According to the most common view in America, being over-weight is a result of overeating, and those who are overweight are frequently said to be overnourished. This view suggests that people who are overweight are greedily overeating at every meal, and that the only way to control weight gain is to carefully monitor the amount of food one is eating. This view reflects the traditional western view of humans as basically sinful, paints the body as an unruly beast that must be disciplined severely “for its own good,” and depicts human life as a struggle against nature.
In the Orient it is thought that humans are basically righteous, that greed is unnatural, that wellbeing is natural, that a natural way of life is nearly effortless, and that disease reflects failure to properly nourish human nature. Thus, from the perspective of traditional Oriental medicine, overweight results from failure to provide proper nourishment for human life. According to this view, those who are overweight are misguided and malnourished, rather than greedy and overnourished. Therefore, rather than have the goal of losing weight, it is more appropriate to learn how to properly nourish life.
It does not require constant self-control to provide proper nourishment for life. On the contrary, providing oneself with proper nourishment is a pleasure once one understands and embraces one’s true human nature and the foods that best nourish it. And when one understands how to properly nourish human life, one can eat one’s fill, without accumulating excess weight.
Matter and Energy
In traditional Oriental thought, Water and Fire are symbols of the two fundamental aspects of nature. Today we refer to these two aspects as matter (water) and energy (fire). The idea that these are two aspects of nature is a bit misleading; in actuality, matter and energy are one in the same: matter is condensed energy and energy is dispersed matter. Matter has weight and inertia, while energy is insubstantial and transforming or moving. Every thing is a form of matter/energy.
In living beings, matter/energy moves and transforms; when the movement stops, life ends. Therefore, in living beings, energy predominates over matter. From this perspective, we can speak of life as a fire. What feeds this fire? Food. Food is the fuel that keeps the fire of life burning. Now, those who are overweight generally are relatively inactive; that is, they have an accumulation of matter, along with a stagnation of energy. The accumulation of matter and stagnation of energy are one and the same thing. According to traditional Oriental medicine, stagnation of matter/energy flow is the “cause” of all disease. Since this stagnation is pronounced in those who are overweight, obesity is associated with the development of degenerative disease. It should be noted that being overweight is not the only condition wherein there is stagnation. Stagnation of matter/energy flow can also occur readily in those who are underweight or emotionally distraught, just as a river will stop flowing if it is either depleted of water or frustrated by a dam. According to traditional Oriental medicine, in the case of being overweight, the stagnation and/or accumulation of matter/energy is a result of heaping inappropriate fuel upon the delicate fire of life.
Food and the Fire
In traditional Oriental medicine, being overweight is seen as accumulation or condensation of Dampness and/or Phlegm. How does this accumulation occur? As we have noted, it is fire that consumes matter. Food is matter, and our digestive system is a fire that transforms this matter into energy. If the digestive fire is weak, food is incompletely burned and the residue accumulates; the result is fatigue and becoming overweight. On the other hand, if the digestive fire is strong, then it will be capable of transforming large amounts of appropriate food into an abundance of energy.
According to traditional Oriental thought, there are sexual differences in the strength of the digestive fire. In general, men are more like fire, more energetic, and women are more like water, more material. (In the west, this understanding is embedded in our language: the words “matter” and “mother” are derived from the same root, mater.) Consequently, if given inappropriate foods for the fire, women are more susceptible to becoming overweight.
Appetite is the measure of the strength of the digestive fire. Healthy thin people generally have very strong appetites. Many people think that the key to losing weight is to reduce or subdue one’s appetite. However, from the traditional Oriental perspective, reducing or subduing one’s appetite means reducing or subduing the digestive fire, which will in the long term lead to even greater gain of weight. It is the fire that burns up accumulated matter. Therefore, proper treatment of being overweight involves increasing, not suppressing, the appetite. Hence, proper foods for life are those that make the appetite stronger.
How do we increase the strength of the digestive fire? Fires burn more strongly, cleanly, and without residue when they are given proper fuels. Take a bonfire for example. Bonfires burn very well, brightly, and long when they are given dry and dense fuel, such as well cured hardwood. On the other hand, there are a number of poor fuels for fires. For example, oil, grease, and fat burn very poorly, leave a lot of residue, and release noxious fumes. Cold, wet, green wood also burns very poorly. If you want to have a strong bonfire, you will not burden it with oil, grease, fat, or anything cold or wet.
