Understanding Food Energetics

September 13, 2004

The study of Food Energetics begins with a detailed look at what you are eating on a daily basis. Practical considerations of what you bring to your kitchen for nourishment is the first big step in discovering your basic individual dietary needs through food energetics. While calorie contents and vitamin percentages do add important meaning to your understanding of foods, there are many processed junk foods we humans put in our mouths and swallow that contain added nutrients in abundance and yet these consumables have little to do with natural nourishing foods. Trying to understand the essence of your food through nutritional analysis alone is like trying to understand the current US political agenda using mainstream media spin on the subject as your only source of information. It is important to look deeper through alternative ideas and opinions to find those hidden gems of knowledge and truth. This is where understanding food energetics comes in with your study of food and nutrition, as a reliable alternative source of information and knowledge that can help you make important decisions about how to nourish yourself. While not a new way of understanding food, having been around for thousands of years, it is of great importance if we are to continue surviving on this planet as a healthy species.

Your body is in a continuous process of change and adjustment and as a result needs to be nourished accordingly. This can be done most effectively through an open-minded inquiry into what you eat, digest, absorb, and assimilate.

A teenager has different dietary needs than a 3 year old or even a 50 year old. A construction worker and an office worker have different dietary needs too. However, there are some basic needs we all have in common. One of the most important is good nutrition through healthy foods. Not everyone wants to eat healthy nutritious foods but that does not mean they do not need them.
Granted, one’s individual nourishment needs extend beyond mere physical edibles, however when your physical foods are truly nourishing to your body you will have a solid foundation in health from which to choose how you are nourished in your other relations. Understanding food energetics will give you the opportunity to make sound and practical choices that can change the way you think about food in ways that will help answer many of your diet related questions and open doors to new and interesting discoveries. Now let’s take a look in that kitchen by using a few guiding principles of food energetics.

Three Essential Principles

Any good theory comes with a set of principles that act as guides in order to assist you in your exploration and understanding of the theory. Here are three basic principles essential for understanding food energetics.

Food Quality

Health articles permeate magazines and TV with headlines like “A low fat diet may prevent cancer and heart disease.” What articles like these rarely if ever tell you is how important quality is. In this titled article for example, natural traditional fats and oils have never been implicated in heart disease and cancer to begin but that will not even be mentioned in the lengthy article. By not mentioning this important qualitative detail, the reader can easily be lead to believe that all fats are created equal and therefore problematic. Considering the majority of studies on the detrimental effects of fats are based on research conducted on hydrogenated animal fats and vegetable oils and not on the effects of traditional non-hydrogenated fats it is no wonder people get confused. In fact current research on traditionally used and naturally processed fats show just the opposite. So, is it true that a low fat diet can prevent cancer and heart disease? Perhaps it is more like, “A diet with little to no trans-fats and processed polyunsaturated oils can prevent cancer and heart disease.” Better yet, “A healthy varied diet with moderate amounts of good quality fats and oils may help to prevent cancer and heart disease.”

An interesting example of misunderstood quality in fats can be found in the flax oil phenomena. There have been numerous scientific studies touting flax oil as a panacea for a number of ills. These studies tout the extremely high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in flax oil and simply because they are scientific studies they are generally accepted by most people as truth without stopping to question how those scientific conclusions were reached. Much can be garnered by how scientific studies are worded and by who funds them. For example, scientific reports state that flax oil “lowers total body cholesterol.” Does one really want to lower total body cholesterol, both the good and bad cholesterol? This is generally not a good idea. Other claims for flax oil include that it “has been shown to destroy cancer cells and that it stimulates the immune system.” How does it Does it destroys cancer cells? Does it do it in a similar way that chemotherapy kills cancer cells? Is also stimulates the immune system. Is this a good thing? Viruses and many toxins have been shown to stimulate the immune system too. This is very different from a substance that supports the immune system. Many healthy foods and herbs have been shown to support immunity without stimulating it.

More can be said about this oil but I will not get into it here due to time and space. Here are a few health assessment questions you could ask anyone who consumes flax oil on a regular basis. Do you or have you:

1. experience intermittent bouts of nausea throughout the day?
2. experience cramping in the leg muscles, especially the calves and feet, during sleep?
3. have an increase of dark spots (often called liver spots) appearing on your face, hands, arms or back?
4. experience dizzy spells and lack of mental clarity with the slightest physical exertion?
5. experienced a loss of muscle tone (flaccid muscles) and an inability to build and tone muscle through regular workouts?
6. noticed an increase in the number of wrinkles on your face and other parts of your body that indicate rapid aging beyond your years?
7. experienced an increase in spastic movements and lack of coordination and mobility?

