In America, food value is often determined by quantifying the amount of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Foods that are similar in their quantities of these nutrients are deemed to be equivalent. For instance, a bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce is close in protein and calories to a two-egg omelet. Since American's assume that all people are the same physiologically, we tend to evaluate the quality of food based on freshness, being unrefined, having no artificial ingredients, low in cholesterol, calories, sugar, fat, and salt.
In Chinese medicine, we determine what is most beneficial for us to eat. Likewise, what we eat determines the characteristics of who we are. Foods are selected based on correspondence with the person's constitution. A person's constitution can be influenced by the climate, the season, or any illness. People who are hot and damp internally need cool, drying food; cold and dry people need warming, moistening foods; people with congestion need foods that decongest, and people who are weak and drained need replenishing, nourishing foods. Not everyone will benefit from the same measure of nutrients. What is needed to balance the body is defined by context, relating to the individual's constitution.
Food and people are understood in the Chinese language by applying the Yin-Yang theory. A diet of raw fruits and vegetables cools (Yin) not because it came out of the refrigerator but because these foods promote the loss of internal body heat and secretion of fluid. To a cold, congested, and weak person, these foods would further aggravate conditions of feeling chilled, puffy, filled with phlegm, full and tired. Similarly, a diet of rich, fried, broiled, spicy foods (Yang) would warm the body. A hot, dry, and congested person would avoid these foods because they would aggravate existing symptoms of nervousness, sweating, anxiety, pain, constipation, and thirst. When sick, the person with fever, dry mouth, and thirst would be balanced by eating cooling and moisturizing foods. A cooling diet of raw, juicy foods would be perfect to offset a hot summer day regarding the climate. Yin foods include soybeans, watermelon, white turnips, cabbage, peas, squash, and lemons. Yang foods would consist of beef, mutton, chicken, alcohol, mango, and chilies.
Another way to understand diet is based on the Chinese theory of the five elements of nature. The five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water correspond to sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty flavors, respectively. Sour "wood" foods such as olives are astringent and tend to calm the digestive tract, stop diarrhea and resolve hemorrhoids. Bitter "fire" foods such as rhubarb tend to dry the system, remove damp internal conditions and move the bowels. Sweet "earth" foods like corn, peas, dates, licorice root move and nourish stagnant energy, promote circulation, and strengthen the stomach. Pungent "metal" foods like ginger, garlic, and chili neutralize and disperse toxins in the body. Salty" water" foods like sea vegetables (kelp, seaweed) soften and moisten tissues, disperse lumps, and help improve bowel movements. Balance in the diet also is dependent on the combinations of the various energies and flavors or foods. Early Chinese avoided any conflicts in tastes or excesses in any single variety of food for fear of dis-ease. Even fresh, wholesome food can be disastrous for the body if combined and consumed in combinations that interfere with normal digestion.
The American diet conforms to the demands of our time; that which is quick, easy, and tasty. We have lost the innate ability to discern our bodies' needs instead of what our mouths and stomachs want. We buy what advertising sells to us instead of what feels good or is good for us. We starve ourselves to lose weight and overeat as compensation for absolute pleasure and satisfaction. In our constant demand for a productive America, we find ourselves always needing stimulation of our bodies with high-protein, high-fat, high-sugar foods that have always been associated in our culture with affluence and luxury. Instead of following the dietary recommendations as applied in mainstream Western medicine without regard for individual differences, consider that the "perfect diet" to prevent you from heart disease, cancer, or aging may be the one based on your constitution.