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Complementary Corner

Traditional Chinese Medicine’s View on Sugar
Part 2

Renee Lehman

(3/2012) This is the 2nd of 3 articles discussing sugar usage in America. Last month’s article dealt with the amount of sugar that Americans consume and its effects on the body. Next month’s article will deal with hidden sugar in foods, and alternative sweeteners. This month deals with Traditional Chinese Medicine’s view of sweets. To understand this viewpoint, one must understand the Five Elements (Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal).

Review of the Five Elements

These Elements or energies are felt to be the prime energetic building blocks from which everything in the material world is composed. So, every living thing and every person is a unique embodiment and combination of these Five Elements. Therefore, when it comes to our health, if all Five Elements are in balance within us, then we are at a state of optimal health/wellness. Each element has associations that correspond with them (the organs and a taste, just to name two).

The Five Tastes

The five tastes are spicy, salty, sour, bitter, and sweet, and can be used to predict the effects they will have on the body. For example, Spicy will have a warming action (onion and cayenne pepper), and will affect the Lung and Large Intestines; Salty will have a cooling action and hold fluids in the body (kelp and soy sauce), and will affect the Kidneys and Bladder; Sour will have a cooling action (grapefruit and olives), and affect the Liver and Gallbladder; Bitter will tend to drain heat and cool (rhubarb and bitter greens), and affect the Heart and Small Intestines; and Sweet will be nourishing or warm and nourishing (meat, legumes, nuts, and dairy products) or can have a cooling action (fruits, sugar, honey and other sweeteners), and affect the Spleen and Stomach. Finally, many foods belong to more than one of the five tastes, for example, cheese can be viewed as being both sour and sweet.

The Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) viewpoint of "balanced eating" is a diet which includes all of the five tastes. A balanced "taste" in your diet will be helpful for the organ functioning on a body/mind/spirit level. If a "taste" is craved, or consumed too often, then the opposite effect will happen – there will be a weakening effect of the organ functioning on a body/mind/spirit level. A great example of this is seen with the over-consumption of the sweet taste. Too much ingestion of "sweet" will weaken the digestive system. In ancient Chinese medicine texts, the taste of sweet was associated with whole foods like rice, grains, dates, and fruits. Today, the sweet taste is also associated with various sweeteners.

Actions of the Sweet Taste (TCM vs. Western viewpoint)

According to TCM, the sweet taste:

  1. Enters the Spleen/Pancreas and Stomach, vs. in the Western viewpoint, sugar activates insulin production by the Pancreas.
  2. Causes energy to rise and disperse (warm), vs. in the Western viewpoint, sugar dilates blood vessels, causing the blood to move to the periphery of the body.
  3. Harmonizes the body, vs. in the Western viewpoint, balanced blood sugar levels maximize tryptophan (an amino acid) to the brain which will decrease insomnia, depression, and pain.
  4. Removes coldness and nourishes the body, vs. in the Western viewpoint, sugar metabolism promotes warmth, and is fuel for the bodily functions.
  5. Lubricates dryness in the mouth, throat, and lungs, vs. in the Western viewpoint, the most effective cough syrups/drops, and throat lozenges are traditionally made in a sweet base.
  6. In excess it makes the bones ache, vs. in the Western viewpoint, excess sweet food slows down calcium metabolism and causes bone loss and arthritis.
  7. In excess it makes head hair fall out, in the Western viewpoint, excess sweet food acidifies the blood, and depletes the body of minerals – which can cause hair and other problems.

(Pitchford, P., Healing with Whole Foods, 2002)

What is the difference between the two viewpoints? If you said nothing, you are correct! It is just explained using different terminology. So, how can the sweet taste be used?

Sources and Uses of Sweet

The best source of the sweet taste in a person’s diet is whole foods, especially vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes. For example, apples, bamboo shoots, tofu, beets, cabbage (savoy), carrots, celery, cherries, cinnamon, coconut, corn, cucumbers, dates, figs, grapes, grapefruit, honey, kidney beans, lettuce, mango, mung beans, papaya, peaches, peanuts, pears, pumpkin, rice, squash, strawberries, string beans, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, walnuts, and watermelon are all good sources of the sweet taste. If you begin to eat these whole foods, your "cravings" for something really sweet will gradually fade. Also, if craving for sweets occur, try eating something sour, or spicy to decrease the craving.

The sweet taste can be used to warm and nourish an individual who is "cold" or "deficient", and someone who is nervous, thin, weak, or scattered. However, a sluggish, overweight person, or an individual with bloating, regular sinus drainage/phlegm, who easily retains fluids should consume the sweet taste sparingly (Pitchford, P., Healing with Whole Foods, 2002).

Balanced Eating:

In an effort to eat in a more balanced way, consider some of the following recommendations:

  1. Eat whole foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed foods).
  2. Reduce the intake of sugar (including juices, soda, sweets, and ingredients such as glucose, sucrose, and high fructose corn syrup).
  3. Eat more fiber (will happen if you eat a plant based and whole food diet).
  4. Eat foods of all colors (red, yellow, white, blue, and green).
  5. Drink room temperature water when you are thirsty. Drink warm tea after meals.
  6. Eat until you are 70% full to place less stress on your digestive system.
  7. Eat slowly and mindfully. The digestive system doesn’t like to be "rushed."
  8. Chew food thoroughly (much of digestion starts in the mouth).
  9. Eat the larger meals of the day in the morning or at lunchtime. Avoid eating late, or 2 hours before bedtime.
  10. Eat all foods in moderation (keep some variety in your meals – if you notice eating a certain food or a certain taste more often, try something different). The key to healthy nutrition is to maintain a balanced diet.

Renee Lehman is a licensed acupuncturist, physical therapist, and Reiki Master with over 20 years of health care experience. Her office is located at 249B York Street in Gettysburg, PA.  She can be reached at 717-752-5728.

Read other article on well being by Renee Lehman