August 10, 2010

It’s taken me nearly two decades to come up with a regimen that keeps me feeling strong and energetic. To find my path, years of therapy unburdened my spirit. Holistic health options (see my post on rolfing) and yoga continue to do wonders.

Then there’s my friend, Jeffrey Yuen, the Chinese medicine master.

We met during a very bad stretch in my mid-30s. My physical problems during that period included persistent adult acne, horrible skin rashes and chronic yeast infections. Plus, stubborn allergies had me on the verge of getting shots from my conventional Western doctor. The thought of injections as a lifestyle scared me into looking for alternatives.

In taking classes with Jeffrey, I learned so much about eating healthy. He has gradually transformed me from a junk food-loving, pasta-obsessed, bread basket fiend into a person who still loves that stuff — but eats more often in a way that’s closer to nature.

We are what we eat

Jeffrey believes that we are what we eat. Specific vegetables, fruits, grains and meat each have specific properties that are helpful — or hurtful — in dealing with health issues. For instance, try using a vegetable peeler on a daikon radish to make these veggie “noodles.” Try it, using my post on how to make fat-busting daikon noodles.

How to make daikon noodles for good health

With these kind of nutritious meals, I can fuel my body with the raw materials for building good blood. Good blood, in turn, circulates nourishment throughout my system. If you dine with me on a daily basis, you’re dealing with a person who is on a low-carb, no sugar regimen that features very little meat, no cow milk, no tropical fruit.

Hey, just so you won’t think that I’m not a total kill-joy — if you dine out with me, or I eat at your home, I am an enthusiastic social eater and drinker. Serve me anything. I will savor every bite. Bring the party on!

In order to have the fun times though, my daily routine involves managing the four evil whites so that I can let loose once in a while.

Watch out for the 4 whites

The four white can cause a lot of trouble:

  • sugar
  • white flour
  • cow milk & animal fat
  • salt

The four whites are NOT anywhere close to nature. Sugar and flour are such highly processed items that you can’t really call them nutritional on any level. Sure, food manufacturers try to compensate by pumping vitamins and minerals into the crap they sell. But it’s still crap. (Although, usually very tasty crap, I must admit.)

Cow milk is on this no-no list for one reason. As my herbalist says, humans are the only mammals who insist on having milk when they’re past infancy. That makes ingesting milk and anything made from it — ice cream, cream cheese, cheese, yogurt — a form of not-living-close-to-nature. Milk is just too rich for anyone but babies. (But my herbalist says a little goat milk and goat cheese is okay once in a while.)

Salt can be found in nature but not in the quantities that we consume it. So I go easy on the salt shaker. And if this seasoning is used at all, I stick to its purest form — sea salt has more flavor and health value than the iodized version. It doesn’t cost much more either.

If we spend a moment to reflect on the four whites, there’s an obvious trend. America, which is imploding from obesity and diabetes, is filled with people who are in love, love, love, love with the four whites. When my herbalist put me on this regimen 20 years ago, my friends were incredulous. What could be wrong with milk? Or pasta? Well, these days, I don’t have to explain myself anymore. Everyone gets it.

But one question remains. When I initially began this diet, it felt so un-American. What is a meal without bread, orange juice, potatoes and corn? What the hell is there left to eat?

Quite a lot, actually. Here’s what I do:

Food regimen

  • Quinoa is a high-protein seed that feels like a carb-y grain. Check out my recipes.
  • Lots of root-y veggies like daikon radishes, rutabagas, parsnips, beets, carrots — cooked and raw.
  • Lots of dark, leafy greens.
  • Mineral-packed seaweed in all its forms — wakame, hijiki, you name it.
  • Other greens like string beans and the whole range of Chinese vegetables.
  • Squashes like zucchini, kombucha, butternut, in moderate quanities.
  • Fish a few times a week.
  • Small beans, like lentils, adukis, black-eyed peas.
  • Limited fruit but I still have an apple or pear a day, and blueberries in season.
  • Most nuts are too fatty but almonds and walnuts are key to my diet. So are sesame seeds.
  • I only cook with olive oil. Sesame oil is used for seasoning.
  • Tofu once a week.

Drink regimen

  • Tons of water, at least a quart or two a day.
  • Juices are caloric and most create mucus/phlegm. If they do that to your spit and snot, imagine their impact in turning your blood to sludge. For that reason, tropical fruits are off limits. That’s right, no orange juice!
  • Since caffeine dries out the skin, vanity demands a limit on these beverages. I have very few wrinkles!
  • Limited caffeine…only a few cups of tea a week.
  • Limited alcohol…my herbalist advises only one glass of wine a week.

Meat options

  • Fish, preferably fresh water (trout) or ocean fresh.
  • Shellfish is okay, but only the kinds with no legs (clams, oysters, scallops, mussels).
  • No shellfish with legs (shrimp, lobster, crabs) because they irritate the skin.
  • Chicken.
  • Lean pork.
  • Limited beef.
  • No turkey or duck. In classic Chinese herbal medicine, turkey is considered a “fire” meat that creates excess heat in the body. Duck is considered toxic.
  • Very little sushi; my herbalist says raw fish is too hard to digest.

Food preparation

  • As you’ve probably guessed, fried foods are off-limits.
  • Steaming, cooking in a little water and baking are my main techniques.
  • No microwaving (except in emergencies) because zapping denatures food’s original chemical structure.
  • Leftovers are reheated on the stove.

And what if you cheat?  ;)

If you want to know the truth, I cheat a lot. In fact, more than I probably should. It’s okay, though. What’s important for me is that these principles keep me on track. They form a very supportive structure for my life.

And I still thoroughly enjoy food, maybe more than ever. I love shopping for fresh produce at farmers’ markets. When I go off my diet to dine out with friends, I feast and booze with zest! If they come over for dinner, they can count on a delicious meal that might include noodles and other carb-y treats. But the next morning, I’m back to rummaging around the fridge for leftover quinoa and greens.

This is the first time I’ve ever publicly revealed my diet. I feel very self-conscious about it because in the early days of this adventure, my friends gave me a lot of grief. They thought I’d gone over the edge. Even now, I feel like a fanatic writing all this. But over the years, I’ve seen modern science and new studies gradually come around to acknowledging the value to many things I’m sharing here.

Still, I should post a disclaimer. This regimen is simply what I do. I’m serving it up as food for thought. I didn’t grow up knowing about any of this stuff. My mom was hard-core modern science all the way. Everything I believe now began with taking classes on acupuncture and Chinese medicine.

Btw, from  2002 to 2007, I served on the New York State Board for Acupuncture, which regulates both the practice of this science and the licensing of its practitioners. The experience convinced me that more and more, Americans will be hungry for new ways to eat for good health.   :-)

P.S. — If you want to get started in understanding how acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine works, I can recommend a book that completely changed my life. Between Heaven and Earth by Harriet Beinfield  and Efram Korngold is well-written and absolutely fascinating. The authors do a great job of explaining The Five Element Theory of Chinese medicine. The logic behind the five elements is elegant and breathtaking.

Would love to get your feedback on all this!