Foods That Burden The Fire
If we apply this knowledge to digestion, it becomes clear what foods will burden the digestive fire, and what foods will stoke it. Oil, fatty or greasy foods, and other very dense foods (including flesh foods) do not burn cleanly. Since these sorts of foods are the staples of many Americans, male and female, obesity and related illnesses such as diabetes, heart and artery disease, stroke, and cancer are common American ailments. However, many vegetarian foods are just as Damp. Included in this class are excessive quantities of vegetable oils, soy products, nuts, and seeds. While it is necessary to take some good quality vegetable oil every day, one should also keep in mind that tofu is 50 percent fat, seeds and nuts range from 70 to 90 percent fat, and oil is 100 percent fat.
Cold and wet foods, and excessive liquids, have the effect of drowning the fire. Cold and or wet foods include those with a cold and/or wet character such as liquids, tomatoes, raw fruits and salads – and those with a cold temperature – such as iced tea, soft drinks, ice cream, frozen yogurt, and raw salads.
According to Oriental medicine, all very sweet foods – including dried cane juice, white or brown sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup, and fruit sweeteners – overwhelm the metabolic fire and generate internal dampness when overconsumed. All of these are Damp foods to begin with. Fructose, or fruit sugar, is the sweetest of all sugars, and forms a significant part of all of these sweeteners. Western research has confirmed the Oriental view, showing that overconsumption of fructose, even if the source is fruit or juice, will stimulate fat production and increase levels of fat and cholesterol in the blood.
Overconsumption of dairy foods, all of which, including low-fat varieties, have a Damp quality, is particularly harmful to the digestive fire. In addition, they are strong bodybuilding foods, designed to promote growth in calves (again, this includes low-fat varieties); that’s why nature gives them to the newborn of those species. Frozen dairy foods, even the low-fat varieties, compound the problem. Since they are both Damp and very Cold, as well as growth promoters, they increase damp, burden the metabolic fire, and add “baby fat.”
Those who are attempting to lose weight or maintain a thin figure commonly believe that the best way is to eat a low-calorie diet composed of a lot of raw and some cooked vegetables (with perhaps a bit of fruit and little else). From the perspective of Oriental medicine, this is another regime that actually can lead to increased weight gain. In fact, overconsumption of vegetables can cause weight gain, in spite of the “fact” that vegetables are low in calories.
Raw vegetables, and even excessive quantities of cooked vegetables, affect the body’s fire in the same way that fresh green, unseasoned wood affects a bonfire. Wet, raw, green wood smothers bonfires. Raw green vegetables smother the human digestive fire as surely as raw green wood smothers a bonfire. Those who pursue the raw vegetable approach to weight loss generally find that at some point they stop losing or even start gaining weight even though they are eating nothing but raw salads and fruits. Having depressed their fire, even small quantities of low calorie food begin to accumulate. To reverse this situation, one must get some really good, dry and clean burning fuel on the fire. Remember, it is the metabolic fire that burns off the excess so we want it burning very strong.
Foods That Stoke The Fire
Whole grains are like good dry firewood – the very best foods for stoking a clean and bright-burning digestive fire. Like good dry hardwoods, whole grains are relatively dry and light, and yet substantial and energy-rich. Contrary to the common expectation, even among natural foods enthusiasts, those who wish to maintain a fit body/mind can and should eat large portions of grain food – even bread or pasta, if that is what you like – at every meal. Without sufficient grain fuel, the fire will become weak, and the energy of the body/mind will condense and accumulate as excess matter (fat). Further, eating plenty of grains prevents hunger and gives plenty of energy. This is important because hunger and lack of energy lead to bingeing on the sugar and fat laden, that is, filling and energy dense foods that are the undereater’s downfall.
Studies at Harvard’s School of Public Health have confirmed the view that increasing one’s consumption of grain can make it possible to lose weight without dieting and willfully suppressing hunger. In two studies, subjects lost weight by increasing their intake of bread. In one study, volunteers lost an average of nine pounds in 10 weeks when fed eight slices of bread per day and given free choice of other foods. In a second study, one group of volunteers lost an average of 14 pounds and another group lost an average of 19 pounds by eating 12 slices of high-fiber bread daily.
From the Oriental perspective, the subjects lost weight because the generous daily grain allowance strengthened the metabolic fire and at the same time reduced the intake of the fattier and oilier foods that both harm the fire and generate internal dampness. It is noteworthy that this effect occurred in spite of the fact that Oriental medicine considers wheat bread to be more cool, damp, and bodybuilding than other kinds of grain food. Had the subjects eaten other grain foods – for example rice, buckwheat, and corn are thought to drain Damp – the weight loss may have been greater.
