Interview with Kimberly ; How to Rebalance the Body and Mind with Traditional Chinese Medicine Principles, Food Therapy, Yoga and Qi Gong

Find Kimberly on her website: qifoodtherapy.com

Eating or living for balance, and making small adjustments to get back into balance. I want to empower people through awareness.

Kimberly, you are a Wellness Coach, a Macrobiotic counselor, a Traditional Chinese Therapy and Food Energetics teacher, an Emotional Anatomy consultant, a yoga instructor and a Sound healer. Can you tell us where and when you developed your passion for the world of health, wellness and nutrition?

It started when I was living in China. I always enjoyed food, not healthy or non-healthy, just food in itself.  I never understood why people would diet, not eat, not enjoy cooking or things like that. While I was there, I became interested in Chinese medicine but very much so on the food side of things. I started experimenting based on what my doctor and mentor were telling me my condition was. At the time, I was what they called a ‘’hot and damp constitution’’. So I experimented with foods and teas to cool my body temperature down. That got me started on the health and wellness side of things and the effects of food on my body. That was around 2005. I started self-experimenting on different fruits and vegetables and changing diets. In China, there is all this information available, a wide variety of vegetables and super foods there. I was just working a corporate job at the time. Slowly, I got more interested in food and nutrition, that is, Western nutrition. It was and still is very hard to learn Chinese medicine there in English. I started reading nutrition books and then did a course and became a Health Coach. It was a good mix between Western nutrition and seeing the holistic side of Chinese medicine, which is quite different. That really started off my journey in food and wellness. I was also rebalancing my body with massage, acupuncture and all the modalities available there. 

Is it common to use these healing modalities in China?

Yes it’s traditionally how people would heal; through prevention and rebalancing the body rather than waiting until you get sick and then going to the doctor. That is what is happening now over there as well with Western medicine coming in. It’s very different to Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, which is all about prevention. Innately though, I think a lot of people in China and Asia know how to use food, teas or holistic ways to heal and rebalance the body. 

When did you get into Yoga?

Hmm well, I’ve always enjoyed moving, like in school for example. I’m not very tall or ‘’athletic’’ but I’ve always been active. I remember somehow getting into the girl basketball team but then I saw these people dancing around. It turns out it was step aerobics and so I switched to that the next week. I love being in a group setting and the social aspect of it. That was my introduction to aerobics and fitness. It’s really important for me even now, like if I’ve been really busy and not moved that much, I feel it in my whole body, even with my emotions and stress levels. I love anything from walking, to dancing and swimming. Yoga came in a little later. I did tend to gravitate towards more the Yang style of Yoga; sweaty and really feeling it. I was also really interested in martial arts, so I also did karate. Then in 2012, I tried Yin Yoga and actually hated it. I thought it was horrible; all I could think about was: ‘’why is this so slow?? I’m in pain, I can’t move and I am frustrated’’. But at the end, I felt amazing and I realized that that is actually what I need, not all these fast paced hot and power yoga and dance classes. I realized that I really needed to slow down. A lot of people don’t like Yin Yoga, especially those who need it the most. I was just thinking how this is what the world needs; It’s become a really important part of my work. This was also flowing into my love for Chinese medicine and everything that goes with it. Yin Yoga includes the 5 elements. Anything that includes the 5 elements is just so interesting to me. The 5 Elements are the foundations of Chinese Medicine philosopy; the Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water elements are found in nature all around us and reflect our inner body and holistic health too. 

In the last 10 years, I’ve definitely been enjoying the slower movement. I also came across Yoga Nidra and it’s really that next level of slowness and stillness, which was again really hard at first. It’s all about balance really. A lot of us spend our lives busy, stressed out and moving at a fast pace and then we do Tai Chi when we are 80, but really we should do slow things at all stages of life! Too much Yin can of course be bad for you because then you would become lazy and slow but I find most people need this slowing down for sure.

Your previous brand was actually called Yin Lifetstyle, where the concept was to introduce more Yin into people’s lives through Yin Yoga, Qi Gong and food therapy. Could you help us clarify the concept of Yin and Yang and why this balance is so important?