Granted, many of these symptoms can be attributed to other problems but the consistency of occurrence with 5 to 7 of these symptoms is not uncommon among those who consume flax oil. Now, apply the same questions to those who consume fish oils also rich in omega-3s, omega-3s easily converted by the body into usable nutrition. You will not get the same response. Why? It is a quality issue. Although people have not eaten capsules of fish oil for thousands of years, they have consumed fish high in omega-3 fatty acids along with numerous other natural sources of omega-3s as well. The same cannot be said of flax oil. I use the above example to demonstrate how easily it is to loose sight of quality when other prevailing nutritional factors are evident. Quality should always come first with our food and a cash cow with science to back it up for the natural food industry does not mean it is there to support your health. Another example is the fledgling soy industry. Traditionally made miso, natto, tempeh, and shoyu are qualitatively very different from the soy junk foods flooding the natural marketplace.

The quality of our food is determined by weighing the difference between the naturalness of it and the artificial. By studying naturally grown and naturally raised foods, we become aware of the true nature of the food in question. Foods grown with chemicals and preservatives or those with added hormones or genetically altered represent the lowest quality foods available for human consumption.

Anyone with a desire to understand the nature of food first needs to make quality the first rule of thumb. Unfortunately, this is not often the case with conventional nutritional studies where the measuring of nutrients often takes precedence over quality. This form of food analysis, while useful, often leads to categorizing foods in groups that can lead to confusion. A nutritional analysis of a commercial breakfast cereal with added synthetic vitamins may look the same or even better than the nutritional profile of an organic version of the actual whole grain that forms the basis of that breakfast cereal. Both are carbohydrates yet are qualitatively very different from each other.

The same is true for naturally raised grass fed livestock and factory-farmed livestock. The former is raised in a natural environment eating their natural grass diet while the latter is raised in confinement, often consuming foods unnatural to the species and further enhanced with hormones and chemicals. While both animals may look alike, when examined under a microscope for nutritional data they reveal differences in fat levels and other nutrient levels making them qualitatively very different.

The dietary choices we make based on nutritional analysis will be greatly enhanced through personal health benefits when quality is considered first. While a cursory examination between superior quality, naturally grown foods compared to their inferior counterparts may show in some cases some comparative nutritional profiles, it has been proven through scientific studies that quality foods have higher ratios of nutrients in general in addition to little or no harmful chemicals and preservatives. Understanding the effects on our health of inferior foods laced with toxic chemicals and artificial ingredients is obvious and it is this obviousness of quality that often leads well intentioned proponents of natural foods to inaccurately demonize particular foods yet understanding the same foods grown naturally reveals a greater comprehension of what these foods are as sources of nourishment.

The study of food quality leads us to the basic fundamental truth that the foundation of any truly healthy diet must be comprised of naturally grown and naturally raised foods.

History and Origin.

The history and origin of a particular food is another essential principle in the quest for understanding food energetics. How long has the food been consumed by humans? Where did the food in question originate and how?

Sweet potatoes have been grown and consumed by Asian and South American peoples for thousands of years in spite of the fact that these different cultures they are thousands of miles from each other. The same is true for peanuts. Chickens have provided nourishment for Asians and Middle Eastern peoples for 7 to 10 thousand years. Whole grains have been essential foods for 20 thousand years or more. In fact the very same unprocessed foods we consume today have been the mainstay of the human diet for at least 10 thousand years with the primary changes being in quality over those many decades. In fact, most of these food changes have occurred in only last two hundred years. Aside from offshoots through grafting and crossing of plant species to produce new vegetables, there have been few additions to human foods in over 10 thousand years.

Why is that? Could it be because there has been no need to alter these highly nourishing ancestral foods? In the coming years we will likely see more foods introduced as a result of genetic manipulation but for the most part we are still dependent on our ancestral foods as nourishment for the masses.

Now, one could argue that just because a food has been consumed for thousands of years does not mean it is good for you. This statement has little relevance when considering that diets are by design, all of them, modern and ancestral diets. The foods in any diet are designed for a particular agenda whether they are for health, spirituality, emotional stability, strength…with some being multifaceted. Ancestral foods have a long track record of nourishing the human species and all ancestral foods without exception can be proven to be nourishing through nutritional analysis as well.

