Cooked vs Raw Foods – TCM Perspective

Ever wondered why Chinese people prefer to eat cooked food, drink warm water, and talk about how raw salad, fruit and juice are too ‘cold’ and not good for digestion?

The answer lies with better understanding how digestion works from a Chinese medicine perspective. Chinese Medicine sees life as a series of warm transformations – the underlying philosophy of Daoism where change and transformation are natural processes that, given the right environment, will happen on their own (ziran – nature, zi-oneself, ran-correct). The process of digestion is seen in the same light. Give the body proper food and liquid, a proper environment and there will be abundant Qi and Blood. The Stomach is viewed as a pot that needs to ‘cook’ the food in order to extract the nutrients (separate the clear from the turbid).  The ability to transform food into useable nutrients for the cells is dependent on the ‘digestive fire’ to ‘cook’ the foods to ensure this transformation is completed.

Imagine cooking a pot (Stomach) of porridge. If the digestive fire under the pot is weak this will result in watery and uncooked porridge – incomplete transformations and what we call ‘dampness’. If, on the other hand, there has been an overuse of stimulants and the fire was excessive, this would boil away the water-essence and lead to burnt and dry porridge – similar to the heat and dryness that we call ‘yin deficiency’ in Chinese medicine. The idea here is to get the combination of ingredients, water and fire just right so that this process works at the highest level of efficiency – perfect porridge!

Now you can see why the Chinese believe the catalyst for digestive transformation is heat and warmth. We are indeed warm-blooded creatures and optimal digestion occurs at a slightly higher temperature than body temperature 36.7°C. For this reason, most of the people, most of the time should eat mostly cooked and warming foods. This is also partly due to ‘civilized life’ where we do far less physical activity and more mental processing than our body was designed for – the energy is in our head rather than our digestive organs – the fire rises upwards, rather than staying down below where it should be fueling the furnace under the pot, down in the kidneys. If excessive amounts of cold or raw foods are eaten, the body has to waste valuable energy raising the temperature of the food to allow the digestive processes to work. Prolonged or excessive use of chilled or raw food weakens the ‘digestive fire’. In the West, nutritional information (about protein, fat, minerals, vitamins etc) is obtained in a laboratory by analysing foods, separating them into their basic ingredients in a test tube, before they enter the body. In the East, food is described as acting on the body in a certain way (warming, cooling, salty, sour etc), by observing the energetic action inside the human body and the behaviour of the body after a food has been consumed. The Chinese way of seeing the process of digestion is seen not so much in terms of gross revenue (raw nutrients) but much more about net profit (Qi and Blood).

Straight Bamboo’s thoughts:

  1. Think about your grandparents and your own culture, how many ‘cooked’ meals were on the table each day? Did they have a coffee for breakfast and a sandwich on the go for lunch?
  2. Refrigeration, ice cream and juices are relatively new phenomena and have not yet passed the test of time. Maybe best to stick to slow cooked grains, stir-fried vegetables with small amounts of meat and bone with root vegetable soups til then!
  3. Raw foods do have their place in Chinese Medicine, it is generally cleansing and cooling and suits those with an excess and hot constitution, particularly in summer. In my experience, these types are extremely active, extraverted and generally male. Eat raw salads and cold dishes (especially in summer) as part of the meal, not entirely raw salad meals!
  4. Think about the Chinese word 脾气 pi qi – Spleen energy), which means ‘temperament’ or ‘disposition’. The strength of our digestive function and how we feel emotionally are intimately linked in TCM.
  5. There is generally no need to look to exotic foods to generate healing: the diet appropriate for each of us is largely available where we live. Simple cooked grains, cooked seasonal vegetables with a small amount of meat and spices for enjoyment will generally keep you out of trouble
  6. Too much fluid consumed with food dilutes the digestive juices and impairs the digestion. However, too little fluid makes the Stomach dry and unable to ‘cook’ the food. Avoid drinking a big glass of cold water with or after a meal, but sipping a small amount of tea, or even better, a light soup with a meal is a wonderful way to ensure correct balance is attained.
  7. Moderate exercise (walking best) is beneficial to digestion as it is what humans are designed to do however, excessive exercise that gets the heart racing can consume Qi and blood, so balance here is the key – be active, look at eastern exercises like Tai Chi, Qi Gong or yoga – more about balance and longevity than burning calories.
  8. When I talk to patients that eat ‘no meat and lots of fruit and vegetables’ I find they eat a lot of fruit and raw salads but not so many cooked vegetables. This can lead to a pale complexion, tiredness and a weak ‘digestive fire’. My tip is to follow the Asian way here and lots of cooked vegetables (warm), less fruit (cool) – and follow the seasons.
  9. Don’t believe me or not believe me, try it for yourself – eat fruit and salad all day for a few days and examine stools – if it becomes irregular (loose or constipation) or you see undigested food then your digestion is not working as well as it should be.
  10. Remember that our bodies want to be healthy and if we become unwell we are simply not choosing the right environment for that to happen. Information + motivation + choices = healthier and happier life

Alex Tan is a TCM practitioner and educator at The Hutong and Kocoon Spa Lounge. Contact him at [email protected]