Most of us know that Hippocrates wrote “First, do no harm.” This edict is used by Western medicine in the oath that physicians use as part of a covenant to their patients. Hippocrates also wrote, “Let food be thy medicine” and most of the world (China and India) relies this connection between food and health. I learned to as well.
Five years ago, realizing that poetry was not going to pay my bills, I took a seven month long course at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in Manhattan. They train “Holistic Health Counselors” (HHCs) who then go and open practices in which they use a broad range of theories and research about nutrition to help clients improve their health. I found the education, which ranged from Ayurvedic medicine to the latest scientific research in nutrition being done at Harvard, deeply helpful. I opened a private practice as an HHC in 2007, just as the economy imploded. I lasted only a year, but my training led me to a writing gig as a feature writer for the “Conscious Kitchen” column at Natural Home & Garden magazine I developed healthy vegetarian recipes and wrote short pieces about the nutrition and history of each recipe. It was great fun to write these articles, the pay was good, and it was a thrill to see professional photographs of the recipes I’d developed. They looked far less appealing in my kitchen as I tested them!
It was at IIN that I began to learn a bit about Chinese medicine, which is based on food. The concept of nutrition as we know it in the western world is quite different in Chinese medicine, which holds that prevention of disease is as important as treatment. There are five basic tastes: bitter, sour, pungent, sweet, and salty, each of which corresponds to the maintenance of an organ system. Balance is a key element—whether between the tastes, whether food is eaten raw or cooked, and the kind of energy the food promotes. Meat, for instance, is warming and strengthens the blood. Like many root vegetables, carrots are considered warming and give grounding energy. They detoxify, strengthening the body systems that omit waste, like the liver and bowel, and are considered a sweet taste. Dark leafy greens, like my beloved Swiss chard, are considered a bitter taste. They, too, are blood strengtheners. Because they reach to the sun, they promote light (fleet) energy and are thought to be particularly important to creative work.
I always eaten pretty much anything, but having learned even a bit about these practices, I began to pay closer attention to how eating different foods made me feel. The concept of nutrition opened up, from vitamin and fiber components to the seasonality of what I was eating, how I cooked it, and how well I could think and perform after eating a certain dish over time. I learned that dark leafy greens don’t begin and end at spinach. There’s a great deal of choice: kale, arugula, Swiss chard, collards and mesclun among them. I found that when I eat lightly cooked greens at breakfast—forgoing sweet taste for bitter, then jazzing it up with a little sriracha or soy sauce—and do this regularly, I think more clearly and more creatively as I sit down at my desk in the morning. Eating is now part of my writing practice.