It really has nothing to do with good or bad for us until we bring our personal designer diet into the picture. It is then that we began to define a food as good or bad and began to remove it from or add it to our approved foods list. It is one thing to say you do not want to eat a chicken because you do not believe in eating animals but attempting to rationalize not eating a chicken because it is a bad or unhealthy food to eat is not only inaccurate, it is absurd. Alternatively, you might try to rationalize not eating chicken because you think you can get the same protein from other sources. This too is inaccurate. Sure, you can get protein from different sources but the chicken has its own unique profile of proteins and other nutrients that makes it a chicken and nothing else. No other food has the same profile of nutrition that a chicken has. The same goes for a cow or any source of plant protein. This in no way means one is better than the other as a food, just different. Comparative nutrition profiling is not only inaccurate; it can be misleading when trying to understand food energetics. The very purpose of studying food energetics is to get to know the uniqueness of each food not to debase that uniqueness by comparing some of its isolated nutrients to something else equally unique in its own way simply because it has some of the same nutrients.

Then there is the question of location, where a food originated and how that fits into your diet. Historically, foods grown in one part of the world have traveled to the other side of the world through trade and commerce. This has been going on longer than most historians would like to believe and there is plenty of evidence to support it. Does eating from your environment mean not eating spices from Thailand if you live in North America? How about someone living in the mountains thousands of miles from the sea, should they not eat fish or sea vegetables since those foods are not part of their environment? Only you can put limitations on the size of your food environment. You can choose to limit your diet to foods grown from as far away as 1000 miles in any direction or you could choose to include foods from many thousands of miles in any direction. Which choice do you think offers the best options for a healthy balanced diet? A good axiom to uphold when choosing foods for a balanced whole foods diet is: Support locally, eat globally.

As humans, we have the capacity to eat anything as evidenced by the tremendous quantities of junk foods consumed by humans. Is it reasonable to assume that someone living in a non-tropical environment consuming coconut oil from the tropics is going to become mentally unbalanced or develop health problems from eating a food that does not come from his environment? Could one actually become dislocated in time and space due to this food relationship? And, if so would that be so bad? Coconut oil has a four year shelf life at room temperature, is one of the few heat stable plant oils for cooking and like the coconut from which it is derived it is loaded with all kinds of health supporting nutrition. Based on nutritional propaganda pertaining to saturated fats one would think that coconut oil, with up to 87% saturated fat, would be detrimental to health. Yet, just the opposite is true. Due to it’s high content of lauric acid, a substance that is similar to the nourishing components in mothers milk, the short and medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil are easily assimilated by the body with no indication of raising cholesterol or contributing to weight gain. It is also very helpful in regulating metabolism, an especially helpful food indeed for those suffering from binge eating and other eating disorders. The other products derived from coconut also contribute to good health.

Rich, creamy and metabolically satisfying coconut milk and coconut cream are great foods for those who have trouble consuming dairy products due to lactose intolerance. Essentially, then, coconuts and the products derived from them are healthy foods that just about anyone anywhere can benefit from. The old saying “The world is your oyster” can be taken literally when it comes to food. The choices are limitless but understanding both the varieties of foods you choose to consume, why you choose them and your individual limitations are essential.

How about spices? Tropically grown cayenne peppers, chili type peppers and peppercorns have played important roles in traditional diets for millennia having served indigenous peoples in numerous ways. Not only did they add wonderful and exotic flavors to their daily cuisine, they have medicinal qualities as well that have been acknowledged through modern science. These food seasonings have anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-parasitic qualities. Additionally, they increase blood circulation and can help regulate cholesterol levels. There is no reason whatsoever that these foods should not be part of a healthy diet in Northern Scandinavia and other northern countries since people there, like everyone else in the world, are not exempt from the problems these foods can help to resolve. One way of comprehending the importance of a foods role in history is to eat it. It is when you do this that the historical position of that food in a traditional diet is fully realized because it will become you.

There are many fears surrounding foods today but most of these food fears can easily be reduced by first eliminating non food foods from ones diet and replacing them with real traditional foods. Once this is accomplished that once deep-seated fear of food transforms into a sense of respect for all that came before us. This is not to say you should eat all traditional foods from every part of the world, but to know these foods as the original sources of nourishment can open doors for making important choices in your diet that could literally change your life for the better while adding additional sources of nutrition.

Food Character Observations

When you observe other people, you become aware of numerous characteristics that attract your attention. Dark hair, light hair, lean body, over weight, muscular body, big smile, sadness, well dressed conservative, casual elegance, unkempt, charismatic, fatigued, high energy…these and many other characteristics flash through your minds during your daily encounters with others. Some of these are given extra thought and contemplation while others are simply noticed.

We humans have so many physical and emotional characteristics it sometimes makes it difficult to figure each other out but we are all aware that some basic traits are shared by us all and these are what make us human. Whether it is a long-term relationship, new friends, allies in the workplace, any acquaintance really, we are constantly discovering new characteristics of those around us.

