When I think about the amount of sugar I ate as a child, I am appalled. Every holiday was a love-fest of jelly beans, chocolate kisses, candy canes, and frosted cookies. At the time, we didn’t know any better, other than the fact that we were making our local dentist wealthy.
Now we know better, but unfortunately we eat far more sugar today than we did back then, both in the form of sweets and sugars hidden in foods that have no business sporting sugar at all. We now know that sugar is not our friend and should be avoided.
However, according to Chinese food therapy, the nature of sweets is far more nuanced than being labeled as good or bad. Here are nine things to know about sweets according to Chinese medicine:
1. Each organ system has a flavor associated with it, in which a little bit of that flavor strengthens the system, but too much overwhelms it. In Chinese medicine, the flavor of sweetness affects your stomach and spleen; your body’s system of digestion.
2. It’s natural to crave something a little sweet after a meal, because the sweet flavor acts as a digestive aid. So a piece of fruit or a small square of chocolate helps you relax and digest your food. A problem arises when you try to satisfy that mildly sweet craving with a piece of triple chocolate peanut butter cheesecake topped with ice cream. It completely overwhelms your digestive process.
3. When your digestion is overwhelmed with sweets, the most common result is something called dampness, which is the digestive process getting bogged down and not metabolizing fluids very well. This is another case of a little is good, but too much is not good.
Your body needs to be moist, but when your digestive process gets boggy, it becomes too damp and the resulting moisture settles in puddles. Problems like yeast infections, athlete’s foot, bladder infections, water retention, oral thrush, and even excess body fat are considered your body’s damp puddles.
4. There’s more bad news. If that dampness sticks around over time, it also becomes hot. In Western medicine, that translates into inflammation. Conditions such as gout, arthritis, infections, shingles, irritable bowel syndrome, and sinus problems are in most cases considered to be damp plus heat in Chinese medicine.
5. When you have crazy, out-of-control cravings for sweets, it is a sign that your digestion is struggling. Unfortunately, giving in to those kinds of cravings only makes the problem worse.
6. In addition, the sweeter the food, the more dampening it is to your body.
7. Now the good news. Foods that are slightly sweet are actually nourishing because eating those foods and digesting them well replenishes your body’s energy, blood, and nutrients. But you only need a little sweet, and the right kind.
8. The right kind of sweet-flavored foods are those considered to be full sweet. They are warming and nourishing, and include complex carbohydrates, proteins, rice, sweet potatoes, and root vegetables. (Think of yams or carrots: sweet, but not overwhelming.)
Empty sweets are the ones to avoid or eat only in small amounts. They tend to be cooling and dispersing (moving), and include simple sugars, refined carbohydrates, honey, raw sugar, and artificial sweeteners. They tend to offer up empty calories, are not very nourishing, and engender dampness.
9. Unfortunately, the kinds of things that you crave when your digestion is funky or your energy is low are the empty sweets–cake, cookies, candy, doughnuts, and the like. However, it’s the full-sweet foods that your body needs to satisfy those cravings, and make them go away for good.
While I don’t eat the kinds of sweets that I did as a child, every once in a while, I will have something that is very empty sweet. It reminds me of the doughnuts, chocolate chip cookies, and thickly frosted cakes that I ate growing up. The bloated, tired feeling I get afterward also reminds me why I don’t eat them more often.
Lynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of “Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health.” This article was originally published on AcupunctureTwinCities.com