While raw vegetables and fruits are cold and damp and can smother the fire, cooked sweet vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, and winter squash, are very beneficial. According to traditional Oriental medicine, these vegetables improve the functioning of the digestive system and augment the basic energy, or qi, of our body/mind. They are second only to grains as preferred fuel for the body/mind fire. However, it is important not to overconsume these sweet vegetables, since this can lead to bloating, burping, and indigestion.
There are many culinary herbs that can help stoke the fire. In particular, garlic, ginger, scallions, horseradish, mustard, sage, thyme, and small amounts of red pepper can be used sensibly by those wishing to lose weight. According to Oriental herbology, these herbs will increase metabolic rate, improve appetite and digestion, and help melt away the pounds with their fire-like energy.
According to Oriental medicine, digestion begins with turning foods into a 100 degree soup in the stomach. If we chew very well, we facilitate this process. Besides chewing food well, taking a portion of one’s food as a cup of warm soup at the main meal, preferably lunch, will facilitate this process, enhance digestion, and thus improve metabolism. Western research has shown that people who regularly use soup as an integral part of meals are more likely to be at their optimal weight.
Draining the Damp
Stoking the fire properly is only one side of the equation. As noted, excess weight is an accumulation of Dampness and Phlegm. How do we get rid of this dampness? Stoking the metabolic fire helps. As the fire burns stronger, it will steam off the excess water and fat. However, there are foods that act very strongly to drain dampness from the body/mind. Foremost among these are legumes, which generally have the property of assisting the Kidneys in draining dampness and thereby indirectly improving the digestive fire. Other than soybeans and peanuts (these are more fat-rich, filling and building foods), almost any legume will do the job: kidney beans, black turtle beans, mung beans, lentils, aduki beans, and so on.
Green leafy vegetables are very important for assisting the eliminative functions of the body/mind. The Liver is the organ responsible for metabolizing and excreting fat. Green leafy vegetables provide the nutrients the Liver needs to detoxify and discharge fat. In fact, when stored fat is metabolized, certain toxins are released into circulation. Vegetables provide the nourishment that is needed in order to protect ourselves from autointoxication from these by-products of fat metabolism. Therefore, they are a very important part of proper nourishment for life – daily food, indeed.
However, it is not wise to use overly large quantities of these valuable foods. Even if they are cooked, they have a relatively cool energy, that is, they tend to depress the digestive and metabolic fires. If you want the garbage to be taken out, you have to pay the garbage man well, otherwise, he goes on strike. Just so, if you starve yourself by eating a diet composed mostly of low energy foods like green leafy vegetables, you will not have the energy that is needed in order to remove the excess baggage from your body/mind.
According to traditional Oriental medicine, one of the most common habits leading to overweight is the skipping of breakfast. The digestive system is most capable of receiving and transforming food into energy between the hours of seven and eleven a.m. Food that is eaten at early breakfasts and noontime lunches becomes energy, rather than accumulating as matter. On the other hand, in the evening, around five p.m., the storage energy of the Kidneys kicks in. Food consumed after five is more likely to be stored as matter, rather than being transformed into energy. Those who skip breakfast, running part of their day on empty, generally find themselves ravenous at the end of the day, precisely when whatever they eat is most likely to be stored, rather than transformed into energy. Therefore, skipping breakfast is probably the best way to gain excess weight and experience constant fatigue.
Western researchers have found that if people are fed 2000 calories in the morning meal, they will not gain weight, but if they are fed the same amount of food in the evening, they will gain weight, even if their calculated energy expenditure actually exceeds the calorie value of the meal. Other research has found that breakfast eaters have lower cholesterol levels, even if their breakfasts are high in cholesterol. This shows that food consumed in the morning hours is less likely than the evening meal to become accumulated Dampness or Phlegm. Research has also shown that people who eat a morning breakfast consistently outperform those who skip breakfast, showing that morning meals easily become energy to fuel the body/mind, rather than matter to burden it.
In order to keep a fire burning well and brightly, it is also very important to feed it fuel at regular intervals. If one waits too long, until the fire is in embers, it will take an effort to revive it. If it has become weak from under feeding, any fuel thrown into fire will fail to burn, and instead will accumulate as partially burned matter. On the other hand, if one puts too much fuel upon it at one time, or over a period of time, that also will cause it to weaken and perhaps even die. Again the matter will accumulate. Eating snacks is not advised, as this overworks the digestive system and causes food to accumulate.
