Gill Stannard

Monday, November 10, 2008

food as medicine

The cornerstone of naturopathy is “treating the individual, not the disease”. Just as one medicine cannot cure all ailments, no single diet is going to work for everyone, or even the same person all of the time.

On the most basic level the type of foods we need in order to feel well can be dictated by how active we are, the climate, our racial/genetic background, age and state of health. In the middle of winter, while doing lots of physical work lean, read meat cooked slowly on the bone in a casserole with vegetables may be appropriate medicine, yet even at the same time of year for another member of a household, who is overweight and riddled with arthritis, it could make their body

With so much conflicting information about eating, how do we know what food is medicine for our body? Food is a contentious issue at the best of times but when we are sick it seems everyone, expert, family or friend has an opinion of what they think our body needs.

On top of this there are cultural myths and customs around food that can be confusing and counter intuitive. For example, the trip to hospital to welcome a newborn is often loaded with champagne and chocolates for the mother. In another culture she would be fed organic soups rich with nutritious meats and vegetables. But here in the West we feed them sugar, caffeine and alcohol. Food-wise these could be considered “uppers” and “downers” for the baby and its mother, coupled with an immune system depressant from the sugar – just what a newborn doesn’t need when it first enters the world, nor the exhausted mother after her birthing marathon.

While giving birth is not an illness, we persistently tend to treat ill health with offerings of sugar such ice cream for a sore throat or a tonsillectomy and gift shop boxes of chocolates when people are in hospital. These foods do the opposite of what we need at such times when the body craves real, unadulterated foods.

We are becoming increasingly disconnected from listening to what our body needs to help us feel well. Unlike an animal that will fast or purge itself with grasses when it feels sick, we will often eat when our body needs rest to heal. Often sleep and inactivity, with water of food as fluid rather than solids is what the body craves when fighting an illness. But for convenience or the pressure to keep going even when our body screams at us to stop, we tempt ourselves with a “treat”, we are being slowly reprogrammed to choose processed foods like bread (“just have a bit of toast, put something in your stomach”) or sweetened drinks believing they will give us “energy”.

At an everyday level, what we eat is more likely dictated by what we think we should eat rather than what our instincts tell us we need to eat. Sometimes advertising may influence our thought process. Take breakfast for example, processed cereals and their modern counterparts a cereal milkshake in a box or a dry compacted bar are advertised as the ideal way to start the day. The ads may be mixed with patriotism (“Aussie kids are…”), sporting prowess, messages about good parenting or simple convenience (food to eat on the run). But fruit growers, don’t tend to have the marketing funds to ‘educate’ the public that for a third of us at least, just eating a couple of pieces of fruit may be what our body really needs, nor does the carrot industry inform us of the wonders of juicing their vegetable. Nuts might work well to break the fast for someone but they’ll think of them baked and denatured in a bar packed with hidden sugars, instead of raw and unadulterated.

How to listen to what you need to eat

Learning to listen just takes a little time and practice. If you already have some kind of routine or ritual in your life that gives you some time out for reflection, such a meditation it can be helpful. But even the mini-meditation before contemplating what food your body needs can be helpful. Put out of your mind what is going on around you, close your eyes and breathe deeply for ten slow, regular breaths. Letting go of all your preconceived notions, just ask your body what it really wants. Even if your body says “salad” and you can’t access raw vegetables in that space and time, acknowledge what you know your needs and make the next best choice, remembering to try to include the desired food at your next meal. Each time you practice this, it gets easier.

Maybe consider a food diary of what you acknowledge your body wants, what you end up eating and noting how it makes you feel. When you are able to source what you know you really need to consume, rather than what you think you want, how does it feel? What is your energy like? How do you feel emotionally?

My friend Lucy has described this process beautifully in her aptly titled blog “Nourish Me”. Recently she wrote of craving chicken soup, she rarely eats meat but after an arduous time moving house, that was what she craved.
For two weeks straight I dreamed of a rich, golden broth, beaded with tiny, shiny globules (such a descriptive word) of delicious, health-giving fat shimmering across the surface of a deep, never-ending, fragrant bowl. Chicken soup.
Check out her wonderful writing, photos and recipe forchicken stock, with a South East Asian bent

Instinct and science

The confusing thing about science is that for every new discovery, there is another piece of research that is likely to contradict it. A bit like the law of physics that states ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’. In naturopathy we have traditionally talked of food as medicine in terms of nourishment, demulcent (soothing), replenishing, revitalising or even the pseudo-scientific terminology of acid and alkaline food. But now this has been hijacked by talk of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods. My show a few months ago on superfoods discusses this the phenomena and unravels some of the contradictions. But I’d go further to say that although there is some great information at the heart of all this, often it is just advertising baffling us with science.

