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Introduction to holistic nutrition—awareness, food quality, and food energetics


Based on my own intensive process of healing through nutrition, I found that in the end, the most important part of the healing process came not as much from changing what I ate as from developing a greater awareness, or mindfulness, around the whole eating process. This awareness can be broken down into 4 parts:

  1. What does your body feel like when you’re eating, and after you eat?
  2. What are you eating / what are the ingredients?
  3. When are you eating / is there a regular schedule?
  4. What are you doing / what’s your state of mind while you’re eating?

Notice that none of these involve actually changing anything other than the level of your awareness. However, as we become more aware of what we’re actually doing, and how we are actually feeling, changes tend to come naturally, and are motivated from your own experience, not another person, or a book, or a scientific study, telling you what to do, or how to eat. Once you increase your own nutritional awareness, you will be able to tap into an internal knowing of the food changes that are right for you.

Awareness of the Body—how do you feel after you eat?

Most important in these 4 areas of awareness is awareness of the body during and after you eat. For those of you who do not have a body awareness practice, I will help you get started with a basic body awareness method; and for those of you who have an established practice, we will apply that to the eating process.

Food quality

Traditional nutrition

One of the most revealing parts of my nutritional studies came when I learned about “traditional” nutrition—how people ate in pre-industrial times. Much of my education in this area came from Sally Fallon, her book Nourishing Traditions, and the Weston A. Price Foundation. Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, and The Omnivore’s Dillema are related books on this topic.

From the beginning of human time, up to about 75 years ago, before the advent of refrigeration, efficient automobile and air transport, and the modern chemical industry, food remained about the same. It was for the most part cooked fresh daily, locally and organically grown, in season, preserved using lacto-fermentation (think pickled beets and sauerkraut) and other natural methods, and cooked using everyday cooking methods, usually by someone that you knew.

Modern industrialization of food

Over the past 75 years, the growth in technology and transportation has resulted in a food situation radically different than anything our ancestors experienced. Now, our everyday food in the supermarket can have a shelf life of years, is imported from around the world, grown with pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and genetic modifications, preserved with chemicals, and manufactured using chemicals, solvents, intense heat and pressure, usually by someone whose sole goal is to make a profit off of you. Sounds depressing, yes, but, this is the condition of much of our current food supply, and there are a lot of people with a vested financial interest in keeping it that way.

Nutrient density vs. empty calories

This incredible change in our dietary habits has been linked to many of our modern diseases, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and so on.

One reason for the increase in nutrition-related diseases is that the foods we traditionally ate were “nutrient-dense,” while the modern food supply is full of “empty calories.” That means that even though we may eat the same amount of food, our body does not receive the same nutrition.

This can lead to nutrient deficiencies, which register in our bodies as a lack of satisfaction. And this can lead to overeating, in an attempt to satisfy the desire for sufficient nutrients. When a high-quality, and thus nutrient-dense, diet is adopted, foods are more satisfying, and the tendency to overeat will likely decline.

A new normal

A large part of our current food problem lies in the fact that, for most of us, we have never experienced food in any other context but this modern one, so it seems ‘normal’ to us. To make things more difficult, many highly processed foods filled with chemicals mask themselves as “health foods,” begging the question—What foods are really healthy for me to eat?

Fortunately, the answer is rather simple—eat (for the most part) how your ancestors did. Or, as Michael Pollan puts it: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Returning to high-quality, nutrient-dense food

What he means by “food” here is what I’m calling high-quality food. Getting a solid education about what constitutes high quality food allows us to make the most informed, and hopefully, health-giving and nourishing choices.

What determines a food’s quality?

  1. Freshness – Is the food locally grown or transported a far distance? How long has the food been on the shelf?
  2. Organic vs. Conventional – what chemicals have been used in the food production process?
  3. Manufacturing Process – how was the food made? How was the structure of the food changed in the process? Was it made under conditions of high heat and pressure, or with chemicals, solvents, and other modern food industry techniques? Is the food pasteurized or homogenized?
  4. Growing Conditions – for animal products, how were the animals raised? Did they live a life that is normal to an animal of its kind, or one dictated by the demands of a highly industrialized factory farm? Were they injected with hormones, antibiotics or other chemicals?
  5. Refined vs. Unrefined – is the food refined from its original form, and what effect does this have on how the body processes it?

“Wrecked” and “Empty” foods

All of these factors directly influence the nutrient content of the food, determining whether you will be eating a nutrient dense food that is able to satisfy the needs of your body and mind, or a “wrecked” or “empty” food.

“Wrecked” foods are those foods whose molecular structures have been altered by industrial processes in a way that makes them hard for the body to process, such as intense heat, pressure, radiation, microwaving, genetic modification, additions of chemicals, solvents and heavy metals, pasteurization and homogenization, etc.

