21 March 2010

Metabolic Typing, Parte Dvah: A Brief History of Metabolic Typing

Metabolic typing systems have existed about as long as an organized practice of medicine has.  Given the fact that prehistoric peoples practiced such detailed and systematic medical treatments as trepanation (there's evidence that prehistoric peoples bored holes in peoples' heads to treat anything from mental illness to head trauma in cave paintings and the fossil record) and acupuncture (Otzi the Iceman was covered in tattoos, many of which corresponded with traditional acupuncture points for treating the arthritis with which he appeared to have), it stands to reason that systems by which people identified the best method by which they could maintain their health via dietary choices were also extant.

According to the historical record, metabolic typing began with the Indians and Chinese, who are essentially the only two peoples worldwide whose traditional medicines have remained unfucked by modern medicine.Frankly, I don't put much stock in either system, but this is where the whole shitterree starts, so this is where we shall begin.

On Guard, I'll Let You Try My Wu-Tang Style

The Chinese divide people into 6 basic types, though one can be a confluence of more than one type.  There appears to be no real consensus on the types, but as nearly as I can tell, here are the basics(1 & 2):
  1. Hot (Yang abundance) Individuals have a sturdy body. They often feel hot, experience dryness of the mouth, prefer cold drinks when thirsty, have a reddish complexion, are easily annoyed, and tend to suffer from insomnia. They usually discharge scanty urine of a dark color, and have hard stools. Upon examination of the tongue, it appears red with a yellowish coating, or may have no coating at all. Such individuals are very sensitive to high temperatures.
  2. Cold (Yin abundance) Individuals have a frail body. They usually feel cold, have an aversion to wind, and their limbs are cold. They prefer hot or warm food and drinks, are reluctant to speak, get easily tired and have a pale or whitish complexion. They usually discharge clear urine frequently, stools are soft, and tend to suffer from diarrhea easily. Upon examination of the tongue, it appears pink and bulky with a whitish coating. Such individuals are very sensitive to cold temperatures.
  3. Dry  (Qi abundance?) Individuals belonging to this constitution feel thirsty easily and experience dryness in the eyes, throat, lips and skin. When common flu is prevalent, they will usually have a cough without mucus. Such people tend to be skinny and do not put on weight easily. Their common complaints are itchy skin, nose or eyes, and constipation - all due to lack of lubrication. They are very sensitive to low levels of humidity.
  4. Damp (Phlegm and might also be a Qi deficiency) A person of this constitution perfers sweet food. They experience heaviness in the body, dizziness, and tire easily. They look fatigued and sleepy in day time, and snore easily during sleep. Such people have a low metabolic rate. They tend to become overweight or bloated due to retention of water. The person may look fat but is drained of energy. The tongue looks moist and bulky, and is covered with a greasy coating. Such people are very sensitive to damp weather.
  5. Somehow the 5 elements get worked into it, as can a blood superabundance or deficiency

According to Dr. Henry Lu, "The individual's balanced diet, therefore, is always a mixture of foods with different flavors and energies suited to the needs of the individual's physical constitution." Thus, instead of focusing on macronutrient profiles as we do in the West, the Chinese actually base their metabolic typing diets on food flavors, energies, and movement.  Yeah, I know- food movement?  What the fuck does that even mean?  That aside, the Chinese might be onto something with the flavors and energies idea, in my opinion, at least insofar as certain flavors might suit a person's palate better, and therefore lend themselves better to assimilation.  "Flavors can be pungent, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Inherent energies are cold, hot, warm, cool, and neutral, and are food qualities quite apart from the temperature of the food. Food movement includes outward, inward, upward, downward, glossy, and obstructive. For a person vomiting, a food with a downward movement might be recommended. A patient with a runny nose might solve that problem with an obstructive food. Pain with an inguinal hernia might be relieved with an upward food."  (2)

