Preface: The following advice is not intended for those who adhere to a vegetarian diet for moral, religious, or dietary reasons. People who have made a formal decision to remove meat and animal products from their diet have often made the proper substitutions to ensure that they are getting all of the nutrients they need. This article is predominately aimed at individuals who consider themselves omnivores, but for whatever reason have chosen to remove red meats from their diet.
In Chinese medicine, there is a condition that is referred to as blood deficiency. The main symptoms of this condition include fatigue, dry skin and hair, brittle nails, pale complexion, muscle weakness, constipation, and menstrual irregularities. Many of these symptoms should seem familiar to anyone who has studied anemia. Anemia is often blamed on malnutrition and/or excessive blood loss, and that also holds true with the Chinese diagnosis of blood deficiency.
Looking closely at the symptoms from a nutritional perspective, however, shows that there are some differences between the Western and TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) diagnosis. For the Chinese, the hair and nails are extensions of the blood, so if the blood is insufficient to nourish the body, there won’t be enough left over to produce these tissues. Similarly, if the proper nutrients aren’t taken in, the muscles will waste away as they are not getting the materials they need to maintain themselves. In comparison, while anemia can be linked to several of the symptoms listed in the above paragraph, items like dryness and fatigue can be linked to insufficient fat intake as well as an iron deficiency. Muscle weakness is especially interesting sign in that one major cause is a hormone deficiency, specifically testosterone. Testosterone, along with several other hormones, require fat in their production and synthesis, fats which are either those stored in the body or taken from the diet.
One of the major splits between the approaches taken by mainstream Western medicine and Chinese medicine is the use of food as a treatment approach. A major reason for this is philosophical. The Western approach to treatment has a preference for measured dosages of nutrients when dealing with deficiency, often delivered as supplements, whereas Chinese medical philosophy takes the belief that the body will take what it needs from the food unless there is a digestive problem that exists simultaneously, in which case, both problems are treated concurrently.
In the case of blood deficiency, the best food to treat this condition is animal meat. This doesn’t mean just beef, but includes pretty much the meat of any four-legged mammal. Venison, elk, pork, goat, lamb – these can all work to varying degrees. In fact, even the dark meat from birds or fish whose meat is darker in color can work to build the blood. Beef used to be considered the best food to use, but as corporate farming has moved away from grass to corn-fed animals, the nutritional value of most farmed beef has declined immensely. Organic, grass-fed beef is still wonderful for this capacity, but the fact that it’s often considerably more expensive causes people to reject it as a dietary option.
One of the reasons that animal meat is superior to fish or fowl for this purpose is that the meat from these animals is more similar in make-up to our own tissues so it carries more of the nutrients that the human body can use. These animals are also different enough from us that most of the diseases they carry won’t cross over to humans (Pork is one of the exceptions, which is why it must be cooked so thoroughly). The muscles of fish and fowl operate on different principals and serve different purposes in their respective animals, so there are less nutrients contained within that people’s bodies can use. For example, the muscles found in mammals are often layered with fat which works as both insulation and fuel (the muscles create heat as they are used, which aids the body in maintaining its temperature). Because birds benefit from being lighter, most of their insulation comes from their feathers, which means their muscles tissue only contains the bare minimum of fat. Similarly, most fish, with the exception of those that dwell in the coldest waters, also tend to carry very little fat in the muscle tissue itself. Among cold water varieties, most of the fat is located between the skin and the interior tissues, so even when it is served, the amount of fat is often reduced or removed entirely.
So, why, if fat is necessary for proper health, has red meat been demonized while fish and lean meat been raised up on a dais as a healthier food option? One of the unfortunate legacies of the 1980’s in terms of health with the mistaken belief that a low-fat diet was healthier than a more balanced one. Part of the reason this came to be was due to the increase of unnatural fats in the diet, which the body stores more readily due to the difficulties it has in trying to break them down for use as fuel and raw materials, and which will cause people to gain weight more quickly. By labeling all fats as unhealthy, however, the average person’s intake of natural fats also decreased, which led some people to suffer the symptoms listed above. This led many people to be diagnosed as anemic, when in fact iron deficiency was only part of their problem. This opinion has been reversing in the last several years, but a large part of the population still holds the belief that a lean diet is superior to a more balanced one, especially in terms of controlling weight.
