Eastern vs Western
Approaches to Nutrition and Diet


What are the Differences between Eastern and Western approaches to Nutrition? Western Nutritionists tend to focus on diagnosing and treating a disease or illness based on a patient's symptoms. Eastern medicine considers both patient's symptoms and an individualized diagnosis of a patient's Qi (or chi)

Food. We can’t live without it. Yet ideas about nutrition differ quite a bit from East to West. 

Of course, the human diet must contain certain essentials for us to be healthy and to thrive. Our health depends upon a balanced diet containing proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, trace elements, and minerals. How we achieve this varies wildly depending on social class, geography, religion, philosophy, the extent of globalization, tradition, and habit. Diets range from the almost entirely meat-based diet of the traditional Inuit to the entirely fruit-based diet of the modern-day fruitarian.

As we discuss food, we should be very aware that many people on this planet experience food insecurity – even in the developed world. This is to some extent the result of the breakdown of human relationships with the food they consume – to put it simply, most of us don’t produce what we consume. This is a concerning situation that needs to be addressed urgently and has been highlighted by the covid-19 epidemic, that has thrown millions into hunger.

So let‘s compare the philosophy of the traditional Western nutritionist with that of the traditional Eastern nutritionist. (It should be said that much of Eastern tradition is gradually being absorbed into Western thinking, so the distinction is not as clear cut as it might have once seemed.)



The Philosophy Of Western Nutrition


In Western nutrition, food is looked at scientifically. It is broken down into its constituent parts – proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and so on. The effect that a particular food may how on an individual metabolism is rarely taken into account. The basic dietary recommendation for a healthy person is to eat a balanced and varied diet, in moderation yet in adequate amounts. Age, sex, height, and weight may be taken into account, but little else is deemed of interest or importance in constructing a healthy diet.


At one time, the “meat and two vegetables” model was the recommended one, with plenty of bread, potatoes, meat, cheese, cream, eggs, butter, and so on, with less attention paid to vegetables and fruit. In times when people went out and did a hard physical day’s work, this may have been reasonable advice, but this pattern of eating has led to malnutrition and ill health, with the high consumption of sugars and fats resulting in an epidemic of obesity throughout the Western world. This epidemic has extended to the East, as people copied the Western style of eating.

However, in recent times a more thoughtful approach has been taken in the West, that takes into account differences in genetic makeup and the concept that food is actually not just fuel, but behaves more like medicine.

The Philosophy Of Eastern Nutrition

Eastern nutritional concepts revolve around balancing the individual harmonies of each person’s body. There is no “one size fits all” approach, unlike in Western nutritional thought. To take Traditional Chinese Medicine as an example, the focus is on balancing yin and yang (the hot and cold humors). The five “tastes” acrid, sweet, bitter, salty, and sour are the characteristics of both food and people. Balancing all of these elements to create the correct diet for each individual is what the Eastern nutritionist seeks.

In the eastern nutritional philosophy, food is not just food. How it is grown and raised, how it’s prepared, how and where, when and with whom it is eaten, all of these aspects of food play an important part in whether it will be fully beneficial or not. Each individual reacts differently – one size definitely doesn’t fit all. 


The Combination Of East And West

Fortunately, the two ways of thinking are growing closer together, and by learning from each other, a synthesis is being created where food is indeed considered principally as medicine. It’s medicine, of course, but it also brings us joy and happiness as we enjoy delicious food with family and friends, and this is almost equally important to good health. 


Detox Diets For Improved Health

One aspect of nutrition that has created a great deal of interest is the detox diet. A whole range of foods have been shown to combat free radicals which create a harmful build-up of toxins in the body, resulting in illness at worst, and a general feeling of running at less than full power at best. At first, Western nutritionists tried to synthesize the detoxing elements in foods such as turmeric, berries, and garlic, and of course, we are all familiar with these supplements, and many of us take them. Eastern nutritionists would insist that the actual food be consumed, as the extremely complex structure of a food, with all its accompanying micronutrients, cannot even be successfully analyzed in the laboratory, let alone replicated in a pill.

The development of detox diets as a means to health has been very useful for many people. Again, not everyone is the same, and if you have health issues, it’s wise to consult a naturopath who can guide you through a detox diet using both Eastern and Western principles.


Naturopathy – Traditional And Non-Traditional

Naturopaths use many ideas found in traditional Eastern nutrition and medicine, so to that extent, they are steeped in tradition. They are however regarded as non-traditional or alternative medical practitioners in the West.

A naturopath treats the whole person – this philosophy of total concern about all aspects of a patient’s life is known as holistic medicine. They very much focus on nutrition, but may also use massage, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and homeopathy. 


A good naturopath will spend a lot of time talking to you about your health, your activities, your diet, of course, and your medical history. You can expect them to ask you a great many detailed questions – don’t be alarmed – this is helping the practitioner understand exactly how to balance your health requirements and in particular, the foods you need to eat for health. You can find naturopathic physicians who are Medical doctors who have had additional training in naturopathic practices. This is an excellent example of the combination of Western and Eastern traditions: you could think of this kind of practitioner as the best of both worlds. You might choose to consult a naturopathic physician if you have a serious medical condition.


There are also Traditional Naturopaths, who do not have conventional Western medical training, but who are steeped in the Eastern traditions. A Traditional Neuropath might be the right choice for you if you are simply looking for a tune-up, an improvement in your diet, or natural weight loss, or if Western medicine has not helped you in the way you would wish.


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