Back in the days when I was a body- builder, I thought about nutrition as if my body were a race car or something like that. My muscles were like the engine, and they needed high-quality fuel to move me around. I needed protein and vitamins to repair broken-down parts. I stayed away from sugar because it just made me too heavy. I thought I was doing a pretty good job because "I looked good."
Chinese nutrition is far more complex than that. Every food my teacher puts into his mouth has some medicinal benefit. Green onion for this and ginger for that and squash does this and broccoli does that. Always onion "for your health."
Americans eat what tastes good.
Chinese eat for their health.
I see some pretty weird stuff when I'm with him. "Chicken feet is good for your skin; eat it." The last time I saw him, Sifu (which means "teacher") had boiled eggs in a strange mixture of herbs and let them sit for days, turning the eggshells a strange green color. When I asked, his girlfriend said they were "female herbs eggs," meaning for menstruation.
I was way over my head to write a blog about Chinese herbs, so I called my friend Holly Sparks in Tuscon to help me. Holly says that what's first important is that Chinese herbs are taken to correct syndromes instead of symptoms. Women in the west with hot flashes might take black cohosh to help with that symptom. But Holly says menopause is the syndrome that requires a delicate balance of herbs, carefully measured out for potency.
Typically, a Chinese doctor will assess a patient by listening to three organs on each wrist (sort of like taking a pulse); checking the tongue, smelling the patient, and asking questions about their temperature, cravings, and lifestyle.
Cravings for salt have to do with the kidney. Sour has to do with the liver; sweet has to do with the spleen (or pancreas); bitter has to do with the heart; and I've never heard of a craving for metallic food, but those have to do with the lungs.
Ginseng is one of the great power-herbs of the earth. Westerners consider the carrot to be very nutritious, and yet it only grows in temperate climates with good soil and lots of water.