For Americans, and women more than men, the pressure to be thin is often much stronger than the pressure to be healthy, and while it is possible to do both, many people are left without the information they need in order to accomplish this. As such, women are much more likely to eliminate red meats from their diet as a way to cut fat and calories. Unfortunately, because the majority of women also undergo blood and tissue loss as part of their monthly cycle, their need to replenish these tissues is often very poorly served by a diet that has reduced protein and fat content. Many women who suffer from difficult or absent menses can often see very strong benefits from adding even one or two meat-containing meals a week.
Another common issue that affects both men and women which arises with blood deficiency is insomnia. The two organs most commonly linked to blood-deficiency-related insomnia in TCM are the liver and the heart. According to Chinese theory, at night as the time for sleep draws near, the blood carries the Qi (or energy of vitality) into the liver, which brings on feelings of sleepiness and a desire to rest. If the blood is insufficient, then the Qi will make a person restless and unable to sleep, or they will wake after only a few hours and be unable to return to sleep. When the blood deficiency affects the heart, sleep is more shallow and easily disturbed, and the afflicted will often toss and turn for most of the night.
To connect the Eastern theory to a Western one, the liver is a major part of the metabolic process. One of the ways the body’s internal clock works is by reacting to blood sugar levels. When those levels start to rise, the waking process begins. If a person eats foods which raise and lower the blood sugar more quickly (carbohydrates, specifically), his or her blood sugar will be more reactive. This means the body will reach the levels associated with wakefulness much sooner than normal and because the body assumes it is supposed to be awake, will then prevent the person from falling back asleep.
In contrast, the heart is less affected by blood sugar levels because it’s predominate form of fuel is fat. Since the heart is a muscle that is continually contracting and relaxing, it needs a steady form of fuel, which is exactly the purpose fat serves. When the heart isn’t getting sufficient fuel, it stops functioning as effectively, which manifests as palpitations, shallow heart rate, and blood flow inefficiency. This reduction in blood getting to where it needs to go can create feelings of discomfort, anxiety, and general unease which then prevents the individual from entering the state of relaxation needed to attain and maintain a deep sleep.
A further problem with blood deficiency is that if it isn’t addressed, it won’t reverse itself. Often the symptoms it creates will accelerate the problems felt by the individual. Without sufficient rest, the body requires more calories and fuel to function, putting a greater strain on an already stressed system. As that continues, feelings of fatigue, anxiety, and unease continue to build. As the blood starts to become more and more sparse, people will start to actually start to feel hotter in their core (similar to hot flashes) while at the same time having insufficient amounts of blood and Qi to nourish their limbs (leading to cold hands and feet). Another common sign is increased reactivity to irritants, so that there will outbreaks of flushed and itchy skin, rashes, and hives. Hormonal disturbances, metabolic problems, inflammatory conditions, and generalized weakness and deterioration can also occur over a significant period of time.
Thankfully, however, there are numerous dietary ways to treat this condition. As mentioned before, gradually introducing more meat into the diet, specifically meat from mammalian sources, is the best solution. (One reason to do it gradually is that the body needs time to adjust to the increased levels of protein and fat. Over-consuming these foods without gradually working up to it can put strain of the digestion, leading to gas, bloating, constipation, and other feelings associated with overdoing it at Thanksgiving). Some other helpful foods include blackstrap molasses, dark green and red leafy vegetables, nuts, certain legumes, eggs, and lightly processed whole grains. While dairy does possess some protein content, the low levels of proteins found in it means that the amount that would need to be consumed in order for it to act as an acceptable substitute would likely lead to some intense digestive distress.
The easiest advice in terms of which foods to avoid during this time is this: Don’t buy anything that was prepared more than a few hours before you walked in the door. Most of the unhealthy fats, carbs, and wasted calories in the average person’s diet come from processed and pre-made foods. Eliminating those foods from the diet and replacing them with more freshly made alternatives can have a large impact on all aspects of health, but in terms of replacing empty nutrients with more healthful ones, there’s no better step to make.
Hopefully this information has been helpful, and as always, if you have questions, feel free to reach me via email, Facebook, or Twitter.