The Energy of Your Food May Be Affecting Your Health

For thousands of years, classical Chinese medicine has used nutrition to treat imbalances. Here, we make the practice’s principles of energetics-based dietary therapy more digestible.

The Energy of Your Food May Be Affecting Your Health | Starwheel, a journey through the open heart

It wasn’t until I stood looking at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, angling my phone out in front of me, that I realized I was crossing a threshold: Of all the post-workout poses and pre-date outfit options sent to friends, the cutesy hellos and—ahem—unmentionables texted to love interests, this would be my most vulnerable selfie since smartphones rendered them commonplace.

But, I reminded myself, this was my idea. And so, after taking a deep breath and finding the best light, I stuck out my tongue, snapped a close-up of it, and hit send.

The day before, Nathalie Basile—the classical Chinese medicine practitioner on the receiving end of my awkward tongue selfie—told me that this particular body part is more revealing than people might realize. It acts as the body’s table of contents, outlining potential health issues to trained eyes like Basile’s. Surveying its color and topography is part of the traditional intake, or initial assessment, that patients undergo in order to have concerns identified and addressed by Basile. Our plans to meet in person for such an intake—which also typically includes measuring the pulse in three places and discussing past and present life circumstances—were interrupted by the rapid spread of COVID-19, and so Basile and I connected remotely. But the selfie, and the unexpected vulnerability hangover it caused, was all for naught: Without the other pieces that Basile uses to put together a puzzle that illustrates a person’s overall health, my tongue photo is as useless as a blender without blades.

Listen to our Yoga Show podcast episode with Nathalie on food energetics and classical Chinese medicine.

Out of Balance

As a whole, the American palate has gone awry. The influx of self-described foodies, reality cooking shows, and vacations designed around eating in far-flung destinations is misleading: As a culture, we’re not obsessed with food—we’re obsessed with its composition. 

It’s a phenomenon that author Michael Pollan warned about in his book In Defense of Food more than a decade ago: Food is out; nutrients—like saturated fat, cholesterol, and carbs—are in. What started as a marketing takeover of supermarket packaging in the 1980s has morphed into a fixation on minerals and chemical compounds, numbers and science, elements of food rather than the food itself. That in turn has bred a slew of cure-alls in the form of restrictive diets meant to optimize our output by limiting our input to anything but carbs or only plants or whatever walked the earth thousands of years ago.

And yet, we aren’t any healthier for it—if anything, we’re less so. Chronic diseases are the leading causes of death in America, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies poor nutrition as a key lifestyle risk.

Long before we entered this frenzied era of hyper-controlled diets, classical Chinese medicine used food to nourish, treat, and heal the body. At the root of these practices: Qi. That’s where Basile—an acupuncturist and holistic health counselor at Alchemy in Asheville, North Carolina, a tearoom and apothecary offering alternative health care—comes in. The 34-year-old is also a personal chef, cooking for clients based on the underlying energetics of Chinese dietary therapy and prescribing food as medicine.

Basile is quick to point out that the classical paradigm differs from its better-known counterpart, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which is the result of a midcentury effort by the Chinese government to systematize the ancient medical practices that are now called classical Chinese medicine. The latter was discovered—in the same sense that the principles of math and astronomy were discovered—more than two millennia ago, while TCM is a modern offshoot. Both the traditional and classical models defer to a single element that’s central to a person’s well-being and also comprises, guides, and shapes all existence as we know it. While this omnipresent force known as Qi (or ch’i, as it’s often written in the West, both pronounced “chee”) has no direct English translation, it’s widely accepted to refer to energy, and it’s in everything we are, everything we know, and everything we eat.

The Energy of Your Food May Be Affecting Your Health | Starwheel, a journey through the open heart

Understanding Qi

Neither strictly life force nor wholly matter, the makeup of Qi is so complex and nuanced that medical researcher Ted J. Kaptchuk dedicates an entire chapter to defining it in The Web Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine, his reference book that is often used by acupuncture schools to introduce the practice to students.

“Qi does not ‘cause’ change,” he writes. “Qi is present before, during, and after any metamorphosis.

The change has to do with the manifestation of what is already inherent in the earlier state … One Qi elicits the propensity of another Qi that shares a similar kind of ‘frequency.’ Things ‘energize’ each other. Through resonance, one Qi evokes another.”

Thus, the web begins to spin, the threads of Qi connecting the cosmos to everyone and spinning inside each person a cosmos of their own. Kaptchuk explains that this is why we’re affected by the “universe”: Basically, we’re all made of the same stuff that it is—and that stuff is Qi.

It’s in this metaphysical language that Chinese medicine unfolds, with ailments being triggered, for instance, by “dampness” of an organ or a blazing “fire,” both of which are influenced by Qi. The fluctuation of Qi within the body can affect a person’s overall health, but there’s no definitive equation that indicates how it flows—in that way, classical differs vastly from Western medicine and TCM. Where Western physicians see symptoms as signposts that can point toward a specific diagnosis, practitioners like Basile consider an individual’s entire “clinical landscape,” as Kaptchuk calls it: the ever-moving, invariably unique makeup of a person.

As such, there’s not talk of disease so much as there is “patterns of disharmony” that indicate imbalances (the underlying cause of health issues) in a patient’s body. It’s a personalized approach to classifying problems and treating them that reaches deeper than the literal nature of cause-and-effect diagnoses we’re so used to in the West.

Basile, whose brother and father are both Western physicians, is no stranger to the tension that can arise between the two models. “I’ll try to have conversations with them about medicine, and they just laugh at me,” Basile says from her home in Asheville. She lives with her fiancé about an hour from where her parents, who emigrated from Haiti in the ’60s and ’70s, settled in the foothills of East Tennessee’s Appalachian Mountains to raise their four children. “I’m like, ‘Well, this person has dampness in their feet, and their spleen is Qi deficient,’” she says with a laugh.

