One of my favorite topics is food as medicine. The idea is simple and powerful and unfortunately very underutilized, especially in the United States. This time of year, many of us have indulged over the holidays and are looking to "be better" about the food that we're eating now that life is getting back to normal. You might have set some New Year's Resolutions, and are looking to alter your eating habits on a more global level.
I'd like to start by saying this is the worst time of year to do a "detox," for many reasons, the biggest of which is that "cleanses" don't actually exist. Your body is detoxing you every day no matter what you eat. That being said, the worse you eat, the more work there is to be done, and the more time and effort is spent getting rid of the bad stuff. Rather than having energy available to use in your daily life, your energy will be spent healing and repairing yourself from the damage caused by consuming chemicals and "food-like" substances. That is why eating processed, high sugar or high chemical "foods" leaves you feeling tired, sluggish and bloated. Eating well will inevitably make you feel better in the long run because it gives you usable energy for living your life. The food that you eat can either move you toward health or away from it. Choose wisely!
Animals use food for nourishment and fuel. As humans, we often look to food for other reasons as well: comfort, replacement for something else we're seeking, pacification, satisfaction for an addiction, and others. Ideally food should be used only as fuel for your body. If food is only something to stop your hunger, you will make different choices than if you see food as nourishment. If you are hungry, you'll grab anything to stop the discomfort, but if you are looking for sustenance, you'll be more choosy.
When you are sick or symptomatic, you should always start by looking at what you are eating and notice whether it is right for your body. No food that is found, grown or caught in nature is inherently good or bad, but it may be good or bad for you, depending on your particular health challenges, the climate in which you live, food allergies and the season. The only exception to this is Genetically Modified foods (GMOs) since they are created first in a laboratory and then grown--these are always harmful and should be avoided.
Start by seeing if you can recognize the food that you are eating as food; when you read the label, is it full of chemicals or items that you can't picture in your mind? If so, chances are you are eating food-like substances made in a laboratory and your body is going to spend a lot of energy working to filter that out. If your body can't remove the chemicals, they get stored in your body and can eventually become inflammation and/or cancer. "Diet" foods are usually laden with chemicals and actually contribute more to weight gain than weight loss. You are also typically left feeling tired, sluggish, bloated, phlegmy and craving more. The cravings come from failing to supply your body with the nutrients that it is actually looking for. For example, when you have chocolate cravings, you are actually craving magnesium, so you should eat more nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables instead of the chocolate chip cookies (although a little dark chocolate is okay). When you supply your body with actual food, you don't typically have cravings since you are supplying your body with the nourishment it requires. If your food doesn't have labels (because it is produce, lean meat or fish) then you are probably headed in the right direction.
First food, then medicine.
If after adjusting your eating habits toward a more whole food diet you are still feeling sick or symptomatic, then that is when you seek out medical intervention. Even then, the medical professional should begin by looking at your diet and seeing if there is anything else that seems out of balance for you. An acupuncturist will look at your diet in relation to the seasons and what your particular symptoms are in order to tailor your diet to what will make you feel better. You might need to eat more meat, you might need to eat less. You might need more root vegetables, you might need less. You might need to eat more grains, no grains, more dairy, no dairy. There is no one-size-fits-all way to eat. Each person has their own requirements based on their internal body chemistry and set of symptoms. Food can be really good medicine when you understand its purpose and use it accordingly.
A great, easy to read book on whole food eating is called Food Rules by Michael Pollan. It is one of my favorites and very helpful for learning the benefits of eating real food. If you are interested in looking at food from a Chinese Medicine perspective to help understand and balance your symptoms, Paul Pitchford's book Healing with Whole Foods is a must.
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