On Behalf of the West, I Apologise!

Eastern and Western Nutritional Philosophies

Eastern and Western cultures have, on the face of it, quite unique ways of looking at food and nutrition as a whole. However, we both agree on many things:

  • We both agree that proper nutrition is essential for achieving optimal health
  • We both agree individual foods have certain functions and these can be exploited in times of illness to restore health
  • We agree where the food comes from is important. How was the food grown or raised? How was it prepared?
  • We both agree whole foods are best
  • We both agree that no two individuals are the same
  • We both agree nutritional imbalance leads to poor health.

Where we differ is the language and terminology we use when describing various processes. Western culture leans heavily on the scientific definition. We like to name the exact properties of a food that have the effect, focusing on an individual’s calorific intake, vitamin and mineral levels, protein, carbs and fats, for different stages of growth and development. We use science and studies to corroborate our approach. Eastern culture tend to use more empirical data, this is information acquired by observation or experimentation, and tends to use more metaphorical and historical language to describe the processes it sees.

Yin and yang symbol

A perfect example here is the concept of yin and yang. In practice, Eastern culture would state that an individual might have a hot constitution. People such as these, who do not focus on consuming cooling foods to balance things up, tend to be prone to hot rashes, gut issues or a great number of other maladies. What these cooling foods might be will differ slightly from person to person. Western culture, on the other hand, would describe this person as having a possible food sensitivity. We would describe their symptoms as being a result of eating foods they cannot digest properly, resulting in inflammation. This inflammation can result in a hot rash, gut issues or a great number of other maladies. We would submit the person to a variety of tests, diagnose the issue and recommend a diet for this person void of the foods suspected of causing the issue.

It’s the same thing, just described differently. Eastern culture uses huge amounts of experience and makes changes. Western culture tends to use a test before making these changes. Both patients end up eating foods that agree with them and the issue resolves.

Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages. While Eastern medicine is slower to adopt certain scientific approaches, Since separating from Eastern ways, Western medicine’s new found love affair with science and chemistry means it has dropped thousands of years of experience and now only credits what it can see and measure.

Is Crocodile Good for a Cough?

crocodile

I was struck by how I too fell perfectly and predictably into my category. As my constant debates with vets online has undoubtedly proven, I am very vocal about anyone who cynically discounts or discards the very obvious benefits of feeding dogs fresh food in favour of the “science” of dry food without engaging in a scientific debate. If we ignore the fact they consistently fail to produce a single study to back up any of their points, where I do, I was extremely surprised to find that I was guilty of the very same thing, only mine was for an ancient culture on the other side of the world.

It happened like this. I have been asked to do a two-day seminar in Taiwan on the 11th of August this year. Very exciting (Switzerland in October!). You always ask is there anything in particular that needs focusing on. This time my host asked me would I be speaking at all about TCVM (Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine). I told him I knew little of the concept but I was really intrigued. I told him I would do a little digging and will try to make some analogies where I could. Out of interest, I asked him what in particular he had in mind. He asked me what I knew of crocodile meat curing a cough.

Now, at this point, many of your brains are doing the same things mine was. First off, crocodile? But why not. We slaughter eat chickens, pheasant, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, deer, pigs, cows, horse and fish. Why not crocodile? Most importantly, you’re also thinking – meat cure a cough? No way! Go on, admit it! I did, anyway.

This makes you (and me) no better than a poorly versed vet who refuses to even entertain the notion of a fresh meat diet for a dog!

We need to bear in mind the dramatic effects of various plants on us. From hallucinogenics to antioxidants to our most powerful drugs, plants can and do all sorts of things for us, physiologically speaking, so why not a certain part of an animal? Meat contains all sorts of natural hormones that we exploit daily, insulin being the best example. We originally isolated all our commercial insulin from pig and sheep pancreas until we learned how to make the human kind synthetically in the 80’s. But this is just one hormone. There are hundreds, many of which we now replicate synthetically, such as cortisone from the adrenal glands.

Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence…

Anyway, I was intrigued so I went looking for a study. There were none that I could find, outside of the vitamins and minerals contained therein. In a way, that I didn’t find a study makes sense. After all, we are not long eating it. This is supported by the fact dogs, meat eater for the last 5million years at least, appear to benefit greatly from a fresh meat diet. There is, in fact, a whole new branch of emerging science called organotherapy whereby organ meats are used to cure certain maladies in that organ in dogs AND humans (in dogs we use the fresh organ, in humans they use extracts).

[Please, I do not want a conversation on rhino horn or tiger meat and bones used in TCM. This is not the time nor place for it. There is no science to back up that illegal trade. I do not support it. I doubt any Westerner does but nor do most Easterners (though 23million might). So pop the tar brush away. For an excellent read on the subject, check out this article by Nature].

Lacking any evidence, do I at this point say he’s wrong? Absolutely not. You can never tell someone they’re wrong unless you yourself have put it to the test. I can be disappointed but the last five years of debating the benefits of fresh food to vets who will tell me I’m wrong without even trying it on a few dogs, has taught me that there may well be something in what he is saying just the science hasn’t caught up yet.

lady doing yoga in front of a sunset

When you think about it, Western culture is slowly swinging back around towards Eastern philosophies. More and more studies are coming out to support the very obvious benefits of mindfulness. Best selling, block-buster books like “10% happier” written by unhappy Westerners who were fixed with yoga and mindfulness, now cite many studies proving how effective these things can be. They clearly and often quite dramatically changes many aspects of our physical and mental health. It works and it has created a whole movement in the West. Mindfulness is Eastern philosophy, as old as the hills. They’ve been practicing it for literally thousands of years but Westerners only come around when a celebrity writes a book (and I only come around when I see the studies). Feng shui is now proven to relax people. Also Eastern. Acupuncture is gathering serious pace. Eastern. Herbs as medicine?! Eastern.

How long have we spent sneering at Eastern concepts? And how wrong have we been?!

After a little detour towards the chemical, Western culture is now coming back to Easter philosophies, like someone who’s had an affair. Now though we’re crawling back, tail between the legs. All that can be said for the separation is that we’ve learned. Maybe we can unite and start something again, knowing we’re better together. Not from the old place mind, that’s gone, but from a new place, somewhere in the middle, where both parties contribute what they’ve learned to build a more robust union going forward. Better together.

man grovelling to woman

While the West has had it’s share of some incredible advances in science, where we clearly fall down, certainly in the case of food, is that we study food in so much detail that very often we cannot see the wood for the trees. The current state of the veterinary sector‘s nutritional knowledge being the stand out example here. Their faith is now so ingrained in bad science that they will try to debate the disadvantages of fresh food for an animal (often without using a single study in support, somewhat ironically).

But we are all guilty of this. We in the West seem to have cast off a more holistic understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the planet in favour of a more inward looking and minute approach. Something about our demand for proof has left us extremely cynical. We continue to struggle with an effective natural product, trying to tease out and synthetically replicate the one thing which might have a positive effect on us despite studies repeatedly demonstrating, more often than not, that these individual compounds fail to deliver when not in their whole form and via the food itself. With drug use and chronic disease rocketing in our populations, you could argue we are worse off for it.

The West’s approach to pet food, a marriage of poor science and convenience, produced a heavily processed, synthetic, nutrient defunct food stuff that is very, very far from suitable for the animal it is intended to feed. But we are all a bit responsible as we all bought into it and provided the market. If we didn’t, they wouldn’t make it.

So I’m flying out West to apologise and try set the record straight.

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For a great read on the differences and similarities of Eastern and Western nutrition, check out “Achieving Balance Through the Art of Eating: Demystifying Eastern Nutrition and Blending it with Western Nutrition“.

Dr. Conor Brady

After a doctorate studying the effects of nutrition on the behaviour and gut morphology of animals, five years with Guide Dogs as a trainer and supervisor, some success on Dragons Den with the finest raw dog food company and the last few years both writing and speaking on canine nutrition and health, I can say with some confidence that the pet food and drug industry cares not a jot for the health of your pet.
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