In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM,) food is both nourishing and medicinal to the body. Moreover, TCM is considered a powerful tool to create and maintain overall health and wellness. Instead of viewing meals as a breakdown of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, Chinese dietary therapy utilizes the flavors and nature of foods as a guide to a well-balanced meal.
Five Flavors in TCM
In TCM we categorize foods in a five flavor and temperature energetic model. The five flavors of herbs and foods refer to the five different tastes. They are pungent or spicy, sweet, sour, bitter and salty.
Pungent flavors disperse and promote the circulation of qi and blood. Sweet has a nourishing, harmonizing and moistening action. Sour absorbs, consolidates and astringes. Bitter flavors have the action of drying or resolving fluid accumulation, purging and draining downward. Salty has the effect of softening hard nodules or masses and promoting bowel movement. The five flavors are directly linked with a specific organ system and each flavor helps to benefit its related organs.
Consuming too much of a specific flavor can cause harm as well. Sour foods are associated with the liver and gallbladder (as well as the health of our tendons and ligaments). Hence, too much sour food can cause injury or pain and cramping of our sinews. Bitter foods, such as coffee, are associated with the heart/small intestine in Chinese medicine. While coffee can stimulate fluid circulation and help increase your metabolism, too much can be overly drying to fluids and tissues.
Following are the five flavors and their associated organs:
- Sour- liver/gallbladder
- Bitter- heart/small intestine
- Sweet- spleen/stomach
- Acrid- lung/large intestine
- Salty- kidneys/bladder
How Does Food Temperature Affect Your Body?
Food temperature designates how it interacts with the qi (energy), blood , and body fluids resulting in a warming, cooling, or neutral effect. This not only has to do with the energetic properties and the natures of the foods, but with how the food is prepared or cooked. For example, roasting, broiling, and heating equate to warm while iced and raw correspond to cold. Plants that take longer to grow such as carrots, ginseng, cabbage or rutabaga are warmer foods than those that grow quickly such as cucumbers, radish, and lettuce. Warming foods can help to stimulate body functions and cooling food can help cool us down. Too much hot or warming foods can overstimulate our system. Similarly, ingesting too many raw or cold foods can slow down our digestion and put out our digestive fire.
What a Healthy TCM Diet Looks Like
A TCM diet can include vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds, nuts & legumes, meat, spices, herbs, and beverages. All plant and animal-based foods are assigned both a flavor and a temperature. For example, beets are to be cool and sweet. The coolness calms the heart from the agitation caused by heat in the chest. The sweet flavor is nourishing and building and generates fluids. Beets nourish the blood and tone the heart, lubricate the intestines, and cleanse the liver. The color of each food item is also an aspect to consider. In this case, the red color points to how beets nourish the heart and blood. The same is true of many of the red and purple fruits and vegetables as well.
Comparatively, chicken, a national favorite, is warm and sweet. It is a good food for most people unless you’re having excessive heat symptoms. The warm and sweet aspects of the chicken nourish the blood and qi (energy) and strengthen the kidneys, spleen, and stomach. Chicken is a strong builder and replenishes the body. Cooking the entire chicken and using both the meat and bones is essential in maximizing its nourishing ability. Once you’re finished with the meat, make bone broth from the bones or put them in the freezer for later.
A few examples of foods related to the five flavors:
- Sour: pomegranate, vinegar, lime, lemon, and fermented foods.
- Bitter: Parsley, mustard greens, kale, dandelion greens, collard greens, burdock root, and coffee.
- Sweet: Rice, chicken, whole grains, sweet potatoes, cabbage, carrots, onions, squash, corn, fruits, goji berries, and honey.
- Pungent: Scallions, daikon radish, cinnamon, and ginger.
- Salty: Seaweeds, miso, sea salt, tamari, pickles, ocean fish, and shellfish.
How Does TCM Dietary Therapy Compare to Our Western Views on Diet and Nutrition?
The difference between Western and Eastern culture is readily apparent when we talk about food. It’s not hard to notice the difference in how Westerner’s think about what we eat, compared to the principles of Chinese medicine food therapy. Let’s look at the differences between the two approaches to eating and see how we can benefit from incorporating some new ideas.
