Energy, Calories, and Chinese Food Therapy

By Lynn Jaffee

As a practitioner of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, I frequently see patients who mention that they are concerned about their weight. For most, it seems that the weight has creeped up on them over the years, and despite their best efforts, sustainable weight loss seems to elude them. Frequently the conversation turns to calories, as we have been led to believe that counting them is the key to dropping pounds. In the world of Chinese medicine, however, the idea of caloric content doesn’t really come into play. Instead, what you eat is all about gaining energy–not about losing weight.

healthy food

Most of the time, the people I see who concerned about their weight are also struggling with poor energy. Some sleep well, but wake up tired. Some wear out over the course of the day, others fluctuate during the day, and still others are just plain exhausted from morning to night. I ask about their energy because in Chinese medicine, energy is the all-important ingredient in moving your body, transforming food into nutrients, protecting you from outside pathogens, keeping you warm, and all the other day-to-day things that you want to do.

When I ask my tired weight-concerned patients what they’re eating, they almost always tell me that they’re eating healthfully–lots of fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately they’re eating all those good foods raw, which is only aggravating their poor energy levels. How is their seemingly wonderful diet a problem?

Well, while the ancient Chinese knew that while you derive your energy from the foods you eat, they also knew that it takes a certain amount of energy to digest those foods. For years, I’ve been telling my patients who struggle with fatigue or digestive problems to cook their vegetables and fruits, as they’re easier to digest and it takes far less energy to do so. In addition, I’ve advised them to avoid very cold foods, as their body has to heat the food to body temperature before it can be properly broken down and digested. While this may sound far-fetched, food scientists are now telling us essentially the same thing.

Wait…what? A calorie is a calorie is a calorie, right? Well, technically yes, but according to a recent article in Scientific American*, it turns out the calorie counts you see on food labels are merely estimates. In fact, nutrition scientists are now finding that how much energy you get from your food is far more complicated than we ever thought. The actual caloric content of a particular food can vary, depending on a number of factors.

A little background is in order here. A calorie is a scientific way to measure the amount of energy available in food. A gram of fat provides about nine calories, because it’s easily digested and provides more energy than a gram of protein (four calories), which is harder to digest. In other words, it takes more energy to digest protein, so you give up a little energy in the process of digesting and gain fewer calories. A gram of fiber only gives you about two calories, because it takes even more work, or energy, to digest. A gram of carbohydrate also gives you four calories, but that said, all of these counts are are just approximations.

For example, because heat does some of the work of digestion for us, there are more calories in a cooked food than the same food that is raw. In addition, it takes more of your energy to digest a food with a high fiber content than it does for a food with little fiber. And the bacteria in your gut plays a role too, because it affects how efficiently you digest food–which affects how much energy you extract from what you eat. This means that each person derives a different amount of calories from eating the exact same food!

One of the foundations of Chinese food therapy is that the ideal diet is different for each person. Therefore, a person who is ill or has digestive problems would benefit from a very different diet than a healthy person with good digestion. In Chinese medicine, foods are chosen according to their inherent warmth or coolness and their action on the body. In addition, how foods are cooked or combined also impact how beneficial they are to your body and how much energy they provide. Does this sound familiar?

The bottom line is that the calorie count in foods are not created equal. How you cook a particular food and what your body does to digest it has an impact on how much energy you’ll get from it. So if you’re struggling with fatigue or poor energy, there are ways to get a little more of a boost from what you’re eating.

*Dunn, Rob: Everything You Know about Calories Is Wrong. Scientific American, Sept. 2013 p. 56.

Lynn Jaffee is a practitioner of acupuncture and Chinese medicine at Acupuncture in the Park near Minneapolis, MN. Lynn is also the author of the book, Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health. For more articles staying well, check out her blog at Acupuncture Health Insights.

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