So that is why today I am talking about getting in touch with what your body needs. It’s called instinct. We are all born with it. The first time we are fed a new food (through breast milk, formula or solid foods) that our body does not like or is unsuitable, we spit it out. Babies vomit (though there can be other reasons for this as well), children shake their heads to avoid the spoon or if we’ve by-passed the first point of negation, the digestive system shoots it out the other end with haste. But over time, if our instincts are constantly over-ridden and we are forced to keep eating the food, we may possibly develop different reactions to it (such as eczema, asthma, allergic rhinitis, digestive problems etc).

For adults, using food as medicine is sometimes about unlearning, while we try to clear away the consequences of year of eating inappropriately for our individual body. Sometimes we need to uncouple using food as a treat or reward, learn to cook food differently but most of all just listen and respond instinctively.

Traditions, foods and healing

I love learning about food traditions from other cultures. Some traditional ways of eating are based on the energetics of food, considering them to be heating or cooling, stimulating or relaxing and connecting diet in these terms, with what your body needs in different states of health. Pregnancy, for example, often heralds a lot of superstitions or assertions of what women should and shouldn’t eat, such as avoiding watermelon or being told to drink lots of milk. For some cultures the watermelon is “too cooling” for the growing baby, in the West milk is recommended in the belief (that some consider misguided) it is to provide extra calcium for growing bones. Neither really considers what the individual may actually need at that time.

But the cultural or family associations we have with food can be very powerful. The soup or special dish your mother made for special occasions or when you were ill, may have greater powers than the ingredients themselves – provoking feelings of being cared for, loved and connected. This is powerful medicine, even at times when it contradicts the science of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for our body at that time.

Some foods that heal me

Keep in mind that we are all a different. Being a rather small, only moderately physically active woman, the foods the make my body feel nurtured may be the opposite of you.

Oats slowly cooked rolled oats in winter for a warming and satisfying breakfast or in summer a room temperature mix of oats soaked in rice milk with raw pistachio nuts and fresh fruit. This breakfast gets me through to a later lunchtime on a busy day in the clinic.

Stewed apples in winter, cooked with cinnamon and eaten warm.

Mango in summer, on hot days (it doesn’t taste right to me in cold weather). The taste and texture is luxurious, it’s like eating sweet sunshine.

Root vegetables for their sweetness -a fresh carrot juice in the warmer weather, baked pumpkins and beetroot, parsnips with spicy kidney beans.

Fish raw, steamed, baked, grilled – you name it, I love it. An easy to assimilate protein, energy without weighing me down.

Cherries every Christmas morning we’d wake to find a bowl of cherries beside the bed (sure there were sweets and a couple of small presents as well). Apart from their delicious flavour, they are my festive fruit reminding me of happy times in my family.

Water I used to be a camel, especially when travelling I could go most the day without fluid passing my lips. I thought I didn’t need it. Then when I bought an reverse osmosis water filter, water tasted “clean” and untainted again and I got my thirst reflex back.

What foods make you feel well?

Learning more

Language, emotion and food: the words we use to talk about food gives us clues as to the emotions behind how we choose to eat.

Annemarie Colbin’s, Food and Healing: a holistic philosophy about food as medicine, a site with some interesting articles and resources.

Nourish Me: lots of good eating ideas.

Confessions of a food nazi: simple, healthy food, recipes and thoughts about cooking.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful and informative post - thanks Gill!

Lucy said...

Ah, so much great info in here!

With no real, regular meditation practice of my own, I'm thinking that I need to set one up. Listening is hard at the best of times(no interruptions, total quietude) but as we rush headlong into the Festive Season (and all the rich, sugar-y naughtiness it entails) we do need to be mindful of our bodies needs.

You know, I'd never thought about the gifts we choose to give babies and new mums. Our 'treats' are drugs...good lord! Have you read the section of Holly Davis' 'Nourish' where she talks about home-birthing and the celebratory foods she prepares? About time that book had a reprint, I reckon.