I was so out of balance, I was so Yang. The concept is duality; so like black and white, night and day, sun and moon, hot and cold. It can be extreme but more importantly, what it means is that we need a little bit of both to make all the beautiful things in between. It’s about balance and balancing everything in life. It’s about wellness practices that provide that balance.  Again, it’s not just do Yin things, but at the time I noticed that there was too much stress and fast pace things like cross fit. There’s nothing wrong with it unless if that’s all people do; they go from their stressful jobs to their high intensity training and eat foods that are dense and heavy. Then they wake up, take stimulants like caffeine and do it all over again. Yin Lifestyle was a concept to offer people a slower pace of thinking, living, breathing and eating. It’s like I’m trying to offer something that people don’t know they need yet. There’s been a huge growth though in Yin Yoga, Yoga Nidra and Qi Gong. More and more people are getting trained in it through workshops, retreats and teacher trainings. The funny thing is that they are not new styles; they are old wisdoms coming back, which is very exciting for Chinese medicine. 

I have now transitioned and am incorporating all my passions in one with Qi Food Therapy website and platform, focusing on the food, food energetics and holistic approach to nutrition and lifestyle. 

What are some of the benefits you have seen in clients when they introduce more Yin into their lives?

So if I stick with food and maybe a practice like Yin Yoga; a lot of them go through the day calmer and they appreciate that time for themselves a lot more. With regular practice they see the benefits of being able to breathe better, to sleep better and being less reactive. Often, people will feel more centered, focused and less forgetful. A lot of people are scattered, rushing and living in their heads. Just by slowing down the nervous system, they can function a better, especially moms, office people and those who are the busiest in our society. They are usually the ones who see the biggest results. What follows also is better digestion; a lot of people suffering from digestive issues. It’s not that one food or Yin Yoga will cure it all but with that holistic approach, the body is better capable of chewing, digesting and resting. The funny thing is that people often didn’t know how much they would love it. And it’s the smallest things make biggest difference; whether it’s breakfast, adding grains or meditation. It usually takes time but sometimes they can feel the effects just after one session or after a week or two of practice. The body wants to be happy and balanced but we just keep pushing it.

You also co-founded a plant-based nutrition cooking studio and health food store in Shanghai, which was the only one of its kind in China for many years. What was your vision when you started the project?

I don’t know that we had a vision. It seemed like a good idea to us! At the time, I was working in a bank. It was the end of this Shanghai World Expo and two of my friends and I wanted to do our own thing so they were like ‘’quit your job!’’ and so I did. We started with a consulting job for two years. Then I started to teach cooking classes with some other health coaches and food experts.  At the time, you couldn’t buy things like quinoa and brown rice easily. People wanted the tools and ingredients. We literally started with Ikea shelves; it was a tiny little shop. Eventually we moved into a bigger shop that had eco products and took it over.  My vision has always been about food education, teaching people about food choices. Nutrition is part of it but at its core, it has always been food therapy; using food therapeutically to balance the body, mind and spirit. Food energetics is part of it as well; what is the energy behind food, how we grow it, cook it and eat it, it is transformative. People were not really ready for that back then. Now there are different retailers that started selling nuts, seeds, grains, supplements and protein powders, most of them online. We had an actual physical space, which was very important to connect with people, have cooking classes and allow people to see the foods, touch them and taste them. The company was called Sprout Lifestyle and the tag line was Growing Healthy Habits. The idea was to plant seeds in people’s minds and show them small steps that they could take to change their food habits. It was a holistic place; we had all sorts of events, workshops and yoga classes. The vision itself was to spread healthy food and education.

What an incredible and ambitious endeavor. 

It was amazing but it was a lot of work!

You were a pioneer in the field of plant-based nutrition in China. What is your biggest take-away from running a health food store and event business?

Well it was a success in terms of community and social impact, but less so financially. So I think the biggest takeaway from that is being more business smart. I mean what I got out of that was very rewarding and a lot of the information I was teaching there has led me to this point now where I can and want to create programs and relevant modern content. It was a great way to practice and train or coach other people. Another take away would be to keep going even if it is hard. For example the biggest challenge at the time was that I had to learn nutrition in another language on the job. 

It sounds like a rich learning experience with a lot of hurdles!

Yes and I am not done. I will be going back to Asia and I feel that there will be a round two to do. It will be around food therapy and food energy. There is still a lot of groundwork in nutrition to do. They don’t really learn about it there but because they innately know a little about Chinese medicine, when we teach things there that are related to the five elements they pick it up fast. 