Slurpees, Not Casinos
The Indian Metabolic types are somewhat simpler to discern.  Ayurvedic medicine divides people into three distinct doshas, and each individual is comprised of varying degrees of the three types.  Ideally, you'd like to have 33% of each to have a balanced internal system, but most people have a dominant type, for which they must compensate with diet in order to achieve optimal health.  These three types, Vatta, Pitta, and Kapha also corresponded with the 5 elements to create 7 subsets of the 3 doshas.  They are (1,2,3,4):
  1. Vata (Ether/Space and Air) People with more Vata in their constitutions tend to be thin, with a slender frame and prominent joints, delicate skin that is naturally dry, and dry voluminous hair. They are quick and lively in thought, speech and action, and make friends easily. There is an element of airiness to their step, a quality of lightness in their laughter. Change is usually their second name. They are light sleepers and gravitate towards warm environments. Creativity and enthusiasm are hallmarks of balanced Vata.
  2. Pitta (Fire and Water) People with more Pitta in their constitutions tend to be of medium proportions, with a frame that is neither petite nor heavy, warm skin that is very fair or ruddy and may be sensitive, and fine hair that tends towards premature graying or thinning. They are sharp and determined in thought, speech and action. There is an element of purpose to their step, an intensity to their voice. Ambition is usually their second name. They are moderate sleepers and gravitate towards cooler environments. Self-confidence and an entrepreneurial spirit are hallmarks of balanced Pitta.
  3. Kapha (Water and Earth) People with more Kapha in their constitutions tend to be of larger proportions, with a robust frame and padded joints, thick smooth skin that may tend towards oiliness, and rich, wavy hair. They are stable and calm in thought, speech and action, and are easy-going and supportive in relationships. There is an element of steadiness to their step, a quality of serenity in their smile. Loyalty is usually their second name. They are long, heavy sleepers and uncomfortable in damp, clammy environments. Calm and sweetness of disposition are hallmarks of balanced Kapha. 
  4. Vata - Pitta (combination of Vata and Pitta doshas)
  5. Vata - Kapha (combination of Vata and Kapha doshas)
  6. Pitta - Kapha (combination of Pitta and Kapha doshas)
  7. Vata - Pitta - Kapha (combination of all 3 doshas in balance)

Like TCM, Food in Ayurveda is divided into 6 tastes (neutral, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, astringent), which are thought to have varying effects on individual's types. There is a diet for each of the 3 basic types (doshas) while the combined metabolic types will use parts of several different diets.  Avurvedic medicine takes it a step further than Chinese medicine, though, in that it dictates the manner in which one should eat, sleep, drink, exercise, and live based on your unique combination of the three doshas.  A bit much, in my opinion, and I'm not really in the habit taking medical advice from a group of people who wash, shit, and bury their dead in the same river from which they draw their drinking water.  In the event that you are, though, take any of the Ayurvedic Typing tests available online.  I took the one offered by Deepak Chopra and confirmed that I am a Pitta type (Vata: 3 Pitta: 5 Kapha: 2)- had I gotten Kapha out of the fucking thing, I'd tell your to avoid the whole thing altogether, but check it out if you've got some time to kill.  For more information on that shit, you can check out the Ayurbalance site I posted in the bibliography.  And for the love of 8 lb, 6 oz., tiny baby jesus, don't give Matt Furey a fucking scent- if you want info on Indian training techniques, clubbells, or diet, go here for free e-texts, which I guarantee you is the source of that fucker's training "secrets".