Good food versus bad food: In western culture, we like to put foods into “bad” and “good” categories. A decade ago, fats were the villain, while today it is carbohydrates and gluten. While removing and adding certain foods based on evidence of them being harmful is wise, following food fads often leads to unrecognized imbalances in overall health. Most importantly, having a well-rounded diet is the best route for most of us. We should rely on how our body feels after we eat food versus putting popular opinion above evidence.
Raw versus cooked:
Raw foods are king in our fad food culture, and the more the better. Undoubtedly, raw foods offer the highest level and most bioavailable nutrition. However, a principle of TCM food therapy is that it takes more energy, or digestive fire, to break down raw foods compared to cooked foods. If you’re ill or having digestive issues, eating raw food may worsen your condition. Cooking your food is the best way to “predigest” and get more energy from each meal.
Calories and energy:
In the western approach, counting calories is the requirement for maintaining a desired weight. In contrast, TCM focuses on maintaining our desired health and vitality from the energy we derive from the food we eat. In other words, calories are qi, or energy, are needed to perform a whole host of functions. Importantly qi is needed for digestion, immunity, healing, movement, and temperature regulation to name a few.
Too many calories equal fat:
We have long believed that eating too many calories will result in being fat. Yes, this is true if you’re inactive and eat an excessive amount. Conversely, in TCM the underlying cause of obesity is dampness in most cases. By eating too much of the wrong food resulting in poor digestion, dampness develops. This is an accumulation of moisture that settles in various places in the body. Symptoms of edema, yeast, athlete’s foot, feeling of heaviness and fatigue are all considered signs of dampness.
Food additives and preservatives:
In our grocery stores we have aisles of products that have been chemically altered with additives to enhance flavor and shelf life. In Chinese medicine, we have a concept called “wrecked food,” which is a source of illness. This originally meant food that has spoiled. But today, food that is altered is also considered wrecked. A healthy TCM diet only includes fresh foods, such as recently picked fruits and vegetables, grains and humanely raised and organic meats. Using these items, a nicely cooked meal with available qi can be made to satisfy the appetite.
How Can We Combine the Strengths of Western Scientific Research With TCM Food Therapy to Heal Our Bodies While Taking in the Most Nutritious Foods?
Eastern and Western approaches to nutrition are unique and both can contribute to better health. Having an understanding of both Western and Eastern methodologies can help us make more informed decisions about what foods to choose throughout the year. Blending the best of both will allow for the development of an effective integrative nutrition system. The goal is to develop a holistic nutritional approach to improve and maintain good health.
While the Western approach is scientifically based, Eastern approaches have evolved over thousands of years upon the basis of empirical evidence. Western methods of research produce a detailed analysis of isolated components through a ‘reductionist’ approach. In detail this means the whole is fragmented into individual parts to facilitate examination. This has resulted in information about substances (proteins, fat, sugars) in the absence of their contexts. On the other hand, the holistic approach of the East often fails to explain the mechanisms behind why certain practices work in a way that our Western minds can grasp.
Advances in Dietary Approaches
Luckily, the view of a healthy diet in the US has been undergoing major transformations as scientific research on human nutrition progresses. According to Walter C. Willett, M.D., the chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and a professor at Harvard Medical School, “As late as the 1950s, a healthy diet meant eggs, bacon, and butter-slathered toast for breakfast, roast beef and mashed potatoes with gravy for dinner.” Clearly, this is no longer how most Americans eat.
In many areas in the country, people are experimenting with diets more conducive to health, such as the Mediterranean diet, low-glycemic diet and anti-inflammatory diet. The new views and experimentation of dietary approaches that are currently happening are revolutionary and a perfect time to reconsider traditional guidelines while incorporating information from modern research. On that note, the following are a few food items within Chinese food therapy including notable nutritional content from scientific research.