Looking at the nutrition side of things, in recent years, food therapy and medical diet therapy of traditional Chinese medicine have been increasingly applied in clinical nutrition therapy. What are some of the therapeutic effects of applying TCM principles to our diets?

Well we see food as fuel in Western nutrition where as in TCM and oriental health care (traditional) it isn’t really seen that way; nutrition is more functional and for enjoyment. It’s knowing what foods are for what season and knowing what foods help you with a particular condition. For example, if you want to sleep better, have more energy, for period pain or any specific health imbalance. Innately the people there knew this. Probably all great grandmas in the world knew this and somewhere along the way, we got disconnected with our food, the environment and the seasons. Food was used for nourishment, therapeutic and functional purposes. Even the vocabulary between Western nutrition and TCM is very different; Western nutrition breaks everything down, like macro and micronutrients. TCM is more holistic, and uses food to tonify, nourish, cultivate and boost different organs for example. Traditionally, even with these herbal preparations, if you go way back in time, they knew that this bark and flower were good for a cough. That’s the connection that we’ve lost; it isn’t just scientific.  So instead of waking up and thinking what do I want, we can actually take the time to listen to the body, which is one of the best kinds of therapy. 

Coming back to your question, using food as medicine would probably be the best answer. So seeing daily foods as an opportunity to stay healthy and rebalance. Then there is a layer of when you’re sick. In the West if you are sick you eat chicken soup or take vitamin C. In my opinion, it’s quite limited. In TCM, they will tell you to take a certain herb or reduce this kind of food. They will be very specific as to how to rebalance the condition in a more holistic way. You don’t need to go buy medication, everything is natural. All simple, daily foods have a function that can help you whether it is a fruit or a grain. There are also a lot more foods, ingredients and food categories in Asia, especially the vegetables, herbs and seasonings. So if you had a specific condition you would use those to help rebalance.

From my understanding of TCM, the five internal organs: heart, liver, spleen, lung and kidneys are connected to the five flavors of food: spicy, sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Can you give us an example as to how the organs are connected to different tastes? 

What you described is the five elements, which applies to pretty much everything. In the West we have four seasons but in TCM there are five because they include a fifth season, which is late summer, where we need more calm and certain organs need attending to. These are related to the five elements in nature, which are Fire, Metal, Water, Air and Earth. Then there are many layers on top of these elements and flavor is one of them. It’s not so much that they separated the flavors, but that they correlated a flavor with an element. So it isn’t just necessarily a flavor for a specific organ, ideally we learn how to balance them all in cooking. There is definitely a certain correlation, for example: sour for the liver in the spring. Which makes sense; so including more lemons, citrus, and vinegars. It helps that organ but it also helps that element and season as well. Eating spicy food in the summer doesn’t just help the heart organ, it helps that whole fire element so that it has this energy of heat, ‘’upwardness’’ and we sweat more to release heat. So it’s more of an energetic quality that a flavor brings. Lemons for the liver is the most direct example; it does help that organ but in the bigger picture, it’s that whole season, that part of that cycle. Also, each organ has a pair. For example heart and small intestine, liver and gallbladder, lungs and the large intestine, kidneys and urinary bladder, stomach and spleen, so it’s actually 10 organs and if one is out of balance, the other one usually is too. If we take it further, those five elements represent five emotional states. It’s a fascinating, multi layered concept, which is why I love it so much. 

If we go back to flavors though, all good chefs will make a dish that has all five elements, at least a little. A good curry traditionally would have all flavors; the sweetness would come for example with the carrots or sweet vegetables (i’m not talking about adding sugar). People who are eating a lot of junk food probably don’t have the taste buds to appreciate the different flavors. Thai people have amazing flavor palates. It’s so simple but there is a lot going on in a curry. I believe all traditional food cultures have that too whether it’s Italian, Greek, French, etc. But modern day eating is often over simplified with too much sugar or salt.

So what happens when we eat too much or to little of one of these flavors?

