My mother, who is in her early 80s, recently went in for a doctor appointment. The physician, a young, personable, well-educated physician, commented that at 80 my mother really didn’t need to be watching her diet any more. When I heard about it, I thought, “there is the central problem with Western nutrition theory wrapped up in one statement.”
According to your typical M.D., food contains nutrients. Some nutrients cause health problems. Some solve health problems (health problems like early death, hence the statement that at 80, you don’t have to watch your diet). Don’t eat eggs because they contain cholesterol and cholesterol is bad for you. Do eat orange juice because orange juice contains vitamin C, and vitamin C is good for you, especially if you are fighting a cold. So what’s my problem? Isn’t cholesterol bad for you? Isn’t vitamin C good for you?
Frankly, I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I’m going to give the researchers who study such things credit for knowing their field and for doing due diligence in their experiments. I’m going to assume that vitamin C is good for you. My point, however, is that though we drink orange juice for vitamin C, orange juice isn’t vitamin C. Orange juice contains vitamin C. It also contains carbohydrates, water, other vitamins, minerals, acids and probably other nutrients we don’t even have a name for yet. Beyond what’s in it are its properties. It’s sweet. It’s sour. It’s wet. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) would say that it’s “cool.” Then there’s the issue of what it does. Western medicine would say that the body reacts to the acid in the orange juice in a particular way. TCM would say that it rectifies qi and moistens the lungs. In other words, orange juice is more than just vitamin C, and it interacts with your body in a ways that pure vitamin C doesn’t.
Well, let’s say you’re coming down with a cold. You know that vitamin C is good for the immune system. So you swing by the grocery store on the way home from work, and you stockpile orange juice. You start swigging it at the rate of a couple of quarts a day, and before long the cold blossoms and then settles into your chest. From a TCM standpoint, none of this is a surprise. The sweetness of the orange juice is dampening, the sourness constrains, and the coolness, well, it makes things cool. So what you have in orange juice is a recipe for gunk and congestion that you can’t cough loose. The vitamin C, however, might be good for your immune system as you once again get stuck in a coughing fit that you fear might turn a lung inside out.
In our attempt to pinpoint the nutrients of food, we’ve lost the common sense that tells us how our bodies react to foods. We don’t drink the orange juice and ask ourselves if we feel better. We drink it because someone with a microscope and a graduate degree has told us it contains something good for us. We’ve forgotten that we are the experts on how our body feels from the inside. Is orange juice good for a cold? Try it. Then try a nice oolong or black tea instead. Listen. Really listen to what your body has to say.
I’m not saying to ignore what Western medicine has to say about foods. Use their insights as a jumping off point. Test them. Western researchers are concerned about demographics and long-term survival rates. They want a discrete variable, a vitamin or mineral, they can test in a lab. You want to stop feeling like crap all the time. The two are very different perspectives on food.
And while I’m on the subject, examine very closely any food whose label brags about something that’s supposedly good for you– fiber, vitamin D, probiotics, less fat, whatever. You could argue that someone stopping by your house to give you a hundred buck is a good thing. But someone driving the hundred buck through your front window and into your living room in a tank, well, that’s maybe not as good. What do you have to eat to get the much-vaunted fiber? How does it make you feel?
Beware a health food restaurant where everyone gets up from the table coughing and hacking up phlegm. (Listen to your favorite restaurant sometime. I guarantee you an eye-opening experience.) Beware the enriched bread that makes you feel logy and stuffy. Beware the fortified cereal that picks up blood sugar and then drops it like a Magic Mountain roller coaster.
Bottom line? Spinach never brags. Marketers brag.
Learning to listen to your body, and how your food choices affect it, is a much-neglected way of life in modern America. You’re not going to find many people practicing it. You’re not going to find many modern professionals who can help you develop the skills. But it really is central to navigating the mine field of food choices, food research, and food marketing pressure we experience every day.
If you want to go beyond following rules handed to you from above to develop your own inner wisdom about how your body lives with the food you feed it, you will be walking a road less traveled. Your best company along the way could be a TCM practitioner. I’d suggest Bob Flaw’s The Tao of Healthy Eating: Dietary Wisdom According to Traditional Chinese Medicine as a good place to start. In Tucson, David Price does dietary counseling from a TCM perspective. A TCM take on food is essentially the accumulation of thousands of years of people listening to their bodies. It’s as good a place as I’ve found so far to begin to learn to listen to my own body.
So do you need to be concerned about what you eat at 80 (or at 50, or 20, for that matter)? Only if you want to live in harmony with your food. Only if you want to live aware of your body. Only if you want to live deliberately as a whole person for all the days that are allotted you.
Thanks to timlewisnm on Flicker for the orange picture.