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How you eat matters – Intuitive eating, Chinese medicine, and you

How you eat matters – Intuitive eating, Chinese medicine, and you

by Grace Ganel, L.Ac., Dipl.Ac., C.Z.B.

I’m working on teaching my clients to focus on their behaviors around mealtimes, rather than obsessing over what they eat. What are your eating habits? Do you eat in front of the television? Are you scrolling through news feeds or social media during most meals and snacks? Eat your lunch at your desk while reading email? These eating habits are extremely common, and can be detrimental to your acupuncture channels’ health and wellness. Eating mindfully and intuitively could be a better approach for many folks.

American Culture and Food

Diet Culture: “Good” and “Bad” Foods

American diet culture assigns a lot of value to food. When I was growing up, full fat foods were “bad” foods and many foods and snacks were marketed as “fat free!” or “reduced fat!” In contrast, today’s diet trend of the Keto Diet preaches eating foods very high in fat, resulting in marketing for foods high in fat as “fat bombs” or “keto friendly.”

Examples like this demonstrate how assigning values to foods like this can be absolutely arbitrary. Add to this the impact to the average consumer of these values, and it becomes apparent that this particular habit of diet culture is very damaging. Many folks feel guilty, ashamed, or out of control when they crave, eat, and enjoy foods diet culture has taught them are “bad” foods. This begs the question, “does the assigning of good or bad value to foods serve?” Chinese medicine teaches that for different folks and at different times, some foods might be ideal to “avoid” or “seek” because the foods may make the illness worse or better. These are not generally universal, though, and we learn that everything in moderation is probably the best policy for most folks.

Overwork and Multitasking While Eating

Another tenant of American work culture is the working lunch. The habits of taking your lunch at your desk, working through lunch, skipping lunch, or having a “lunch meeting” are absolutely normalized in corporate America. To add another layer of complication to this, many folks need to use their lunch breaks to attend to their health or the health of a family member due to inadequate leave policies. Rather than being able to step away from the computer in the middle of the day to go to the doctor or seek preventative care, folks use their lunch break to complete these essential tasks (and other, equally important self-care tasks such as exercise) and eat lunch while working at another time of day. All of this translates to a culture of multitasking while eating.

Meanwhile, our long work hours mean that we have little time for attending to important personal matters, “unwinding,” and our hobbies. So even when we’re not at work, we’re habitually eating while checking social media, eating while reading the news, eating while watching television, eating while running errands, and so on. Once again, eating while doing other things, and failing to set aside a designated time for eating, is normalized and even expected in American work culture. Chinese medicine teaches that these lifestyle habits result in patterns of disharmony that disrupt our lives with symptoms.

Chinese Medicine and Healthy Eating Habits

“Good” and “Bad” Foods and Chinese Medicine Diagnoses

Eating a diet which is excessive in a particular energetic can cause illness. For example, eating a very large volume of nuts every day can cause stagnation of energy, resulting in symptoms such as alternating dry and loose stool, premenstrual symptoms such as migraines and cramping, increased pain throughout the body, one-sided headaches, and emotional irregularity. On the other hand, eating a small volume of nuts every day can be very moving for qi and can help to support folks experiencing the very symptoms I’ve just described. So we come back to the, “everything in moderation,” best practice.

There may also be times a certain food is exacerbating an existing disharmony. For example, when a person is experiencing a condition which is hot in nature, such as feeling very hot, swollen joints which are bright red, sweating excessively, skin rashes, bleeding disorders, and dryness, it is generally not a great idea for that person to eat foods which are very warming, such as ginger, garlic, onions, and alcohol. However, a person who is experiencing a cold pathogen, in which they may experience fixed and boring pain, watery stool, a sensation of cold, and wishing to be under covers constantly, could benefit greatly from eating a moderate amount of warming foods. In these cases, warming foods are “bad” for one client, but “good” for the other. It all comes down to context. We cannot simply tell all people to avoid hot foods! But we also can’t tell people what to eat by day according to the pathogens they may or may not be encountering on a daily basis. So the “everything in moderation AND listen to your body” practice is really the best practice! If you are feeling unwell, and you eat something and feel a little better, it’s a good indicator that that’s a good food for you at that moment! If you are feeling unwell after eating something, chances are that food isn’t agreeing with your present condition, and you might want to decrease your intake of that food for now.

