The human body is a pretty incredibly machine. It’s tremendously self-regulating. Using internal and external feedback, it constantly searches for balance.
Energetically, everything around us – including what we eat – is made of one of two types: expansive or contractive. This is not to say that foods cause us to physically expand or contract, but they do change how we use and produce energy. Just think of the difference between having a cup of coffee (where you feel up, wired, antsy, and ‘on’) and having a holiday meal (where you feel cozy and slowed down). This is a large part of the yin/yang theory in macrobiotics. Macrobiotic practitioners have a long tradition of treating the body using a remedy that will return the body to its happiest middle point. This involves preparing and pairing foods in ways that complement one another to balance the body’s energy.
Picture a pendulum swinging from right to left. Consider the far right side ‘contractive’ and the far left side ‘expansive’. If the pendulum swings too far in one direction, the natural momentum will bring it back with equal force to the opposite direction. And so on, and so on…
Why The Body Needs Balance
Now think of that pendulum as representing your body’s functioning and energy. All of this back-and-forth is taxing and eventually, your system will burn out. Ideally, your body would like to exist in the middle, swinging gently and calmly over a short distance.
Along that pendulum, we can place foods according to how expansive or contractive they are. At one end, we have the expansive extremes: sugar, alcohol, caffeine, fined grains and high-sugar fruit. At the other, we find salt and animal products.
The body will send signals based on what we’ve consumed recently in an attempt to find its mid-point. I love the example of movie theatre fare: you eat half a tub of the world’s saltiest popcorn and what do you want? A gigantic, super-sweet soda. It’s no coincidence these pair so well together (or sell so well!).
Obviously, a diet that constantly ricochets between popcorn and soda isn’t ideal.
The Answer to a Healthy Balanced Body…
Here’s the great news, whole food, plant-based enthusiast! Guess what’s smack-dab in the middle of that food energy pendulum?
Whole foods that come from plants!
In the middle, from more expansive to more contractive, are the following five basic food groups:
1. Medium-to-low sugar fruits (like pear, apple, citrus, cherries and berries)
2. Root vegetables (carrots, squash, sweet potato)
3. Green vegetables (including crucifers like broccoli and kale, and leafy greens like lettuce and spinach)
4. Whole grains
5. Nuts, beans and seeds
If your diet is primarily composed of these things, you’re in great shape! This means your energy is balanced in the middle of the pendulum, and your system isn’t using unnecessary resources trying to maintain its equilibrium.
How to Use Balancing Foods to Better Your Health
Understanding how different foods compare, energetically, can be a helpful tool when it comes to planning meals and understanding certain symptoms. In addition to maintaining our energy, balancing our food can help the body perceive that it’s getting a little of everything it needs, which prevents overeating and cravings.
Here are some ways you can use the expansive/contractive theory using whole plant-based foods every day:
Keep Track of Your Food for Seven Days
Do you tend to veer more towards expansive or contractive? The act of writing this down can be a helpful first step in understanding where your body sits on the spectrum. If you find yourself constantly craving salt, note if your tendency is to eat a lot of sugar.
Focus on Keeping 80% of Your Diet in That Middle Range
This is where the bulk of our most useable nutrients, minerals, fiber and antioxidants exist anyways, so this approach does double-duty to help support the body’s nutritional needs. A meal like this Roasted Buddha Bowl is a great way to combine elements from this whole middle section in one gloriously yummy dish.
Use the Foods in the Middle of the Spectrum to Balance One Another
Having a dinner packed with legumes? Consider incorporating some greens to maintain balance. If breakfast includes low-sugar fruit, like pear, work in some nuts or seeds to help your body feel like it’s received a little of everything it needs. Toss some nuts into this Vegan Pear Oatmeal or experiment with these perfectly balanced Red Lentil and Kale Pesto Burgers.
Know That Sometimes It’s Okay to Need to Balance Extremes
There’s a reason Vegan Poutine is an effective hangover cure: the vegan gravy, vegan cheese and starchy veggies bring an expanded, alcohol-doused system back towards center. When possible, use the middle-of-the-spectrum foods to balance out overindulgence, but be forgiving of yourself if the only thing that can quell a celebratory sugar splurge is a little salt. All of that work you’re doing to stay in the middle of the spectrum most of the time gives you the foundation to swing a little further from time to time. (Incidentally, try this Raw Vegan Poutine: it’s super grounding AND good for you.)
Giving your body balance will help bring a strong, vital, calm sense of being that high amounts of caffeine, sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats won’t. Take care of your body with this balancing principle for long-term health that comes with ease, not force or opposition.
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