By Sallyanne Pisk
Both Western and Eastern nutrition practices demonstrate the central role of food in our health and wellbeing. The Australian Dietary Guidelines are an example of Western nutrition and they underpin the recommendations for eating for good health in Australia. They are based on scientific evidence. Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine provide two examples of Eastern nutrition. Their approaches and recommendations come from thousands of years of observation and practice (referred to as empirical evidence). Aspects of treatment have also been examined through scientific research.
Areas of commonality between Western and Eastern nutrition
- Basing the diet on vegetables and wholegrains, followed by decreasing amounts fruit, dairy, meat products, nuts and seeds and oils.
- Being mindful in our choice of foods and satisfying our physiological appetite.
- Establishing an eating routine that includes regular meals.
- Correcting dietary imbalances by adjusting what, how and when we eat e.g. digestion, body weight and diabetes.
- Recognising the importance of the gut for total health, not just digestion. This is a reasonably new area of research in Western medicine, which is termed microbiota.
The differences between the two approaches
Energetic influence on health
Eastern medicine recognises that the energy within our environment is the same as that within the human body. Ayurveda refers to this energy as prana and traditional Chinese medicine calls it Qi. The energy of the environment influences the health of the mind and body, hence a change in the seasons prompts changes to our diet. The diet emphasises local in-season foods.
Classification of foods
Western nutrition refers to nutrients to group foods and its understanding of health, whereas Eastern approaches use flavours, such as Ayurveda tastes and traditional Chinese medicine flavours, for these purposes.
Union of mind and body
In Eastern medicine there is no separation of mind and body. Western medicine commonly treats conditions of the mind and body separately, however the influence of the mind on physical health is growing in acceptance e.g. meditation has been shown to decrease blood pressure.
Interdependence of the organs and systems
Eastern approaches have mapped out how the different organs and systems are inter-related, such as the ‘create and control cycle’. The energy meridians linked to organ systems also pass through other parts of the body, for example a headache may be related to the gall bladder, as the gall bladder meridian runs through the back of the head. In eastern medicine one practitioner addresses all health concerns. In Western medicine you visit different specialists – a cardiologist for your heart and a renal physician for your kidneys. However, research is uncovering common links between chronic lifestyle diseases, such as insulin resistance in overweight, heart disease and diabetes.
Eastern medicine believes that individuals are born with a unique constitution. In Ayurveda these are composed of the Doshas (Vata, Pitta, Kapha) and traditional Chinese medicine refers to the organ systems e.g. spleen-pancreas deficiency. Western science is uncovering the role of our genes in determining health for an individual and genetic testing is available for some genes related to nutrient metabolism.
Eastern approaches monitor Qi where as Western medicine studies the blood and physical aspects of the body, such as X-rays and scans. Eastern approaches use pulses and meridian points to diagnose Qi deficiency, excess or stagnation for example.
Western and Eastern nutrition can work together
Should you wish to introduce Eastern nutrition principles I encourage you to remain mindful of how your dietary modifications affect your wellbeing. Also take notice of weather or seasonal change and difference to your overall health. I would recommend starting with mindful eating and appetite, adding a little spice to your meals and trying local in-season produce. Communicate the changes and results with your health care practitioners.