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You are what you eat, sort of

ANCIENT Chinese believed that eating animal organs strengthened our own corresponding organs. It is true that drinking pig's blood really builds blood, but the rest of the organ theory is mostly hogwash, writes Zhang Qian

Strengthen your heart organ by eating heart, reinforce your bones by eating bones, reinforce your liver by eating liver, and so on, goes an ancient but generally unfounded principle of traditional Chinese medicine. Many people still believe it.

However, do drink pig's blood, chicken's blood or duck's blood to strengthen your own blood, according to TCM.

Dietary therapy is a major part of TCM and yi xing bu xing (reinforce organs by organs) is an important principle in dietary treatments for ailments. This also applies to parts of an animal, or other foods that resemble a human body part (that's where the placebo effect comes in - it works if you think it works.)

It's the principle behind a lot of tonics.

The idea is that by eating kidney you can strengthen your kidneys and by eating foods that resemble certain organs you can strengthen those organs.

For example, walnuts with their round wrinkled shape resemble the convoluted brain surface and even today are considered "brain food." In fact, we know that nuts, including walnuts, are good for mental functioning. Many Chinese parents today still feed ground walnut powder to their children, especially before they take exams.

"Big-head fish," for example, is also believed to be very good brain food. Because the fish has a big head, it must have a big brain, ergo, eating it will be good for your brain. Right about fish - it's good for the heart and the brain - but not because of the big head, analagous to our heads.

Another interesting example of ingesting an animal for its characteristics: Black fish soup is a famous treatment for people recovering from surgery and is said to make them strong. The reason: The black fish is a strong muscular fish and a powerful predator. So if you want to become strong like the black fish, just eat it. The placebo effect may play a role here: You think it works, so it works.

Back to the organs. Virtually all of them (except fish brain) are high in cholesterol. Though these therapies have been extremely popular, and some still are, they are overwhelmingly not that true, as we know today. Eating animal organs does not necessarily heal those organs.

Ancient TCM practitioners observed that mammals' organs are similar to those of humans in shape, tissue and function. Therefore, they reasoned, ingesting these organs, plus the right herbs, could relieve certain organ problems. Experience showed that animals' organs were sometimes more easily absorbed than herbs and took effect sooner.

Sun Simiao, a famous medical scientist in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), first suggested the principle of yi zang zhi zang (curing organs by organs) and yi zang bu zang (reinforcing organs by organs). This was based on his long-term research, which was endorsed by another medical master Li Shizhen in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Eating organs can supply nutrition in general, but this is not effective in treating organ problems, says Dr Xia Xiang, vice president of Shanghai Dietary Therapy Seminar.

Bone for bone


Many Chinese people who suffer broken bones drink soup made from animal bones, long accepted as the best soup to reinforce bones. Actually, it doesn't do much.

Animal bones are rich in calcium but their hydroxylapatite cannot be reduced to bio-available calcium by cooking. If you eat cartilage with the soup, however, that can supply more calcium.

Tips: Eating high-calcium leafy green vegetables, drinking milk and eating milk products are the best ways to supply calcium. Eating small shrimps with their shells is helpful.

Liver for liver


Eating animals' liver definitely won't relieve liver problems. Animal liver is high in fat and patients with fatty liver and hepatitis suffer poor liver metabolism. Eating liver makes it worse.

Tips: Though eating animals' liver cannot help the liver, they can help improve eyesight and reinforce blood. Animal liver is rich in vitamin A and iron; vitamin A is good for the eyesight, while iron is necessary for blood.

Kidneys for kidneys


The kidneys in TCM refer not only to the filtering kidneys but to the reproductive system.

But eating kidneys won't do it. Kidneys, like most organ meats, are high in cholesterol.

They are, however, rich in vitamin and microelements. Eating animals' kidney can provide nutrition, but cannot relieve kidney problems.

Those who have poorly functioning kidneys or urinary tract problems should not eat kidneys because the cholesterol will aggravate the condition.

Tips: Black beans, sword beans, green beans and "blighted" wheat are recommended for people suffering some urinary problems, such as small kidney stones.

Blood for blood


Drinking or eating (jelled) animals' blood (pig, chicken, duck) can effectively reinforce human blood.

Animal blood is rich in hematic iron that can be easily absorbed by the human body, and absorption is not reduced by the oxalic acid in foods.

Though foods like fungus, kelp and sesame are also high in iron, they contain non-hematic iron that is less easily absorbed.

According to TCM, pig's blood is the best blood-reinforcing food due to its high hematic iron content, with almost 8mg per 100mg of blood.

The amino acid proportion in pig's blood is also closest to that in human blood and the amino acids are easy to absorb. It is especially recommended for those with weak digestive systems.

Tips: Usually, iron in animals is more easy to absorb. Yet, iron in soy beans is very well absorbed. Millet, celery and spinach contain lots of iron.

Walnuts for brain


Walnuts looks like brains and they do help reinforce the brain - but that's not because they look like brains (the ancients got it right but got the reason wrong).

Walnuts are rich in lecithin that helps brain cell regeneration, and other nutrients. It is strongly recommended for kids and "brain workers."

Brain for brain

Sort of

Some elderly Chinese suffering cognitive problems due to insufficient energy turn to animals' brains for help. It is true that animal brains are rich in phospholipid and sphingomyelin, which are important to brain cell function.

Theoretically, eating animal brains can help reinforce human brain. However, brains are high in cholesterol and many elderly people have high cholesterol and hardening of the arteries.

Tips: Fish brains rich in amino acids, vitamins, microelements and DHA and EPA are best for brain reinforcement. Walnuts sesame, soy beans and fungus are recommended.


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