bear or Oreo cookies in one setting. I was desperately trying to soothe the anxiety inside me by mindlessly munching on sweet food and downing sugary beverages, which seemed to perk up my energy level for short bouts. None of those really helped me feel better after all, but I plowed on for four years, relying on junk foods to get me through my heavy workload, social isolation and rejections. This, along with the unhealthy food and ways of eating that I picked up, contributed to the ballooning of my weight. Already by the end of the first semester in college, I added 20 lbs to my petite frame of 5’3″, and my waistline measured 30.” My struggle with weight would persist throughout my college years.

In my “Westernization” process, I embraced all the foods that were unheard of or scarce when I grew up — milk, cheese, frozen yogurt, deep-dish pizza, bagels, muffins, thick American-style pancake towers, buffalo wings—you name it. Those were “novelty” items that soon became addictive to my palate. I was so bored of traditional Chinese food after having eaten it for my whole life! I ate loads of these American foods on a regular basis, and fell in love with the “all-you-can-eat” style restaurants at the same time. To me, being able to eat without restrictions and at incredibly low prices was “heaven.” And on busy days, I would eat in front of the computer while working on my papers. All these new habits didn’t do my health much good. But it would be a long time afterwards that I realized the consequences.

I am sharing my experience and my realizations because I want you to know that if you struggle with binge eating or have trouble controlling the amount of food you eat, you are not alone, and that there are habitual and emotional reasons behind it. Will power, portion control or counting calories can only go so far. But if you become aware of why you need to eat beyond the point of satiation, then the real solution of turning the habit around is just around the corner.

Mindful eating is a good start in building a healthy relationship with food. Here are some simple steps you can follow:

  • Sit down properly for each meal.
  • Lay your food in an attractive way on the dish or bowl.
  • Look at your food, say a little “Thanks” to it before you start.
  • Savor each and every bite.
  • Eat slowly. Chew thoroughly.
  • Before you take the next bite, check in with your stomach. Listen to it carefully. Is it hungry? If so, keep eating. If not, stop for a moment, then listen again.
  • Stop when you are “almost” full. Eating till 75%-80% full is what those people in the Blue Zones—the longest-living human beings—habitually do.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you eating to support your health and well-being?
  • Are you using food as a drug to numb your anguish, loneliness or suffering?
  • Are you using food as a tool to punish yourself when you “screw up” in any way, such as feeling that you have “fallen off the wagon” if you are on diet?

In the second part of this series, I will be talking about the concept of food as medicine ingrained in the Chinese food culture. I will also be analyzing how some of the traditional ingredients used in Chinese and other Asian cuisines are excellent while others may not be all that healthy for some of us. To read the second part, click here.