Does Chinese medicine support the paleo diet?
I think most people imagine not. The contemporary Chinese diet emphasizes the importance of ‘fan’, or staple foods such as wheat and rice. These are thought to have a neutral energetic (being neither cooling or warming) which balances the other elements of the meal – such as cai (vegetable dishes) and any proteins such as meat or fish. The typical proportions would be around half a plate of grains or root vegetables, around another half of a variety of vegetables with the rest being ‘wei’ food; wei is ‘taste’. Wei foods are said to have a dense taste and to be rich and nourishing, such as fish, meat, organ foods, egg, oils and fats and dairy products. Certainly the average Chinese takeaway meal is a high-carb, insulin spiking nightmare. Anyone who has read T. Colin Campbell’s book, “The China Study”, will have come away thinking that any benefits the Chinese diet may have are because it is an almost vegan, plant-based diet; and therefore highly rich in carbohydrates. This view-point has been aggressively debunked by Denise Minger.
Yet Chinese medicine is abundantly clear in its support of the value of animal protein in the diet and it was a doctor of Chinese medicine who persuaded me to give up vegetarianism (despite a solid 12 year commitment). I embraced a Chinese style diet with moderate protein, high vegetable content with plenty of low-glycaemic carbohydrates (much the same as the popular Mediterranean diet) I was doing what conventional wisdom advises but was gaining more weight year by year.
Then earlier this year I read, “How to Regulate Yin and Yang through Diet”, by “Peter Torssell” in the Journal of Chinese Medicine, issue no 94, October 2010 (I know, it took me a while to get around to reading it), which compared different dietary models from a Chinese dietetics perspective. One of these was a paleo diet composed of “one part varied vegetables to one part animal wei foods such as meat and fish”, which was suggested to have the following benefits: to reduce damp-phlegm, damp-heat (if hot spices, fried foods and alcohol are avoided), strengthen yang, especially Spleen yang. According to the author – “Dampness is yin and retards the circulation of qi, creating turbid stagnation, disrupting the function of the Spleen and making it difficult to produce clear yin. By adding spices, which are very much qi (and light) in comparison to wei foods, the circulation of qi is stimulated, which counteracts dampness and creates a better atmosphere for yin to be nourished by the cooling and moistening vegetables.” He suggests that this model of eating can be further adapted to tonifying yin by eating a low-carb high- fat, or ketogenic diet.
The roots of this dietary approach lie in evolutionary biology, anthropology, and so on. The theory goes that we evolved over millions of years and evolved to eat a hunter-gatherer style diet. Whilst this would have varied in different geographical locations and time periods it would have been uniform in not containing grains and legumes in any appreciable quantities. It certainly wouldn’t have contained any industrially processed foods such as vegetable oils, sugar, low-fat products or any of the chemicals added to processed foods. Food wouldn’t have had traces of pesticides, hormones, growth-promoters or the like.
I read more books on this dietary style; “The Paleo Solution”, by Robb Wolf; “The New Evolution Diet”, by Prof Art DeVany; “The Primal Blueprint”, by Mark Sissons and many more. Having embarked upon this ancestral health diet/lifeway I have had numerous health benefits. I’ve dropped 2 trouser sizes, I’m not hungry all the time, I don’t get the afternoon blahs, I can think clearer and don’t get brain fog anymore. From the Chinese medical perspective my Spleen Qi and Yang are much stronger, my stomach is harmonized, I get less Liver Qi stagnation, and more.
But what about the Chinese veneration of fan (staples)? It seems that classical Chinese thought was, as is so often the case, way ahead of us. According to qigong master and China scholar Kenneth S. Cohen, most of the ancient writings on “qigong diet” advise the avoidance of grains. Qigong is the ancient Chinese practice of cultivating energy qi (energy). There are three main energy centres in qigong theory: the third eye, the chest/heart and the lower abdomen. These centres are dantiens; elixir or cinnabar fields; terms taken from Chinese alchemy. In his book, “The Way of Qigong”, Cohen writes, “According to Daoist mythology, the three dantiens……are infested by three worms. These worms live on the impure breaths (qi) created by immoral behaviour, putrid food, and the Five Cereals, which are the basis of Chinese cuisine: rice, millet, wheat, oats and beans”. Cohen goes on to quote a Daoist text (1), “The Five Cereals are scissors that cut off life, they rot the five internal organs, they shorten life”. However, Cohen does point out that some of the same Daoist sects required “five pecks of rice” for joining them, suggesting that they were advocating carbohydrate restriction rather than complete abstention.
A paleo-diet is not necessarily low-carb but rather puts its focus on the quality of foods, and allows macro nutrient ratios to suit individual needs and health conditions. Individuals with Type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity and so on would generally be better with carbs in the range of 50 to 100g per day. Most of these would come from non-starchy vegetables and a little fruit. Insulin sensitive individuals with good body composition and an active lifestyle might do better with higher levels of carbohydrates such as sweet potato, potato, and white rice. According to Mark Sissons, keeping in the 50 to 100g per day of carbohydrates, “Minimizes insulin production and ramps up fat metabolism. By meeting average daily protein requirements (.7 – 1 gram per pound of lean bodyweight formula), eating nutritious vegetables and fruits (easy to stay in 50-100 gram range, even with generous servings), and staying satisfied with delicious high fat foods (meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds), you can lose one to two pounds of body fat per week and then keep it off forever by eating in the maintenance range.”
Grains and legumes are problematic because they irritate the bowel, block mineral absorption, provoke the immune system and generally wreak havoc with our body; there is ample evidence mounting to support this. All grains are quickly converted to glucose in the bloodstream, whether they are so called ‘safe’ carbs or not, and so are best not over-consumed, especially by insulin-resistant people.
In conclusion, Chinese medicine does support the use of a low-carb paleo diet. We have seen there have been proponents of this approach of avoiding grains and limiting carbohydrate consumption both in antiquity and in modern times.
(1) Da-yu Jing, in Henri Maspers, ‘Taoism and Chinese Religion’ ( Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press 1981, p. 333).