The pro-metabolic “diet” has generated a lot of hype over the past couple of years, but can it be effective without necessarily accounting for the body’s energetics and bioindividual needs? Pro-metabolic, by definition, means optimizing the body’s transformation of nutrients consumed through food and drink into vital energy, or Qi. Eating in a way that truly supports metabolism helps bring us back into homeostasis, which is the overarching purpose of TCM. A unique and worthy feature of TCM dietary principles is the centering of energetic balance, which of course can vary from individual to individual, in order to fundamentally support metabolism and therefore whole-body health.
The abundant and unobstructed flow of Qi in the body is foundationally responsible for the optimal functioning of every bodily system – precisely why the smooth flow of vital energy is so central to TCM. One of the cornerstones of pro-metabolic eating from a TCM perspective is preventing and relieving dampness, which obstructs the flow of Qi and causes stagnation, potentially causing a wide variety of health issues. The Chinese have long understood how crucial digestion is to overall health, and therefore devised dietary guidelines to prevent dampness where it most often originates – through eating. By efficiently metabolizing the foods we consume, we receive all of the nutrients we need without clogging up our systems with excess waste that does not get properly eliminated – another important part of metabolism. Thus, TCM dietary principles are pro-metabolic as a primary form of preventive health care.
“Limit raw and cold foods” is probably the tenet of TCM nutritional guidance that most people these days are familiar with. There is great wisdom behind this advice because warm and cooked foods are more easily broken down and digested, so the body is not wasting extra energy on the energy extraction process, allowing for a net gain of nutrients. Ray Peat (whose teachings the pro-metabolic “diet” is based upon) did not seem to explicitly comment on this energetic principle, but does advise to eat a lot of raw fruits and fruit juices, which is not pro-metabolic from a TCM perspective; instead, raw fruits and their juices should be enjoyed by those who have strong digestive fire, seasonally – in the spring and summer, and in moderation.
“Eat seasonally” is one of the most important facets of a pro-metabolic diet according to TCM, as aligning ourselves with the natural world is fundamental to our well-being. Believing that nature is inherently intelligent, eating seasonally helps promote harmony between Yin and Yang energies in our bodies by providing what we need exactly when we need it (e.g. hydrating and cooling watermelon in the peak Yang of summer vs. heartier, grounding root veggies during the peak Yin of autumn and winter). Additionally, seasonal foods are at their height in terms of nutrient density and flavor. Conversely, Ray Peat placed a strong emphasis on tropical fruits, which are of course neither seasonal nor local for many of us, as well as focusing on vegetables that are mainly starchy, like squash, potatoes, and carrots – regardless of the season.
“Enjoy dairy in moderation, if possible,” depending on your individual constitution and phase of life. In TCM, milk is considered very building for those who require extra nourishment – as it tonifies Blood, Qi, Yin, and Jing – as well as providing internal lubrication for those who are dry… but it can also contribute to phlegm, dampness, and stagnation for those who are of a susceptible bodily constitution (remember, that our constitutions can change with the turning of the seasons or the passage of time). Interestingly, like modern “pro-metabolic” followers of Ray Peat, TCM would advise that raw milk is best, since the enzymes supporting its optimal digestion remain intact. However, Ray Peat encouraged the overly abundant consumption of dairy, and some of his followers even promote ice cream as a nutrient-dense meal replacement, regardless of one’s bioindividual constitution or blood sugar considerations.
From just those few guidelines, we can see that TCM’s pro-metabolic principles revolve around cultivating balance, optimizing digestion, and eating in a way that honors one’s constitution. In general, it is advised to enjoy non-glutinous grains and starches (rice is, of course, a favored choice as it’s easily digested) balanced with high-quality (animal) proteins and cooked vegetables. Adding warming herbs like ginger and garlic to meals is a common and simple way to support optimal digestion. Fusing food and medicine by constantly incorporating tonic herbs that are safe for daily use (our specialty here at Root + Bones) into food and drinks is a way of life in the TCM lens, and greatly helps fulfill nutritional gaps. By aligning with the seasons, we nourish our own cyclical and rhythmic natures, becoming naturally adaptable to the changes that characterize life.
*Please note that there is some well-founded criticism around calling the “pro-metabolic diet” a diet at all. Some people say that Ray Peat was simply sharing nutritional information that works for him and that his followers have misinterpreted his teachings, as well as perhaps over-generalizing some of his wisdom into principles at all. Proponents of this way of eating argue that it’s a welcome departure in a time of overly restrictive diets, which does have some merit. Ultimately, we believe that the specifics of each person’s dietary choices are unique to their needs, but that ancient TCM wisdom remains highly relevant and customizable today.