TCM and Chinese philosophy in general seeks to maintain a proper balance. The best way to keep your balance is to stay close to the center and make small movements. Imagine a seesaw. Stand on teh fulcrum and you’re secure. But the further you move away, the harder it gets to stay balanced. In TCM, the center is the Earth element and its associated organ, the Spleen. (note that I’m following one of the conventions of writing about TCM by capitalizing and italicizing terms when used in a TCM, not Western, context)
The Earth element is our center, our nourishment, and the Spleen is our ability digest and assimilate that nourishment. Our ability to absorb Qi from our food is governed by our Spleen. In Western medicine, this is more closely related to the pancreas and digestive enzymes, but TCM refers to the whole process as governed by the Spleen.
So the first thing to do with food according to TCM is to make and keep the Spleen happy.
What does it like?
The Spleen likes to stay warm. It likes the sweet flavor. It likes mild, almost bland tastes. It does not like to get too cold. It does not like to get too Damp. It does not like to be rushed. It does not like extremes. In this context, sweet does not refer to sugar or concentrated sweeteners, but to the subtle sweetness found in whole food starches like rice or potatoes.
How to keep the Spleen Happy
Base meals on whole food starches. Rice is preferred, as it is neutral and helps keep balance, but that may be cultural preference. Add whatever vegetables help balance your condition and season. Keep seasonings and spices mellow. Most food should be cooked, with soups and stews preferred. The Spleen must take all food eaten and turn it into a 100 degree soup, and TCM visualizes the Stomach as a big soup pot. The closer food is to that state, the less work the Spleen must do. This goes against what raw food folks say, but even Western science agrees. Cooking begins digestion, frees up many nutrients, and deactivates some anti-nutrients.
The Spleen does not like much cold food, raw food, or concentrated foods. Refined sweeteners, refined oil, refined flour, juice, and the like overwhelm the Spleen and create Dampness, a pathological condition. Foods in their whole state with most of their fiber intact keep the Spleen on an even keel, balanced, centered and happy. Note that this reflects traditional diets around the world through history. Starches, such as whole grains and legumes, with some vegetables and a little fruit, just as Dr. McDougall has been teaching for years. Also note that this reflects what Western science knows about insulin metabolism.
Seasonally, the Spleen occupies a 5th season that TCM places at late summer, before autumn. We can think of it as “Indian Summer” or harvest time. TCM also like people to focus on Spleen health for a week or two whenever the seasons change, at the solstices and equinoxes.
Caring for the Spleen with classic Chinese Jook/Congee