Therefore, for weight loss it is very important to establish and maintain regularly scheduled meals. It is recommended that one eat well before one is empty (and ravenous), and then only to the point of being moderately full. The best schedule is to eat a good size breakfast between seven and nine a.m., a large meal between noon and three p.m., and to skip supper or only have a light snack before 6 p.m.
Diets Don’t Work
It is worth emphasizing again that “dieting”, i.e., restriction of food intake, is not an appropriate way to treat being overweight. Like all fires, the digestive and metabolic fires of the body/mind need a regular supply of sufficient fuel in order to remain aflame. A fire without proper and sufficient fuel cannot burn strongly. Therefore, restriction of food intake will cause the digestive and metabolic fires to become weaker, and prolonged dieting will cause these fires to entirely die out. Thus, as many dieters know, dieting rarely leads to permanent loss of weight, and often leads to gain of weight. The more one diets, the weaker the fire gets. With a weaker fire, whatever little bit of food that is eaten is not transformed to energy, and the more it accumulates as fat and water. In short, according to traditional Oriental medicine, obesity cannot be treated by reducing food intake.
The Myth of Overeating
It is important to understand that overweight is not caused by overeating. Very few people, overweight or not, actually sit down and overstuff themselves at every meal. Although it is common to believe that overweight people are overeaters, I have not found this to be the case. Indeed, these are often the people who try most diligently to “control” their appetite, eat tiny volumes of food, are hungry a lot, and live with constant feelings of self-deprivation. Then they binge!
In my experience, any attempt to “control” one’s appetite is fighting a losing battle. In fact, if one deliberately reduces food volume, one begins to be hungry, and consequently appetite naturally increases to abnormal levels. In other words, overcontrolled undereating – the diet – leads almost inevitably to uncontrollable overeating – the binge. I have found that this sort of overeating-in-reaction-to-undereating is a common problem among those who are overweight. In providing nourishment for life, it is very important to eat well. Undereating is an attempt to force an issue against nature. Your appetite is natural and no one can win that kind of battle.
This natural cycle works the other way as well. There is a definite limit to genuine overeating (taking too much volume of food). If one eats too much, the digestive fire becomes weaker, the appetite is reduced, and food intake goes down. Genuine overeating leads to fasting (or, in bulimics, to purging). For example, when people eat large volumes of rich food at holiday feasts, they generally just don’t feel like eating much for the next few days. It just is not possible to constantly overeat in that way.
Overweight people should not try to “control” the volume of food that they eat. Instead, they should choose the foods that properly nourish life, chew well, and eat all that they want. Eating more is associated with weighing less so long as the more that is eaten is appropriate food for the fire. For example, in another study at the Harvard School of Public Health, researchers discovered that slender nurses consumed more calories but less fat than the obese nurses, who consumed fewer calories but more fat. Carbohydrate is clean burning energy, but fat is the damp matter that burdens the fire and accumulates around the hips.
Fanning The Fire
In the treatment of obesity, the importance of aerobic and breathing exercises can’t be overemphasized. Just as adding oxygen to a fire will cause it to flame brighter, so breathing deeper will cause the inner fire to burn brighter and stronger as in yoga-style breathing exercises, and aerobic exercise like gardening, walking or jogging. Also, according to Oriental medicine, movement of the limbs itself strengthens the inner fires. Western research has found that active people have a higher rate of resting metabolism . Their fire burns stronger all of the time.
Fire ‘Em Up!
In short, the way to successfully lose excess weight is to increase the inner fire and drain the excess dampness. This is to be accomplished by choosing foods that build the metabolic fire, melt Phlegm, and drain Dampness; avoiding foods that burden the fire and increase Dampness, and engaging in aerobic and breathing exercises. Just as dry and light but substantial hardwood and good ventilation will stoke a strong and long burning bonfire, dry and light, but energy-rich foods and deep ventilation of the lungs will stoke a strong and long burning metabolism.
When we eat in harmony with nature, we realize our own true nature including our natural weight. Proper nourishment for life will not turn every obese person into Twiggy. In fact, underweight is as much of a problem as overweight. However, the traditional Oriental way of nourishing life will help anyone regain or maintain his or her ideal natural weight, almost effortlessly.
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Author bio-statement: Don Matesz lives with his wife Rachel in Seattle, Washington where they offer macrobiotic education services.