Annemarie Colbin, in her book, Food and Healing, presents a chapter on altering diet to combat specific conditions. Her recommendations are based on her own experience as a student of macrobiotics and health food, and a teacher of natural healing and balanced eating. As well as her observations of those whom she treated in consultations, and the transformations of her students over the years. Despite her background in macrobiotics and vegetarianism, Annemarie isn’t dogmatic about food – she recognizes that what is healing for one person, during a particular period of their life, may not be healing for others, or even for that same person at different stages of their life.
She takes as her cue the fact that regular foods have been used for their medicinal value in most traditional cultures. The underlying principle is one of restoring balance. Illness is considered a state of imbalance within the body. And like in homeopathy, she believes that remedies can cause similar symptoms to that which they cure – if the symptoms they can cure are not present, and they are taken in sufficient quantity. So, the remedy should no longer be taken once the symptoms of imbalance, the illness or condition, disappears. Otherwise, the remedy may in fact cause similar symptoms to reappear. If this is the case, the remedy should not be taken again, as the remedies are (according to this principle), causing the new symptoms. Serious medical conditions she does not rely on food cures for. She recognizes that Western medicine also has its place. But food being what it is, can also be a useful healing adjunct in those situations.
One thing that impressed her was food’s ability to alter our metabolism quickly. She described this epiphany after cooking a meal for some South American friends, who were used to a diet that was high in protein and fats. When they ate the meal prepared by her, which was high in complex carbohydrates like whole grains and legumes, and low in fat, sugar (for dessert), and low in protein, they found alcohol affected them in a way it usually didn’t. The same amount they normally drank, which did not make them drunk with their usual fare, got them quite tipsy on hers. She observed from this that alcohol, being expansive in nature, balanced out the highly contractive protein and fat they normally ate. These ideas, of particular foods having an expansive or contractive nature, is one that she learnt from the Oriental healing systems she studied.
This approach touches on a core difference between Western understanding of both food, and medicine, and traditional Chinese medicine’s (TCM). TCM has as its conceptual underpinning, the study of relationships between things. Western approaches, to both nutrition and medicine, are based on a reductionist approach. They explore isolated nutrients, diseases that are studied under the microscope, with a symptom that then suggests possible causes, defined within a narrow and static frame. Ted Kaptchuk illustrates this when he describes how, when he was studying TCM in Macao, one of his teachers was talking about shingles. His teacher described how shingles on the face was different to shingles elsewhere, say, on the trunk. The reason behind this was that “the Chinese view demanded another perspective – seeing the relationship of the symptom to the whole body”. (Kaptchuk) he goes on to say: “The question of cause and effect is always secondary to the overall pattern…The total configurations, the patterns of disharmony, provide the framework for treatment.” (Kaptchuk)
References: Ted Kaptchuk, Chinese Medicine, The Web That Has No Weaver (Rider Books, London)
Annemarie Colbin, Food As Healing (Ballantine Books, New York)