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Deciding what to eat? Traditional food wisdom vs scientific approach

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

The Greek term diaita means 'way of life' or 'way of being'. Like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the Greek philosophers-physicians regarded the use of food as medicine with an integrated philosophical approach to health and life in general. Our diet can affect us morally, not just physically, and is part of a way of life.

Holistic practitioners have always seen significant improvements when their clients make appropriate dietary changes. Official health authorities worldwide recognise that the vast majority of doctor visits have a predominantly lifestyle-based cause. Unhealthy eating and inactivity are now considered to be the leading cause of death in many Western countries as they are directly linked to fatal diseases such as heart disease, stroke, some cancers and diabetes.

Population groups that experience increased longevity and good health (such as those following a traditional Japanese or Mediterranean diet), choose eating patterns based on taste, local produce, whole foods and tradition. Food and drinks are part of the culture, passed down through generations. Traditional diets have developed from a long history of trial and error. Therein lies their beauty and their strength. The social aspect of preparing and eating foods is as important as the foods themselves.

The Western scientific approach uses a biomedical model with disease being explained in terms of pathology and biochemistry. Specific constituents are identified and the actions between them analysed. We speak of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients... Epidemiological studies can identify associations between particular dietary patterns, foods, food groups or constituents and specific health outcomes. Dietary guidelines are determined after evaluation of scientific evidence. The evidence based approach definitely has its benefits, but it also created great deal of food anxiety in western countries, as people often suddenly change their eating patterns each time a new scientific study is published or a new popular diet book hits the bestsellers list. People are getting confused, or even worse, getting obsessed with picking the 'right' food and the 'right' diet. And every time new evidence has been proven, new diets but also questions come up. We have to be humble and acknowledge that we only know the tip of the iceberg, there is still so much to find out.

In Eastern Medicine traditions, people are described as having particular constitutions, and foods and beverages as having particular qualities, such as warming, cooling, moistening, sweet, detoxifying, strengthening, calming etc. These qualities are based on observations of the effects of foods on people rather than analysing the foods themselves. Knowledge of these qualities is indispensable for using food as medicine. Diagnosis in Eastern medicine traditions is powerful in its simplicity.

I see benefits in both approaches. My training in nutritional medicine was mainly focused on evidence-based science, but over the years I got also fascinated by the wisdom of traditional medicine. Besides offering another dimension by defining constitutions, conditions and qualities, it works with subtle flows of energy, which is a powerful tool to predict and prevent approaching illnesses.

Traditional and scientific food therapeutics have different (and sometimes even contradictory) strategies. However, by integrating the important fundamentals, we gain more insight on the therapeutic value of food. They both help us to define in their own unique way which foods and diets are best for overcoming personal imbalances and for maximising vitality in each individual.

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