Food as Medicine
Botanical name: Lycium barbarum These lovely red berries also known as Wolfberry or “Gou Qi Zi” in Chinese. Goji berries have a sweet flavor, are neutral in temperature, and strengthen the kidneys and liver. They are loaded with high concentrations of antioxidant vitamins (A, C, E), minerals (selenium, zinc) and phytochemicals (carotenoid antioxidants, polysaccharides, flavonoids). Additionally, they promote healthy skin and eyes, slow aging and neurodegeneration, reduce damage to organs, tissues, and cells, and inhibit genetic mutations and gene signaling (can reduce free radicals and oxidative stress).
Using Goji Berries as Medicine
Goji berries strengthen the blood and vitality of the liver and kidney channels, the organs that form the basis of blood building according to TCM. Being that, just a small handful of these berries daily is all that is needed to achieve their medicinal effects and increase iron. They are used for the treatment of “blood deficiency” which is attributed to anemia, blood loss or a lack of blood production. Additionally, they help to relieve the symptoms of low back and knee pain, low libido, infertility and impotence, high blood pressure, and premature greying of hair – all signs of weakness of qi and/or blood of the kidney and liver.
If you are not actively sick with a cold or flu but have a dry cough, feel thirsty, and a chronic dry throat, incorporating goji berries into your diet may be of help. They can gently moisten your throat and lungs. Goji berries are delicious, but remember a daily dosage is only 6-12 grams, which equals a very small handful. In excess, these berries can cause dampness. As a result, if you already have loose stool, poor appetite, nasal mucous or a phlegmy cough then goji berries aren’t appropriate to consume until dampness has been resolved.
Here are some studies on goji berries:
- Increase lymphocytes in the blood
- Aid in general well-being such as: increased energy, better sleep, mental acuity and calmness
- Inhibit prostate cancer growth
Botanical Name: Camellia Sinensis Many types of tea are made from the leaves of the camellia shrub. The processing, fermentation, and oxidation of the leaves leads to different tea varieties. Camellia teas include black, green, oolong, Pu’er and white tea. In TCM, tea is considered to have a bitter flavor and cool temperature.
Recent research shows that all forms of tea:
- Inhibit tumor growth
- Strengthen the immune system
- Help to fight heart disease
- Contain antioxidants
- Reduce cavities
- Aid digestion
- Relieve thirst
- Help to slow down atherosclerosis
All teas contain polyphenols, which are micronutrients that we get through certain plant-based foods. They’re packed with antioxidants and thought to improve or help treat digestion and weight issues, diabetes, neurodegenerative, and cardiovascular diseases. Tea also contains folacin (one of the B vitamins), vitamin C, fluoride, and magnesium. Tea contains varying amounts of caffeine, and tannins (from 5-20%), which give it its astringent quality and adds to the bitterness.
The benefits of tannins comes from their anti-carcinogenic and anti-mutagenic properties, mostly due to its anti-oxidizing nature. Evidently, tannins also remove harmful microbes from the body and fight against bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Even so, tannins are a known growth suppressant; therefore, children should not be given tea. Drinking tea daily in moderation is beneficial, but excessive use can deplete iron stores. For people with a tendency to form calcium oxalate kidney stones, tea is not recommended.
In TCM food therapy, the qualities of camellia type teas are:
- Brightens the eyes
- Clears the voice
- Invigorates qi and blood
- Removes flatulence
- Opens the channels (meridians)
- Illuminates the spirit
- Improves digestion
- Relieves thirst
- Help cut fats and oils in meals
- Removes water retention
Using Tea as Medicine
According to Asian tradition, tea should be lightly steeped and infused several times. This process helps to bring out the delicate flavors of the tea that do not come out in the first infusion. However, strongly brewed tea is used to treat acute diarrhea, and other acute or chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. Used in this way, one strong tablespoon several times a day is best. Additionally, making a soak from a strong brew or a poultice of tea leaves can help with poison oak outbreaks and to dry up a herpes outbreak.
If you’re someone who’s experience with tea is limited to simply Lipton, I encourage you to head to the bulk tea section of your local natural food store and pick up a nice green or Pu’er tea to try. Besides the medicinal and health aspects of tea, the ritual of making tea can lead to a comforting and meditative culinary experience.
