Oriental Medicine (OM)–one of the oldest continuously practiced healing systems in the world–has a special perspective on crafting balanced meals. If you’re looking to prevent disease and stay well, the right mix of foods is crucial.
More sophisticated than the modern concept of protein-carb-fat ratios, OM seeks energetic balance both in yin-yang and in the framework of the five phases, pictured below:
Note the holistic design of this construct. Each phase has a direct connection with every other phase in the system.
Five-phase doctrine ascribes different tastes to each phase. There are likewise correspondences with each phase and various Organ Systems.
- sour Wood Liver/Gallbladder
- bitter Fire Heart/Small Intestine
- sweet Earth Spleen/Stomach
- pungent/spicy Metal Lung/Large Intestine
- salty Water Kidney/Urinary Bladder
It’s said that the balanced meal contains all five flavors. Quite a different paradigm for most of us, and sure to stimulate some thought if this concept consonates with us on some level and we seek to put theory into practice. Mainstream American culture is pretty solid on salty, sweet, and spicy (too solid on the sweet side, as evidenced by our obesity-Type 2 diabetes epidemic), but when was the last time you thought hmmm…i sure wish this meal had more bitterness to it! Unless you’re a cook &/or a practitioner of one of the modalities of traditional systems like OM or Ayurveda, probably not recently. I’ll tell you that I never knew of nor cared about such ideas for about the first half of my life!
Today we will focus on the bitter taste, since we are currently (at least in the Northern Hemisphere–but if someone is reading this in the wintry southern half of the globe, shout me out!) passing through the Fire phase of summer.
Now for those of you who are not fully sold on the theories of Oriental Medicine, consider the following:
> There is a line of thinking which states that plants evolved to produce bitter-tasting compounds as a means to thwart predators. Thus, we might argue that bitter foods make our systems less palatable to other organisms who would want to take up residence in our bodies–a situation correlating with many disease states
> It’s also known that bitter-tasting plant compounds termed alkaloids have therapeutic properties; in fact, there are pharmaceuticals used in cancer treatment which are derived from these. Alkaloids isolated from plants have also shown anti-parasitic activity in early stage studies (it is worth noting that 1) alkaloids can be toxic at a certain dosage, and 2) not all bitter compounds are alkaloids). It’s not unreasonable to extend this out somewhat and argue that exposing our systems to bitter compounds in right measure could have some protective effect against malignant growths and other disease states. The advantage of consuming both whole foods and medicinal herbs prescribed in traditional combinations is that the chemical compounds present therein can work synergistically with each other.
> Another line of thinking posits that we eat because on a subconscious, primitive, instinctive level our systems are seeking certain nutrients to maintain optimal functioning. In this day of highly processed, lowest-common-denominator foods as commonplace meals, our systems are not getting those complex mix of nutrients. And so we keep on eating and eating in search of those nutrients. The result is disease. Intelligently designing our meals to include all five flavors creates a meal with character and complexity; our bodies do not need so much quantity to operate efficiently.
Let the following list of bitter foods–with few exceptions, not too difficult to find–serve as a starting point for some additions to your meal program:
> for the above, you can simply slice a thin disk of the whole fruit after having thoroughly rinsed the skin and steep in hot water for a few minutes to extract both the sour and bitter compounds. Simply remove the rinds when you begin to sense the bitterness excessive for your taste. On a hot day, add some ice cubes to chill it down for a refreshing after-meal beverage. Or, you can squeeze the fresh juice from a lemon or lime wedge into a cup then throw the skin of that same wedge in and mix it for a few seconds before adding water or seltzer. Remove the rinds per the suggestion above.
Bitter melon–aka bitter gourd, ampalaya, kerala
Beer (varying with the amount and type of hops used; it’s on you to exercise discernment to determine the responsible dosage)
Romaine lettuce (personal note: especially the white parts closer to the root)
What would you add to the above list?
Now immediately the questions arise: how much of it should I consume? This is a challenging question to answer, especially when you consider there are different metabolic/constitutional types that require different system inputs for optimal functioning. I’ll suggest as a general rule that you should be able to clearly taste that bitterness–yet not to the point where the word overpowering appears in your mind as you dine–along with the other four flavors during your meal.
Now there are two different types of bitterness in foods that are not included in this discussion of a balanced meal: that which is present in extremely young fruits and that which appears after having been over-roasted, over-toasted, or burned. While these may have some therapeutic value in the right context, it is unwise to consume these types of foods regularly.
There is a maxim in the culture of OM: the superior physician treats the disease before it appears; the inferior physician treats disease when it hs already manifested–a clear emphasis on preventive wellness. It’s my hope that the above information helps you in your quest for health, wholeness, and fulfillment. See you down the road, J*
Copyright (c) 2019 Justin Jaucian