I give a lot of recommendations to patients. A LOT. I call it homework. The acupuncture and the herbs can do some pretty heavy lifting, but the other roughly 165 hours a week you aren’t getting acupunctured or taking your herbs, you need to keep things on track. Lately, I find I have been giving this same piece of homework over and over and over:
Stop. Eating. Salads.
Salads have become a convenient, fresh, ‘healthy’ meal. Salad, and its cousin Smoothie, have become the poster-children for a healthy diet. Unfortunately, for most people, salads, smoothies, and all their raw-food relatives, actually make their digestion worse. They contribute to bloating, gas, abdominal pain, poor absorption (also called ‘’leaky gut”), irregular bowel movements, fatigue, weight issues, headaches, and even reproductive issues. Poor digestion can effect every other system in the body via inflammatory reactions and malnutrition, so the results can be far-reaching if it’s not going properly.
Raw food is really hard to digest, unless you happen to have an extra stomach or two like our bovine friends. Our GI isn’t capable of breaking down fibrous plant matter; that’s why we have traditionally cooked food, and raw food has been a very small part of most traditional diets. Cooking food starts breaking down some of the tough fiber in vegetables, making the nutrients in the food more bioavailable. “But Alex!” you’ll protest, “raw vegetables have more nutrients than cooked vegetables!” True enough. The catch is it doesn’t matter if the veggies have more enzymes or nutrients or anything else if the food remains undigested. Scientists have even tracked cooking food to the evolution of our big brains! Cooking provided more food opportunities, safer food, and more calories.
Chinese Medicine came to this conclusion thousands of years ago, starting with the advice to cook your food and chew it well to give your digestion a head start. Digestion was described as a ‘hot pot’, and good digestion required keeping the flame on high to cook and transform your meal into something your body can use. Asian cuisines are filled with soups, stews, steamed vegetables, stir-fries, and the like. The lettuce-based meal, the American salad is a relatively new invention, with credit going to San Francisco where the first Cesar salad was made in the early 1900s (this is hotly contested, so don’t fire that out on trivia night).
Current western research is backing up this point of view too. There have been studies showing the correlations between temperature, pH/acidity, and digestive enzymes. Cold and raw foods cool down your digestive organs, which directly affects both the pH of your stomach and the enzymes that are responsible for breaking down your food. The warmer your body is, the more acidic your stomach juices are, which breaks the food down better. The more broken down food is at this stage, the better absorption can happen in the small intestine. Having a more acidic (lower pH) in the stomach also makes pepsin, the digestive enzyme found there, extra happy as it work best in a highly acidic environment (a pH of 2, to be exact). Some research has also tracked that the optimal temperature for an array of digestive enzymes is 30degrees Celsius (roughly 99degrees Fahrenheit). No accident that the average body temperature is 98degrees Fahrenheit. So all that ice water, raw veggies, cold food, and SALAD is inhibiting all the major players in your digestive breakdown. Ouch. That’s why it makes your tummy hurt.
To get you started with your warm-food-happy-belly plan, try these steps:
- No ice in your drinks: hot tea or room-temperature drinks are a great choice
- Skip the raw vegetables: for a quick, portable, healthy meal, make a vegetable-based soup with chicken stock and serve over rice or with bread to dunk
- Limit the raw fruit: one portion a day is perfect
- Space out the salads: enjoy them only once or twice a week (seasonally), and pair them with a hot tea and/or make them a small part of a bigger meal
And I have plenty of yummy soup recipes to share if you need inspiration!