In the West, we think that ‘more is better’. Fruit, so we think, is chocker block with vitamins, so the more we get, the better. In addition, many people think that if you eat plenty of fruit and salads, you can overdose on junk foods/soft drinks/alcohol and still stay healthy. Western science is beginning to put question marks to assumptions such as these, and I discuss this to some extent in another article (an apple a day keeps the doctor away). The general public, however, and that includes the media, is largely unaware, for example, of the fact that ‘more is not at all better’. TCM does not think so either. Quite the contrary. ‘Balance’ is the key to good health. A balanced diet is a varied diet, one that is based on grains and vegetables with small amounts of all other (whole) foods (approx. 5% dairy/meat/fish and 5% fruit). A balanced diets excludes too much emphasis on certain types of foods (dairy and meats, for example) at the expense of others. In particular it excludes too many snacks, junk foods, soft drinks and alcohol because they contain too many fats, sugars, salts, spices and other undesirables. In addition, they lack things such as vitamins, minerals and fibres. The excessive consumption of certain foods and food products at the expense of variety equals a one-sided or ‘unbalanced’ diet. It leads to ill health and many health problems.
For TCM, the daily diet is a continuous balancing act between the weather outside, our indoor climate, our lifestyle and our own physical, emotional and mental health.
The TCM diet does not work in terms of vitamins. In stead, it looks at the energetic quality of foods and cooking methods and its effect on our health. Thus foods or cooking methods can cool us, chill us, warm us, overheat us and so on. The various flavours can stabilise our digestive system, activate our immune system, thicken or thin our blood, create body floods, contract and prevent perspiration or cause over-perspiration, etc. The way in which foods are grown and the places where they are grown, also affects us; and so on and so forth.
Fruits are cooling. Tropical fruits are cold. These terms ‘cooling’ and ‘cold’ mean that they respectively cool us down or chill us. If we live in hot countries, cold and cooling fruit refreshes us. In addition, it replenishes the moisture lost through sweating. When the hot sun dries us out, moisturising fruits are very welcome. In temperate climates, raw local fruits such as apples, pears and berries, refresh and moisten us in the summer and autumn – provided that these seasons are fairly warm and dry, and that we are physically active. If the summer is unseasonably damp and cold, we minimise the amounts of raw, local fruits. We don’t cut it out, we minimise. Fruit always has a place in our diet. In winter, when raw foods potentially chill us, we should ideally use dry old, shrivelled apples and pears that we cook with warming spices such as cinnamon. We use hand apples rather than cooking apples. Sweet hand apples do not need the addition of refined sugars. In stead, we use raisins and we add a teaspoon of honey or barley malt at the end to make it less acidic. In any season, we also use a minimum of citric fruits such as mandarin oranges (relatively warming), oranges and lemons, even in the winter, because we do live in centrally heated homes and citrus fruit is rich in vitamin C. But four people might share one orange, particularly in the winter!
In terms of seasonal cooking, Traditional Chinese Medicine recommends that people avoid the sour taste – and this includes fruit - in spring. Immediately, I want to emphasise that the word ‘avoid’ is exactly what it says. I do not mean the word ‘eliminate’. No whole foods, be they dairy, fruit or otherwise, should be completely eliminated from our diet, unless under specific medical supervision, or when you have a cold.
Be that as it may, the sour taste is less suitable in spring, because it is astringent, in other words, it contracts. If you have read my article on Spring Nutrition elsewhere on this site, you will know that the energy of spring is Up and Out. In spring, the liver-system is at its energetic maximum, and this liver-system stands for the free flow of Qi and blood. Fruit is both sweet and sour. The sweet flavour generates fluids, the sour flavour holds on to them. This hinders the free flow of Qi and blood. Moreover, when you have a cold, the contracting nature of the sour flavour draws the cold deeper into the body, thereby embedding it.
Spleen Damp and Phlegm
As I said above, fruit has a cooling effect on our system. In warm or hot summers fruit moistens and refreshes us, in winter and in cool summers, it potentially chills us and it can be too moistening. This excess moisture impedes the function of the spleen and pancreas, thereby weakening these primary digestive organs. This leads to ‘internal damp’. Damp has a tendency to congeal into Phlegm. Health problems such as chronic or recurrent thrush, sinusitis and bronchitis, to name but a few, are expressions of internal damp and/or phlegm. The spleen-pancreas is deficient, hence the fluids are incorrectly transformed and transported. Symptoms such as sinusitis and bronchitis are created or aggravated by the excessive consumption of cooling and moisturising cooking methods and foods such as raw fruit and their juices (also dairy products such as milk and cheese, and refined sugars). Dietary therapy is the pill to the elimination of Spleen Damp and Phlegm problems such as chronic or recurrent thrush, sinusitis, and bronchitis.
Unripe fruit, moreover, is more sour (acidic) than sweet. Much of the fruit in our shops is unripe, be it partly or totally. Acidic foods and sugars undermine dental enamel and lead to dental problems. For further reading on the ripeness of fruits, see the article “Extracts from Jeffrey Steingarten”, elsewhere on this site.
With a cold you avoid cold or cooling foods such as fruit, and particularly citrus food, no matter what time of year. Cold and cooling foods cool you down even further, they prevent sweating and, because fruit is acidic, it contracts, thereby dragging the cold deeper into the body. For similar reasons, you also avoid cooling and hard to digest foods such as muesli, milk, cheese and sugar-and-fat junk foods. In stead, you take warming foods and cooking methods such as marrow broths, marrow soups, stews, casseroles and steamed or boiled white fish. As you see, these are all cooked, high in minerals and easy to digest. In addition, you take warming teas such as ginger tea. In fact, as soon as you feel a cold coming on, you start with ginger tea. This is also the time when you are still clear enough in the head to buy plenty of ginger root in your shop. Check that the ginger roots are still fresh, and not mouldy! Many shops now sell ginger root packaged in plastic. This makes it harder to judge its freshness, so closely examine the packed ginger root. It is such a shame if you need ginger and you find only rotten roots in your cupboards. By the way, do not store ginger root in the fridge!
You make ginger tea by gently simmering about 2 two-inch pieces of ginger root with the green of a spring onion in the equivalent of about two mugs of water, for about 20 minutes. Remove the ginger and onion and transfer the tea to a thermos flask. Sip 2 or 3 small cups of this warm tea during the day, starting with your breakfast. Wait an hour after a cup of ginger tea before going outside. Ginger is a warm spice that activates the immune system. It opens the pores and makes you sweat. If you go out directly after a cup of ginger tea, cold air or wind will enter through the open pores and make matters worse! Two or three small cups of ginger tea that you sip slowly should dislodge the developing cold within a day. If you continue to focus on warming foods and cooking methods, the cold should stay away. (Some people react adversely to ginger, so if you are not used to ginger, start with one sip, wait a few hours and see what it does with you. If you develop any swelling or a rash, stop immediately.) In my article “An apple a day keeps the doctor away! Truth or fiction?” I quote the western scientist Professor Katan who agrees with the TCM view that fruit does not cure a cold.
Note that when the cold transforms into a flu, you should immediately stop with all warming foods and cooking methods.
Author Details: Leni Hurley