The foods you eat also have their unique characteristics and observing their unique characteristics can give you insight into how a particular food can nourish you through its correlations to your body and mind. By observing how a plant grows and develops, you learn about its needs, what it requires to become a food that you will consume. With animals, you can observe their growth and development too but you can also observe their behavior and in the case of factory farmed animals the behavior modifications due to the disruption of their natural lifestyles.

The obsessive-compulsive behavior, often accompanied by osteoporosis, of caged hens is not a characteristic of free-range chickens. The grass fed cow maintains a healthy weight and disposition while the cow raised in confinement contains more fat and tends to suffer from depression and other health problems. It is not far fetched to surmise a psychological connection between factory farmed chicken and the increase of OCD among humans consuming excessive quantities of these animals, just as it is not far fetched to suspect a link to osteoporosis in humans and the same animal. Food psychology is not a new phenomenon. Ancient peoples understood it and it became the foundation of traditional healing modalities throughout the world. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic healing are just two examples that incorporate this natural science.

When observing a leafy green vegetable you can see how it grows upward and thrives on sunshine. Exposed to the elements it withstands torrential rains and continues to grow and expand upward and outward as it inhales carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen. This correspondence is reversed in your respiratory system where your lungs inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Green plants then are the respiratory system of the earth and have a direct correlation to your corresponding bodily function.

Root vegetables (carrots, burdock, parsnip etc.) are foods that prefer the dark recesses of the earth, a private food hidden away from the bright sunshine. These foods are highly efficient at absorbing and assimilating water and nutrients from the earth while they anchor and stabilized the whole plant.
These simple observations speak volumes about the energetic properties of these foods.

The firm fleshed winter squash is planted in summer and harvested in fall. As it develops, a long tubular stem nourishes the squash by supplying it with water, inorganic materials and other nutrients the squash needs to develop into a dry, warming sweet-fleshed nourishing food. The process of growth and development is slow and consistent.

Planted in the summer and harvested in the summer, the juicy, sweet watermelon too is nourished by a long tubular stem that pumps copious amounts of water and nourishment to the melon. This causes the development process and growing season to be of less duration than the squash and results in a delicious, moist, cooling flesh. Both the squash and the melon are heavy, sweet and firm on the exterior but their water content and the speed in which they develop differ greatly. The way the squash and melon handle water from their environment has a direct correlation to our kidneys and bladder, two organs responsible for water balance in the human body. The obvious effect of the melon is an increase in urination while the dry flesh of the squash has the opposite effect but that is not all. Each food can have several energetic effects on the body.

Modern nutritional science has recently discovered that some food components, phyto-nutrients and anti-oxidants, choose specific pathways from a complex network existing in the human body in which to travel. The ability of foods to traverse the physiological network of the human body has long been part of the study of food energetics. Just as modern research has demonstrated nutritional pathways, ancient food energetics too goes way beyond the simple ingestion of food into the digestive tract and the excretion of waste from the large intestine.

Thousands of years ago, Traditional Chinese medicine, demonstrated how the flavors of foods choose specific pathways to organs and systems of the human body. For example, the sweet flavor traverses the spleen and pancreas meridian pathways. These pathways (commonly known as meridians) play important roles in the natural healing modalities of acupuncture, herbalism and massage therapy. Of the five flavors, each follows its own specific pathways to a pair of organs in the body.

Using our example of the squash and melon, you can learn about another energetic property through flavor pathways. Both are sweet tasting foods so they will naturally travel the pathways to the spleen and stomach carrying with them their unique energetics or characteristics. The resulting effect on these organs will tend to be as follows. The juicy, sweet, soft and watery melon will tend to have a relaxing, cooling and dampening effect on the spleen and stomach whereas the winter squash will tend to have a tonifying, warming and drying effect on the spleen and stomach. One is not better than the other they are simply different just as every other food is as well. Each has its own unique energetic characteristics.

Other methods of character observations include what happens to a food when combined with other foods through various methods of preparation. Adding fire to foods through cooking contributes to thermogenic (warming) properties depending on the foods density factor and how it is cooked. Pickling foods resulting in fermentation and enhancement of enzymes can change the energetics of foods by opening pathways that would not be traversed were they prepared through steaming, boiling or sautéing. Foods textures, hard, crunchy, soft, chewy…influence the energetics of foods in their own ways as well.

First ask yourself and then ask your friends what their favorite green vegetable is, their favorite root vegetable, favorite grain, animal product (dairy products, meats etc.), favorite fruit… Then apply our third principle of Character Observations and learn about those foods. Discover why you like them so much, why they have become such an intimate part of your life. Learn how they have nourished you in helping you to heal or even how they could be preventing you from healing and being nutritionally satisfied. In the process of discovery you will learn through those foods many things about yourself simply because the foods you eat will become you and in subtle ways you will become them.

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