East Meets West – Cultural views on health & nutrition


How the Western and Eastern world views health has a significant influence on what and how one eats.


Eastern and Western views on health influence what we eat

Both the eastern and western approaches to health inherently rely on foods to sustain the body.  Each system however, has a unique way of understanding the role of food and nutrition in their approach to health.

The western views measures health according to:

  1. Body Mass Index (BMI)
  2. Physical strength
  3. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
  4. Aerobic Capacity
  5. Blood-Sugar Tolerance
  6. Cholesterol/HDL Ratio
  7. Blood Pressure
  8. Bone Density

The Eastern world measures health according to:

  1. A feeling of lightness in the body
  2. An ability to withstand change
  3. A stable body
  4. A focused mind

The difference in focus

Western View:  Each one of the western measures of health has values associated with it.  This western view of what is means to be healthy focuses on nourishing the body in a way that the health indicators are in a normal (healthy) range.  The underlying premise is that the physical body is of the utmost importance.  The western approach to health is evidence-based according to modern scientific ways of investigation that date back to the 16th and 17th centuries.

Eastern View:  The eastern perspective takes into account the mind, body, and spirit of the individual.  Nutrition is seen as nourishing the body and also maintaining a healthy inner environment, the mind.   One of the most well known approaches to taking care of the whole person is the system of Ayurveda that dates back to around 1000 BCE (Before the time of the Common Era).  So there are a few thousands of years more experience in the eastern view. 

How does the East vs. West perspective on health affect how and what we eat?

The nature of food is inherent in any eastern  or traditional culture.   Food tastes sour,  bitter,  sweet,  pungent,  or salty or a combination of these and eastern, as well as most traditional, cultures have developed a system around these tastes that explains how various foods affect the physical processes such as digestion and also how energy is moved through the body.   Here are some examples:

  • Sour foods promote digestion and have a mildly warming effect on the body.  They aid in allowing energy to enter the body.  Sourness guides  energy  (chi or qi) into the body.
  • Bitter foods are cool and have a quality of lightness.  Bitter foods move energy down the body.
  • Sweet foods are heavy, moist, and cooling.  Sweetness disperses energy, spreading it out.  Sweet foods are grounding in moderation but can result in inertia and increased bulk in excess. 
  • Pungent or spicy foods cause energy to move up and out.  Pungent foods are very stimulating to the digestive system.  They guide the energy up and out.
  • Salty foods move energy down the body.   Too much salt can cause a system to be waterlogged and immobile.  

According to the Eastern mindset,  humans do well if all of these types of foods are balanced, but balanced according to individual needs.   The east view recognizes that while all humans are at some level the same,  they also recognize that individuals differ according to body type and constitution and will therefore need a different assortment of foods to balance their unique constitution.

In the US (western view) we rely on external guidelines that are directed towards populations and not individuals.  For example,  the Food Pyramid  is a guide that  is published by the Department of Agriculture to tell us  collectively how to balance our diets.  However, as individuals we largely ignore  many of the principles of balance that the Food Pyramid is trying to convey.  As a society we tend to feast mostly on sweet, rich and thermally warm foods.  No wonder then why we have a preponderance of overweight and obese individuals.

Feeding the body and nourishing the soul

So the east is thousands of years ahead of the west in observing individuals and their reactions to certain foods and tastes and to coming up with a scheme of how individuals need to eat to move the energy around in their bodies.  But the  western approach, being very scientific gives us data and tells us where we need to fall in the numbers game to remain healthy.  The basis for these data are scientific studies that have been experimentally proven.  So how can we merge the two modalities?  My emphasis will be to examine what knowledge we have gleaned from a scientific approach and apply it with an eastern attitude.  This story begins with becoming aware that nutritious food  feeds the body and also the non-material parts of us.  Food affects who and what we are in all areas-physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

For simple starters here are twenty ideas for feeding not only your body but your mind and spirit as well:

  1. Choose foods that are closer to the base of the food chain.  Simply put-foods (green plants) at the base of the chain incorporate the energy of the sun directly to grow, reproduce and stay alive.  They are able to use the sunlight directly to get the energy they need.  So eating green vegetables will supply a more primary source of energy than say a prime rib.
  2. Purchase local produce-less energy loss from the foods themselves. 
  3. Buy in-season foods.
  4. Support your local farmer’s markets.
  5. Take time to prepare a meal.  There is a growing awareness that if you cook and prepare food with attention, love and respect for those you are cooking for, that positive energy is transmitted to the meal.  Think of a great Thanksgiving dinner or other feast where someone(s) have spent time and care with the preparation of the food.
  6. Know the nutritional value of what you purchase (become knowledgeable about labels and how they can be used to your benefit)
  7. Choose a food you know nothing about and find new and different recipes.
  8. Plant your own garden.  What better way than to eat in-season and closest to nature.
  9. Keep an herb garden.
  10.  Substitute herbs for salt
  11. Try a vegetarian meal once or twice a week if you are a meat eater.
  12. Prepare a vegan meal once or twice a week if you are a vegetarian.
  13. Become aware of how different foods affect your body as well as your emotions.
  14. Spend time cooking a meal for someone you love.  Prepare the meal with great care and attention to details.
  15. Develop the art of positive conversation around the dinner table. 
  16. Join or start a book club where participants prepare a meal that sets a positive tone for discussion.
  17. Cook something you really like for yourself.
  18. Experiment with foods from other cultures.  Notice the balance of the tastes and colors.
  19. Prepare a meal or food that you loved from your childhood.
  20. Keep a diary of the foods you eat for a week and write down what is happening in your life and how you feel about events.  At the end of the week read over your diary and notice any connections.

In the next postings we will look at nutrition as we currently understand it in the west and explore how we might take an eastern approach with the material.