As a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, I want to contribute some food for thought on how we view sugar, and also shed light on some of the problems it can cause.
Chinese medicine carries the weight of well over 2,500 years of empirical evidence. That’s a whole lot of wisdom gleaned from observing over and over again what happens when certain foods are eaten in varying quantities. The Chinese understand the energetic properties of each food, namely the effect it has on the body and mind. Chinese medicine and food are inseparable…. food is always seen as medicine.
In Chinese medicine there are the 5 tastes: Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Salty and Astringent. Each flavour is associated with an organ system, and in the case of ‘sweetness’ it’s the Spleen. For the Chinese, the Spleen relates to the Earth element and it, along with the Stomach, are the primary organs of digestion. The Spleen transforms the food we eat into substances which are used to generate Qi and Blood. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ you might say, ‘My Spleen doesn’t do that and there’s nothing wrong with it!’ Stay with me…. the Chinese were referring to our digestive function when using the ‘Spleen’ concept.
In the right amount, ‘sweetness’ will nourish the Spleen. However an excess, especially in the case of added sugar, can damage it. If you have a ‘weak Spleen’, then you will often crave sugary foods. Moderate amounts of ‘sweet’ foods like pumpkin or sweet potato help to nourish and strengthen it. The refined sugar in chocolate, cream doughnuts and pasta sauce only serves to weaken the digestive system further. This can become a vicious cycle of sugar addiction and declining health. Sounds familiar?
If the Spleen is not working optimally, then we don’t have enough Qi and Blood. If we are lacking in Qi we may get tired very easily. If Blood is deficient we might have a paler complexion than usual and, in the case of females, minimal menstrual blood, possibly with period pain. Spleen deficiency as it is known, can also lead to ‘Dampness’, which can manifest as weight gain, mucous imbalances and a feeling of ‘heaviness’ and lethargy. Most modern day digestive complaints such as IBS type symptoms are also related to the concept of Spleen dysfunction.
Now, you might find it interesting that Chinese medicine also associates excessive worry and prolonged sitting with damage to the digestive system. I suspect this is at least partly due to our digestive organs being all squashed up, lacking good blood flow and not being able to function optimally when we are sitting for prolonged periods.
So perhaps this is you or someone you work with? Sitting at the desk all day without going for regular walks, worrying about work deadlines without taking time out, all the while nibbling away on sugary snacks like chocolate to try and relax. If so, this is a vicious cycle and sugar cravings are as much a problem as they are a symptom.
As for refined sugar, the Chinese were never eating it, at least not until the modern era. In Chinese nutritional medicine ‘sweetness’ refers at least in part to the natural sugars and carbohydrate found in whole foods. It shouldn't come as any surprise that foods indicated as being good for the Spleen are also generally low in fructose.
Remember, ‘sweetness’ in moderation is necessary. Sugar is not.