So it’s important to know that there are massive differences between sugars; like refined white sugar and coconut sugar. But that aside, too much of anything creates an imbalance. Say too much of the healthy sweet or salty flavor, will affect the one on the other end, in front or behind it and the organs associated to it. So with diabetes for example, it’s an earth element health issue, including the spleen, pancreas and stomach that isn’t functioning well.  We would then look at that element and change the quality of the sugar and the sweets, using different ingredients and strengthening that organ. Too much salt on the other hand will impact the kidneys and that element which is a water element. The approach would be to rebalance that element; which is a bundle of flavors, foods, organs and as you mentioned, emotions.  With the example of sugar, the sweet flavor is associated with the stomach and the spleen, which when is not in balance, the biggest issue is worry and anxiety – which is a lot of people! The thing is when people quit sugar, it should be about removing the refined sugars out of your life like the ones in soft drinks and cookies. We still need all five elements and if you remove one, you will crave it because you need it. It’s more about changing the quality and the variety of the sweet flavor. So just adding in more pumpkin, carrots, roots, fruits (but maybe low glycemic fruits) and switching the sweeteners you have at home makes a huge difference. Sweetness is a good thing in balance! The imbalance can be that the organ is not functioning properly, there is too much anxiety in your life and you need to work on that.  It will also affect another element at the same time on different levels; for example seasonally. If you don’t look after the liver and gallbladder in the Spring, it will affect the next season and it will affect the liver next year. 

We live in a world of cycles, seasons and we are very out of tune with that. If you drink too much, eat a lot of fatty, oily foods now you might compromise your liver when it’s supposed to be at its best and healthiest. That might hit you later. People might do a once a year detox, which in the Spring is a great time to do it but how you eat the rest of the time matters just as much, if not more. 

Traditional Medicine also considers foods various properties, including warm, hot, cold and cool. Why is it important to understand the ‘’temperature’’ energy of foods? How do they affect the body?

I would say that everything we’ve discussed so far about the elements is like at an introduction level. To dive into the temperature would be at the second or third level, it’s not as vital but definitely interesting. It’s more about the quality of food as well as the temperature. An obvious example in Chinese Medicine would be lamb; it’s a very warming meat. Eating it in winter is a good idea. Eating watermelon, cucumber or mint in summer is really good to cool the body down. It’s not about putting it in the refrigerator, it’s the food itself in nature, the way it is grown in nature to help us manage the heat outside. Nature intended these foods to help us rebalance. This is how we use to eat – seasonally. By doing so, you don’t need to worry about your spleen or liver; if sprouts and greens grow in the Spring we should eat more of those foods. The problem in the modern world is that things are available all year round; we’re eating bananas and spinach all year round and often too much of it. We are out of sync. Then you can look at the qualitative nature of the foods and the best way to understand it is to experience it. So on a hot day, try having peppermint tea. In TCM they definitely have this idea of hot and cold which is hard to wrap our heads around it because part of it is the actual temperature but a bigger part of it is this inherent quality of the food. You can definitely look at a list of hot/cold foods but it’s really when you’ve experienced eating a food in a certain season that you can remember the effect of it. So now that it is Spring, eat loads of sprouts, leafs, green vegetables; there is that upward, cleansing energy that makes you feel amazing.

Even the colors of foods can guide us to choose the right foods to treat a condition. Can you give us an example?

Again, it’s more about rebalancing the elements. Each of the five elements has a predominant color, it doesn’t mean you eat only green foods in Spring, it means you eat more of them. Red is the fire in summer season, so like watermelon, chilies, red quinoa and red rice. Late summer is an orangey/earthy brown color, so ingredients like pumpkin, sweet potatoes and carrots. Autumn is silver or white, like daikon (Chinese/Korean radish) and lotus root. In winter the color is a dark blue, brown or purple, like kidney beans, mushrooms and sea vegetables. I would eat those at different times of the year as well but the basis is color variety balance. 

I know you are particularly a fan of the word dampness, what does this mean and how do we know if we have too much of it in our bodies?

Each element has an external weather condition that harms that organ system.  In TCM it’s called the six evils. Dampness in the unpleasant condition of the Earth element and I talk about because I experienced it a lot. The moisture, humidity and wetness outside creates dampness in the body. You can think of it as mold in a house, or like a steam room. It means excess moisture is being held in the body. The most common example in the West would be Edema; swelling of the ankles, sometimes diarrhea, or some bloating and digestive issues because the Spleen and digestive system are not happy. 