Gyros and Baklava
The Greeks also formulated a metabolic typing system by which they treated mental and physical disease, based on what they called the four humors.  This system was established around 500 BC with a great deal of input from Hippocrates and persisted until well into the Middle Ages, and focuses on four liquids common in the body and ascribed a variety of issues to problems with each.   Hippocrates's theories became known as "humorism " or "humoralism" and basically stated that everyone has all four, but that the preponderance of one relative to the others (which he called "dyscrasia") is the root of sickness. Each of these humors was believed to be associated with one of the four elements which, when combined in various proportions, make up all things:
  • The humor of Blood, associated with the liver and with Air, which is the hot and moist element. A person in whom blood predominates is said to be "sanguine," from the Latin "sanguis" (blood).  People who are blood dominant are considered to be:  Self-composed, Not given to worry, Liberal, Tends to follow rather than lead, Cordial, Peaceable, 
    Talkative, Not averse to change, Adjusts easily, Tends to prefer informality, Aware of surroundings, Impetuous, Impulsive, Lacking in perseverance, Lacking in initiative, Prone to carelessness, hedonism, flightiness, and lust.
  • The humor of Yellow Bile, associated with the spleen and with Fire, which is the hot and dry element. A person in whom yellow bile predominates is said to be "choleric," from the Greek "khole" (bile).  Yellow Bile dominant people are associated with the following traits: Self-composed, Not given to worry, Persuasive, Independent, Rarely shows embarrassment, Tends to lead rather than follow, Persistent, Insistent, Decisive, Dynamic, Impetuous, Impulsive, Touchy, Prone to hypocrisy, deceit, pride, and anger.
  • The humor of Black Bile, associated with the gall bladder and with Earth, which is the cold and dry element. A person in whom black bile predominates is said to be "melancholic," from the Greek "melas" (black) and "khole" (bile).  They're associated with being: Sensitive, Intuitive, Self-conscious, Easily embarrassed, Easily hurt, Introspective, Sentimental, Moody, Likes to be alone, Empathetic, Often artistic, Often fussy and perfectionist, Deep, Prone to depression, avarice, and gluttony.  
  • The humor of Phlegm, associated with the lungs and brain and with Water, which is the cold and moist element. A person in whom phlegm predominates is said to be "phlegmatic," from the Greek "phlegmatikos" (abounding in phlegm) .  Pleghmatics are Peaceful, Easy-going, Deliberative, Faithful, Reliable,Relatively unaffected by environment, Reserved, Distant, Slow in movement, Constant in mood, Not prone to worry, Prone to stagnation and sloth.
According to a weirdly Catholic website that provided the most in-depth examination of this pre-Christian medical system, "Humorism greatly affected medieval cuisine as cooks endeavored to prepare foods in proper balance, for example, cold, moist fish would be served with hot, dry spices or prepared with wine, which was also considered hot and dry; game was considered to be dry, so was prepared in moist fats; vinegar was considered cold and dry, so was tempered with honey, which was considered hot and moist, etc. The goal in cooking for the ill, however, wasn't "a balanced diet," but a diet that would counteract the effects of the humor causing the illness. 

Note that it isn't the actual temperature or actual liquidity of a food that determines its classification as hot or cold, dry or moist; it is its inherent quality and its effects on the body. The degrees of hotness/coldness and dryness/moistness were often rated on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the highest.

Humorist theory also affected cooking techniques: dry foods were boiled instead of roasted, moist foods were baked instead of boiled, and so on." (5)

As you can see, all of these traditional systems share a decent amount in common, which means they all independently arrived at similar conclusions, making them at least somewhat valid systems of thought, or that they all arose out of an earlier universal system that coexisted with the pre-Chinese acupuncture techniques of the Neolithic era.  Either way, that they persisted for thousands of years lends a bit of credence for them, and provides a fairly solid basis upon which modern methods of metabolic typing were formulated.
If this shit bores you, you suck.  In any event, here's a palette cleanse for those of you whose brains now hurt, and expect some training shit and a new Baddest Motherfuckers entry this week as well.

1.  "Constitution and Disease." http://www.tcmadvisory.com/BasicTheoryofTCM/info/20080925_392.html
2. "Diets Based On Metabolic Type." http://www.chichoices.com/metabolic_type_diets.php
3.  "What Is My Dosha?"  http://www.ayurbalance.com/explore_articlethreedoshas.htm
4.  Wharton, Charles Heizer.  Metabolic Man:  Ten Thousand Years From Eden.  Orlando:  Winmark Publishing, 2001.  
5.  "The Four Temperments."  http://www.fisheaters.com/fourtemperaments.html


  1. This has been a great set of articles so far. Had heard of the Hippocratic humours before but didn't know much about the eastern systems. Thanks for taking the time to properly explain the topic in a readable but informational way.

  2. Too much reading, dickhead.

    /s/ Protobuilder

  3. Hahaha. No worries, Brian. I think this shit is fascinating, and it's cool when you see it come together in the modern MTDs.