“Empty” foods are those that have been stripped of too many nutrients in the refining process, thus creating a food with low nutrient density. Refined white sugar, refined white flower, and refined white salt are examples of “empty foods.” These particular 3 empty foods also happen to be in a large majority of processed foods, even the ones labeled health foods.

High-quality foods are outside of the mainstream supermarkets

Eating only high-quality food may sound daunting, because most of the food that is available in our mainstream markets is not high-quality. In fact, it is hard to find even one item of high-quality food in most Safeways, Giants, and other similar supermarkets. This is because the items on the shelves are stocked based on low price point, long shelf life, brand name recognition, ease of use, and several other factors, none of the which have to do with how healthy the foods are.

Many health food stores carry only about 50–60% high-quality foods, with the rest being marketed as high-quality on the packaging, but not actually fitting the bill.

How to find high-quality foods

So how to go about finding and eating high-quality foods?

First is to clearly identify and understand which foods are high-quality. This is an educational process that I can help guide you through.

Next is to identify which high-quality foods are most important for you to switch to first. Depending on your health condition, or health goals, we can determine which changes would be most beneficial for you to make first, and which changes will be most beneficial down the road.

The benefits of high-quality foods

As you begin to make the change to high-quality foods, you may begin to notice some of their benefits: increased energy and immunity, greater sense of satisfaction from your meals and thus a reduction in food intake and a loss of excess weight, more sustained energy without the highs and crashes, increased resistance to stress and emotional ups and downs, clearer thinking, and increased mental focus and concentration.

When making the switch to a high-quality diet, it is important to use the skills of Awareness that I mentioned in the first section, to assess for yourself what changes you notice in your own body, emotions, and mind.

Chinese medicine food energetics

Food energetics—understanding foods based on felt, qualitative measures

Many traditional cultures classified their foods not according to proteins, carbohydrates, calories or vitamins, but according to how each food affected their bodies. They did not have advanced equipment to view cellular activity or understand the chemical components of each food.

What they did have were their 5 senses and a felt sense of their own bodies, emotions, and mind. With these methods of observation, they discovered that each food has a particular energetic action.

Categories of food energetics

In Chinese Medicine, the energetic action of a food is classified according to:

  • Temperature: cold, cool, warm, hot
  • Flavor: sweet, salty, bitter, spicy, sour
  • Internal organs affected

The energetic temperature of food

All of this information was gained through observing the effects of food through the 5 senses and a felt sense of the body. When judging the temperature of a food, physicians of the past observed how the temperature of their own bodies changed in response to a particular food.

Their bodies felt warmer when drinking ginger tea, or eating garlic. They felt cooler when eating a melon or tomato. In the same way, the flavor of each food was discerned.

How food energetics effect the internal organs

Determining the internal organs affected was a more subtle process. Physicians trained in the meditative arts of observing the felt sense of the body were able to actually feel their internal organs, and how they responded to foods. This is also the way that the properties of herbs and acupuncture points were discovered.

Although this sounds like an esoteric impossibility for most westerners, the training needed to reach this level of observation takes only a few years, and can be accomplished by most anyone with the proper dedication. From this internal observation, as well as from empirical observation, these physicians were able to determine how each food affected the internal organs, and what diseases each food was able to remedy.

Using food energetics to tailor your diet to your specific constitution

Food energetics is the study of how each foods impacts our bodies. For instance, if a person feels hot, irritated, sweats at night, has a red face and a hot temper, Chinese Medicine would classify that person as having excess heat. To remedy that problem with food, that person would eat foods with a cooling energetic action, such as tomato, lettuce, watermelon, mint, and so on.

Likewise, if a person was cold all the time, with cold hands and feet, a pale face, low energy, and feeling withdrawn or shy, Chinese Medicine would classify that person as having a deficient amount of heat. To remedy that problem with food, that person would eat foods with a warming energetic action, such as ginger, garlic, beef, lamb, carrots, cinnamon, and so on.

Applying these concepts to your life

Applying the concepts of Awareness, Food Quality, and Food Energetics is a long term project for anyone, but one that is well worth the effort. If you are interested in learning more about how these approaches to nutrition could help your particular situation, or you are interested in booking an acupuncture appointment (which includes nutrition counseling as part of the appointment fee), please contact me.

About the Author

Jeremy Riesenfeld, L.AC., M.AC.

Jeremy was the founder of Transformational Acupuncture. He has a passion for helping people transform their lives and health in ways that are safe, gentle, and sustainable. Since 2004, he has successfully helped clients with a wide variety of emotional, mental, and physical health complaints.

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