Tips to Support Healthy Dietary Changes
Listen to your body:
This is always number one! The best foods for your body are ones that are easy to digest and gradually increase your energy. Often you will get a sense that your body says “thank you” after eating foods that are deeply nourishing and bring you into balance.
Eating according to the seasons is very important as our bodies also go through cyclical changes throughout the year. Undoubtedly, eating locally grown seasonal fruits and vegetables is the best way to keep your body in rhythm with the environmental changes throughout the year.
Eating at regular intervals:
The earth element (spleen/ stomach organ systems) loves a routine, so eating at regular times of the day can help assist the gastrointestinal tract to perform optimally. And remember not to skip breakfast or eat more than you need!
Eat moderate amounts:
It is important to listen to your body when it tells you it is “full” or has had enough. Overeating makes it hard for the Spleen and Stomach to effectively digest food and allocate the nutrients to parts of the body that need it the most.
Make breakfast your largest meal:
The first meal of the day helps to stimulate your digestion and the nutrients deliver the energetic basis for the day. Specifically, the morning hours are the time when the organs of the digestive system are most active according to the Chinese medicine clock (stomach 7-9 am and spleen 9-11 am). By eating during this time frame, you will also be helping to strengthen the digestive system overall.
Cut back on the cold raw foods:
Many cold foods, such as ice water, ice cream, smoothies, and raw salads, can put out your digestive fire and create dampness. This is often experienced as edema or fluid retention, lack of appetite and nausea, and a feeling of heaviness and fatigue. Instead, opt for warm or room temperature water, lightly steamed vegetables, and a cup of nice warm soup or bone broth.
Eat lots of veggies:
Fill up at least half of your plate at every meal with lightly cooked vegetables. Make it as colorful as you want – your body will thank you!
Cook and eat mindfully:
Taking time to cook and eat is important, so slow down, and be present when you are preparing your meals. When you relish the fresh food you have cooked with care and attention, your body will respond to the feeling of the love you put into the cooking process. As a result, this mindfulness can help boost your digestion, give you a better appreciation for your body, and make you feel better all around.
Get up and move:
In Chinese medicine, the root of many diseases is the result of stagnation. Regular exercise gets your energy and blood flowing and is a great mood booster. Daily exercise can also help kick start your metabolism and improve your digestive function.
A Recipe From Chinese Food Therapy
Tasty Healing Porridge “Congee”
This sweet version of congee makes a nutritious and delicious breakfast. I find that, unlike oatmeal for breakfast, I feel satiated well into the afternoon after eating congee. If you’re interested in a savory option, you can cook the grains in bone broth or meat broth of your choice, and add onions, vegetables, and so on. The simple version of congee is white rice cooked in water. Even so, be creative and make it the way that suits you. The key here is the slow-cooked grains which makes it easily digestible and helps to soothe and strengthen the digestive system. Following is the recipe that I enjoy:
- ½ C. white or brown rice
- ½ C. quinoa
- ½ C. barley
- ½ C. amaranth
- About 8 -10 cups of water – adjust if needed.
- 2 thin slices of fresh ginger
- ½ tsp. cardamom
- 1 tsp. cinnamon or a small cinnamon stick
- Some honey to taste (optional)
- Large spoonful of sunflower butter (optional)
- Walnuts (optional)
- Small handful of Goji berries (optional)
- Apple pieces (optional)
In a large slow cooker or large pot, put in the grains, water, ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. Cook on low for about 3 hours, and then add in the optional ingredients (honey, apples, sunflower butter, etc.) if you want. Cook for another 1 – 2 hours. It should have a creamy consistency when done – add water during cooking process as needed. It makes a large pot of porridge – I always end up putting a few jars in the freezer to warm up later – it makes a great grab-and-go breakfast!
Above all, a balanced TCM diet means eating select foods according to individual constitution. I always incorporate dietary recommendations in my sessions and look forward to collaborating with you to bring your body back into balance for better long-term health.