Overwork and Emotional Eating as a Cause of Illness

The channels that support digestion of food on a physical level also support the emotional and mental digestion of our intellectual experiences. These channels have finite resources. The “spoons” metaphor of chronic illness can be helpful to illustrate how this can impact the channels. In this metaphor, each task to complete takes a number of spoons as payment (perhaps getting out of bed costs 2 spoons, taking a shower costs 1 spoon, calling your therapist costs 1 spoon, going out with friends costs 6 spoons, and so on). Some days, you might find you have more spoons than others – chronic illness is fickle, and you have good and bad days. Maybe one day you have enough spoons for all of those tasks! But on another day, you might not even have adequate spoons to spend on getting out of bed.

So to carry this metaphor over to your acupuncture channels trying to manage your food and your work at the same time, imagine that the task of digesting food costs 1 spoon and, when allowed to complete correctly, grants you 4 spoons, and the task of finishing that report you’re working on costs 4 spoons (you have to digest information, assimilate it into your project’s context, and generate complete sentences, after all!). Of course you’ve already been working hard today and spent some spoons on other things. That channel might only have 2 spoons available right now! So you try to multitask, munching on your sandwich as you read the same sentence several times, you get something done that’s OK but not your best work, and now you have a headache. Since you didn’t give your channels a chance to digest the food correctly, you weren’t able to get the full amount of spoons out of the food! You’re stuck with this in-between problem of getting a couple of spoons back that are functional spoons, but you also have some oddly misshapen lumps of metal that you can’t use as spoons. Now symptoms like headaches, fatigue, indigestion, brittle nails, poor memory, light and/or irregular menses, and poor appetite might appear. This is a rough demonstration of what can happen over time when you habitually multitask while eating – the channels that digest your food cannot function optimally, and you wind up worse off than before you ate. It’s much better from a Chinese medicine perspective to step away from the work and set aside time to eat and digest a bit before returning to work.

This applies especially to eating while in an emotional state. Processing emotions takes a lot of spoons! The channels are preoccupied with handling the emotional content, whether it’s the news, or something scary or sad in the movie you’re watching, or even a difficult conversation with your family. Ideally, we eat from a place of want and need, while our full attention is turned to the food and how it feels to eat it.

Intuitive Eating

Kids can be great teachers in intuitive eating.

Intuitive eating teaches listening to cues from the body and mind to eat in an unrestrained and freeing manner. Rather than eating something because we think we “should” eat it (or not eating something because we think we “shouldn’t”), we eat the food because we want it. Sometimes it can take a long time to adapt to eating this way, but it can be fundamentally and profoundly beneficial.

In intuitive eating, there’s no “good” or “bad” food. There’s just food! You want a cookie? You eat the cookie. And you listen to your body and mind while you eat the cookie, with curiosity and acceptance. Noting thoughts you might have about the cookie, and noticing how your body feels before, during, and after eating the cookie. You might be surprised to find that sometimes you feel really good eating the cookie, and sometimes you don’t! In time, you may be able to differentiate the ways your body and mind feel before eating the cookie that may cue whether the cookie will be a helpful food for you in that moment. For example, if I’m craving a cookie and I feel a little light-headed and tired, that’s actually usually an indicator that I do need to quickly raise my blood sugar! Sure I could do this with a date, or some grapes, but my mental craving is for a cookie. So, I’ll eat one cookie, drink some water, and give myself a couple of minutes to determine if that was what I needed, if I need more, or if I need something else entirely. But if I’m craving a cookie and I feel a strong emotional presence such as anger or fear, I recognize now that chances are I actually need to move my body and talk to someone about what I’m feeling or do something creative, because I’ve found that if I eat the cookie in that state, I usually don’t feel well.

When we eat mindfully, we offer our bodies an opportunity to communicate clearly and effectively with us. More and more, I’m suggesting to my clients that they focus more on how they eat than what they eat. Learn to develop body awareness during meal times. Learn to be fully present to the food and to your body and mind while eating. Protect your lunch break, turn the TV off, put the phone down, and just eat! Then pay attention, maybe sit quietly for a few moments or go for a brief, slow walk outside, before you go back to work. Try doing this a couple times a week at first. If you notice the difference and want to see more results, consider increasing the frequency to one mindful meal a day, or go all the way to complete mindful eating at every opportunity.

If you’re looking for more support around your lifestyle, schedule your next appointment with me by clicking on the green buttons! I’d love to help you learn to listen to your body, mind, and spirit with a complete and open awareness. Your body is speaking to you through your symptoms – learn the language!


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