The Energy of Your Food May Be Affecting Your Health | Starwheel, a journey through the open heart

Qi and Your Organs

Chinese medicine identifies five primary organs—the heart, lungs, spleen, liver, and kidneys, collectively known as the Yin organs—that are vital to instructing our health. Each organ is thought of as its own person, complete with its own quirky personality and preferences. Think of your body as an office of organs, Basile says, where every employee in the company has a different job, but they’re working together toward the same goal. When they gather in the kitchen to celebrate a colleague’s birthday, one might be sweating, another might be shivering, and a third might be rolling his eyes at the ice cream cake because it looks like HR forgot he’s lactose intolerant, again.

Food plays an important role in creating and maintaining harmony, or balance, in our body’s office. That’s why digestive health is one of Basile’s central talking points. “Digestion is a process of transformation,” she says. Your body turns food and drink into energy, tissue, and substances (such as blood). In cases of inefficient digestion, there’s likely insufficient Qi, thus preventing the body from converting food into these essential elements. Western medicine places similar gravity on digestion, emphasizing bacteria and the gut microbiome, but in Chinese medicine, a food’s energetic profile dictates how the body is able to receive, break down, and process what we eat.

Putting the Puzzle Together

The first part of a food’s profile that Basile considers is temperature—whether something will be warming, cooling, or neutral to the body, specifically to the spleen, which rules digestion and dictates weight plateaus. Going back to those organ personality types, the spleen prefers warmth and aridity, so it follows that cold and raw foods tax its performance. When the spleen is challenged, critical functions such as digestion, blood production, and energy yields are at risk, Basile says: “Those essential activities start in the middle, the earth element. That’s the spleen and stomach.”

Avoiding raw foods is counterintuitive to many patients in the West, who link “healthy” with salads and smoothies—a big no-no in Chinese medicine. Remember that office building? If an employee is most productive and comfortable when the temperature is kept at 73 degrees, but one of their colleagues blasts the AC down to 60 every day, their work and its quality are going to decline. The same goes for your digestive health. That doesn’t mean you have to swear off ice cream and carrot sticks altogether. The key to enjoying anything, Basile says, is moderation.

Beyond temperature, there are four other components Basile looks at in a food’s energetic profile, all of which are secondary considerations and, admittedly, harder to parse. Every food has what’s called an organ affinity, a relationship that helps describe which organ the food targets. There’s also movement and directionality. The two are similar, but the former refers to whether a food is grounding or invigorating, while the latter describes dualistic qualities of ascending up and out of the body or descending deeper into it. The final element is flavor—sweet, salty, acrid, bitter, or bland—each of which has an associated movement quality as well.

In practice, that all might look like this: If someone has a cold with a sore throat and mild fever, Basile knows she needs something that’s energetically cooling (to temper the heat) and that also moves the cold up and out of the system. The food prescription? Fresh fruit—almost all of which is cooling—with chopped mustard greens, which are ascending and will help open up the pores to vent the cold out of the body.

“It’s like a game,” Basile says. “There are so many different ingredients to use, all pieces of this fun puzzle made up of foods that jibe with the person’s taste buds and also energetically support the work that we’re doing.”

The Energy of Your Food May Be Affecting Your Health | Starwheel, a journey through the open heart

Supporting Digestive Health

Basile’s career started out more like her father’s, but in Western medicine, she didn’t see the hard-line relationship between food and healing she wanted to explore. And so, when she graduated premed from Duke in 2008, she was underwhelmed by the idea of jumping right into medical school. She moved with a few friends to Los Angeles. There she landed her first job in a kitchen, working as a prep cook and then assistant to the head pastry chef at Gjelina, a now-iconic restaurant in Venice Beach. Basile kept one foot in each world when she moved to New York a year later, continuing to cook while exploring herbal medicine to treat the mounting anxiety and depression she was experiencing as a result of a toxic relationship. That, in turn, opened her up to Chinese medicine, which has been using food and herbs to balance emotional hardship for centuries.

That food–mood relationship is reciprocal, with our mental state also playing a role in how we receive nourishment. Basile says that eating mindfully, for instance, can help alleviate an overtaxed spleen and therefore improve digestion. When you’re angry, upset, driving, or rushing, your sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight-or-flight response) is activated. In that state, your digestive tract isn’t the top priority for your body’s limited stores of energy. Whether you’re sipping hot broth on the way to a meeting or stress-eating a cheeseburger, your spleen is going to have a harder time processing food when your body’s resources are focused on mitigating those triggers.

You don’t want to get in your body’s way by constantly pulling its attention toward digestion. It relies on periods of downtime to mend itself in parasympathetic mode (also called “rest and digest”). If you’re snacking all day, even in small amounts, your body has to continuously work at digestion, which diverts energy from its other essential tasks. The lesson: By being more conscious of your body’s limited resources, you can empower it to master every moment.

The way Basile talks about the energy of eating reminds me of another principle, completely unrelated to food: that we choose whom we give our energy to—as a means of protecting and preserving ourselves, as an act of self-care. During my hours of conversation with Basile, I’ve started to think of my body as its own solar system—my organs the planets, my blood the gravitational pull—and everyone else as their own galaxy, each unique but governed by the same laws in this vast universe that, together, we compose. In this cosmic makeup, where I’m seen as a landscape that falls in and out of harmony rather than a forever-flawed human, there is no space for judgment and, as a result, no means to capture shame and hold it close—be it from a tongue selfie or something else. There’s only balance and imbalance, and the promise that it will always be in flux.

Three Balanced Recipes

Try these three holistic, Classical Chinese Medicine-inspired recipes from Basile—perfect or summer.

Read original recipe >