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Books Relevant to Oriental Diet Therapy.
by Subhuti Dharmananda, Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine (ITM)

ITM has in its library seven books that serve as a basis for understanding the relation of food to health:

Chinese System of Food Cures, by Henry Lu (1986, Sterling Publishing, New York)

Fruit as Medicine, by Dai Yin-fang and Liu Cheng-jun (1987, Rams Skull Press, Kuranda, Australia)

Vegetables as Medicine, by Chang Chao-liang, Cao Qing-rong, Li Bao-zheng (1989, Rams Skull Press)

The Tao of Nutrition, by Maoshing Ni (1987, College of Tao, Los Angeles)

Chinese Medicated Diet, by Library of TCM Staff (1988, Shanghai College of TCM)

Food In Chinese Culture, by K.C. Chans (1977, Yale University Press, New Haven)

Swallowing Clouds, by A. Zee (1990, Touchstone Books, New York)

The biggest problem to overcome in dealing with the subject of Chinese food therapy is the fact that the Chinese diet includes so many food items that are not part of the American diet. Therefore, an accurate portrayal of food therapy in the Orient produces a work which has little utility here. Of the books mentioned above, Henry Lu's Chinese System of Food Cures comes closest to addressing the concerns of Westerners by putting its main emphasis on foods obtained here and health issues commonly faced in the West. Dr. Lu has recently produced an even more popularized version, Chinese Foods for Longevity, which is derived from the same information but is not as good in quality and cannot be recommended here.

Maoshing Ni has produced a similar book in the Tao of Nutrition. It is unfortunately typed instead of being typeset, making it less easy to read; the information overlaps that found in Lu's book, but there are also some differences. It may be helpful to have both books in order to check on the range of applications of each.

These reference books might best be combined with Swallowing Clouds, which is really about Chinese culture as expressed in the Chinese restaurant menu. The book examines Chinese thinking by taking apart the meaning of the names of common food items, the Chinese characters used to describe them, and the process of food preparation. It steers clear of the more medical aspects of food (since it was not intended as a medical guide) but gives great insight into how food is viewed from the Oriental perspective. Quoting a famous saying, "Without pork you will merely become skinny, but without bamboo shoots you will become crude and vulgar . . . .therefore, to avoid becoming skinny and crude you should have pork braised with bamboo shoots every day." You have to read the description of bamboo shoots to appreciate this saying.

The other books in the listing are technical in nature and are best reserved for those who want to make a serious study of the subject. The first stop would be Fruit as Medicine and Vegetables as Medicine. These are translations of original Chinese works (first published in 1982 and 1985 respectively). They are reference guides listing each food item, its various Chinese names, the Western and Oriental aspects of its health value, and then the methods of preparation. Among the items described are many that are not found in the Western diet. The main value of these compared to the more popularized versions of Lu and Ni are the background information (including illustration of plant, Chinese characters, and pinyin names) and the wider scope. ITM has arranged import of these books from Australia.

After that, Chinese Medicated Diet is of distinct interest, because it is the most clinical of the works. The review of individual food materials makes up only a small portion of the book, and no attempt was made to be comprehensive. More emphasis is placed on describing treatments for various diseases and syndromes. Unlike the other books, which focus on items we typically call foods, many of the therapies recommended here contain several items we usually call herbs. For example, a "dietary therapy" for liver tumors is comprised of paris, oldenlandia, turtle shell, persica, carthamus, and cane sugar. It is an interesting recipe, better described as "medicated diet" rather than food therapy; however, cooking of whole turtles is not uncommon in the Chinese diet, and carthamus -- ordinary safflower -- plus sugar are easily recognized in the kitchen.

Finally, one can look at Food In Chinese Culture, which is not aimed at the subject of medicinal use of foods, but does give insights into how various foods were incorporated into the Chinese diet, what nutritional impact they had, and how they fit in with other aspects of Chinese life. One contribution it makes to understanding Chinese food therapy is that it shows just how many items that are used medicinally (e.g. lotus roots, ginkgo fruits, and jujubes) were first highly prized as foods, with quality ratings for food use being much more refined than those for typical medicinal purposes.

The ITM series, Food as Medicine, sent by subscription service, summarizes information from the above sources. The aim is to provide several examples of how the information might be applied, without any attempt at a comprehensive listing of available foods; just over a dozen items will be described.

Brief mention should be made of two other resources. In the book Between Heaven and Earth, by Beinfield and Korngold, (Ballantine Books. New York, 1991) there is a very useful chapter on Chinese food therapy, called Culinary Alchemy. There is a general discussion of Chinese ideas about health impacts of foods and several practical recipes, each one tested out in the author's kitchen. A fairly well-known work, Prince Wen Hui's Cook (Bob Flaws, Cue Poppy Press, Boulder, 1986) was actually said by its author to contain so many errors that he could not recommend it and therefore it is not recommended here (perhaps it has been revised recently).

There are a few other books on Chinese foods that might be relevant to this topic, not yet part of our library. As can be seen by the publication dates, the peak of interest in this subject was in the 1980s, providing several books that were published then or shortly after. This coincided with the publication of technical books on Chinese herbs, not surprisingly because it is so difficult to separate the two subjects. There is not much more to be said about Chinese food therapy than has already been published, but, as always, there is room to say it better or to make its application easier.

The most important message to be gained from study of this subject is that the Western approach to using foods for health is entirely different. Only in the West could it occur that margarine (made from synthetically processed vegetable oils), artificial sweeteners, and a host of "natural," but entirely distasteful, foods, could be deemed healthier than properly prepared and properly combined ordinary dietary materials used worldwide for decades, centuries, or even longer. Only in the West could we measure the quality of a food for health purposes by measuring its individual amounts of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fiber and somehow determine that something is healthful because, for example, it is low in the first two and high in the latter four without any reference to its nature. Only in the West can foods that are spoken of with reverence in Chinese culture -- pork, eggs, wheat, cane sugar, fermented foods, ordinary tea -- be turned into virtual poiso ns to the human body, accomplished both through misuse and misunderstanding.

Pursuing the current dietary approaches leads, on the one hand, to eating artificial eggs, non-absorbable fat substitutes, and pure plant fibers as if they were the solution to our health problems and, on the other hand, to avoiding a whole range of natural foods that don't quite fit the current model as the resolution of disorders from allergies to cancer. The Oriental view may help straighten out the situation. This is not to say that Chinese ideas about foods are always correct -- anyone can avoid over-enthusiasm by spending time in China or in a local Chinese foods store -- but the perspective might save many from a life-long struggle with radical ideas about food that now float about the American cultural scene.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Subhuti Dharmananda