Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda (an ancient practice from India) are two kinds of Eastern medicine that specifically deal with how energy–both physical and emotional–is affected by the food you consume. Let’s take a closer look at both of these practices, specifically in terms of how food affects your emotions. Think of it, not as emotional eating, but as eating to assist your emotions instead of to block them.
In traditional Eastern medicine, good health is viewed through the balance or flow of energy within the body. Whether you’re working with acupuncture, Reiki, Tai Chi, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), or Ayurvedic – they all center around this greater concept. These practices focus on the belief that a block, or imbalance in this energy, is what leads to dysfunction and illness.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
In Chinese Eastern medicine, food is viewed as medicinal because it’s able to nourish the body, mind, and spirit. In a nutshell, the Chinese deeply believe that “you are what you eat.” They believe that perfect harmony (with no need for supplementary medicine) can be achieved by aligning your dietary habits with the environment around you. For example, eating whole, seasonal foods with little processing. This is because nature knows how to provide humans with optimal nutrition.
But TCM also attributes specific emotions to each organ system:
- The liver to anger
- The lungs to grief and sadness
- The heart to agitation and insomnia
- The kidneys to fear
- The spleen/pancreas to anxiety and worry1
And the foods that you eat can have a direct impact on these organs and their related emotions.
For example, cold, damp foods or those that are overly refined may cause imbalances in the flow of chi energy to your spleen and pancreas. This can show up as stress, anxiety, brain fog, or even spaciness. So, according to TCM, this means if you’ve been feeling foggy or anxious, you might try to eat more foods on the opposite end of the spectrum – those that are warmer or spicier.2
Cold foods veer toward fruits and salads, tomatoes, eggplants, tofu, and dairy products. Warm and hot foods include rice, oats, garlic, chives, onion, coffee, black tea, pepper, cinnamon, and chicken.3
Another famed traditional Eastern medicine is Ayurveda. Those who follow Ayurveda believe the body must be balanced between the forces (or doshas) of:
- Vata (air and ether)
- Kapha (earth and water), and
- Pitta (fire and water)4
Though we contain all three elements, we each tend to have one dosha that is our dominant. And when our dominant dosha gets out of balance it can cause all sorts of physical and emotional issues, according to Ayurveda.5
For example, you might find yourself feeling excessively stressed or angry which is associated with the Pitta element. So your next step is to cut out foods that cause heat. These are usually spicy or acidic foods such as tomatoes, onions, and peppers (just until you find balance again). You can also add “cooling” foods to counterbalance these “anger” foods. Think things like coconut, carrots, and leafy green vegetables.
A Vata imbalance can lead to anxiety and foods like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage may do this. Vata is the wind element and (wind jokes aside) these are the kinds of foods that often cause gas and bloating. A Vata imbalance can be counterbalanced with foods that contain healthy fats, like avocados and extra-virgin olive oil. As well as melons and fresh berries (not dried).
Finally, a Kapha imbalance may appear as brain fog or spaciness. Foods that can exacerbate this include those that are heavy or greasy, cow’s milk-derived dairy, and caffeine. They can be counterbalanced with lemons and limes, bitter vegetables, and non-wheat grains.6
You Are What You Eat: Emotional Eating
There’s a lot to be said about ancient Eastern medicine. It’s certainly a great window into how to make better nutritional choices. Too often, you may be tempted to reach for the “wrong” foods when you’re in the throngs of emotional eating. When you’re feeling stressed, tired, angry, or depressed, you hope that heavy carbs, caffeine, or sugar will comfort you. This ancient wisdom teaches that there is indeed comfort food that can help you, but it’s not these foods.
Perhaps if you nurture your body with the “right” foods during these emotions, you can help to counterbalance them. And, “emotional eating” can be a positive thing.
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