So how do we remove the excess dampness in the body?

There are many ways to alleviate that. First of all, you can check your external conditions, if your living in the middle of rice fields or in a humid tropical place, there is water all around you. Your constitution is important too. If you are suffering because of foods, you have to look at the ones that are making it worse, as well as those that help to alleviate that condition. For example, there are foods that make you pee more; helping the spleen and bladder work more efficiently. Some people don’t have this problem at all. For most people, I get really tired, my legs get heavy, I have tummy issues and it’s purely because of my constitution. 

I love this topic so much I have a whole e-book about it on my website, covering some theory and a variety of recipes and ingredients for people to try preparing at home. 

Who can determine our constitutional patterns? How does this help us find our own best diet?

One way would be seeing a Chinese doctor, even if you are not sick, just for a diagnosis and general observation. Through that process, they can see what elements you may be more dominant in and of course tell you any conditions you have, and the organs you are more susceptible to have an imbalance in. That’s probably the best way. If it seems that you have absolutely no health issues, then you can do an online test. They will ask about different things like your sleep, bowel movements, the color of your face and then you can get an assessment. Is it accurate? Usually. And it’s okay if you are healthy and just curious. The other way is called the 9 Star Ki (which means energy) and it is based on your birthday, which tells you your predominant elements. It’s not accurate to diagnose somebody but it gives a fun reading on your personality, the kinds of foods you like and how to look after yourself. I do recommend that everyone go to a TCM doctor just to have a diagnosis and maybe some acupuncture. There is always something we can rebalance.

Your training in nutrition spans from Western science, to TCM food therapy and Macrobiotics and you obviously have a passion for teaching and sharing your knowledge. What do you hope people can learn?

Mainly two things. Number one is awareness: body and health awareness. We rely a lot on external systems to tell us what to eat and how to cook. I think it’s more important that they embody it, experience it and actually see how it feels. We are very disconnected from our bodies. The second one is balance. Eating or living for balance, and making small adjustments to get back into balance. I want to empower people through awareness. Ideally, they learn about what their body needs and how to cook for themselves. It would be so much easier if we learned cooking in school! 

You have a new book published in 2019 called Chinese Superfoods. Can you give us an example of the power of one of these Superfoods?

The book is predominantly recipes because a lot of the younger generations don’t know how to cook. It’s a dying art; it’s so easy to eat out. So the superfoods in there are everyday superfoods like goji berries, tofu, vegetables – it’s really over simplified. In the West we have really fancy and expensive ingredients that you may not use. But I like foods that are practical and simple; broccoli is a superfood. It’s nutrient dense and functional for health. Chinese Yam or Sweet potato is a Superfood, and is really good for your liver Qi. All the root foods are really energizing; they’re very satisfying, nourishing because of how they are grown. Another example is leeks; which is good in Spring time and if you look at the shape of the leek and how it’s grown, it goes straight up just like asparagus with upward energy. That’s the same energy of the season, which we need. It goes back to that energetic quality and understanding that each food has an energy and a function to help us achieve more vitality. A lot of foods we eat don’t give us any energy or vitality. I’m not talking about raw or cooked though, in my opinion, cooking things can add another quality, it doesn’t mean that the food is dead. Whether you steam, roast, bake or eat a carrot raw, it’s still good for you. You might loose the vitamin C but there are many other benefits in cooking it. 

Do you have any upcoming courses/classes that we should know about?

Well an important note is my new website is www.qifoodtherapy.com. On there are 5 ebooks; one is in Chinese food medicine, one is about vegan and dairy alternatives, another one is about dampness. The website is a platform for sharing not just food and nutrition, but food therapy. There will also be e-courses coming up very soon and I also offer private sessions. The first online course is going to be on cycles, the five elements and all these different layers of it like flavors, colors and seasons. I really look forward to sharing with more people on these topics.

So many exciting things in store for you and the people that will learn from you! If you could leave us with a message today, what would that be?

It terms of food, wellness and nutrition, I would say keep an open mind and try- new foods, ingredients or cooking styles. Experiment and see for yourself, it’s not something you can learn from a book, you have to get in there and roll up your sleeves. 

Thank you so much for your time, enthusiasm and generosity!

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