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Traditional Chinese Medicine Food Therapy - Introduction

Proper nutrition in the form of lifestyle diet habits are key to promoting well-being and for treating disharmonies in the body. 

Dietary therapy is often quite effective at treating common pathologies based on an Oriental Medicine diagnosis like qi deficiency or blood deficiency, but sometimes dietary therapy alone may not be enough. This is often seen in diagnoses like qi stagnation or blood stasis. Dietary therapy can, however, be an excellent supplemental therapy used in conjunction with other Oriental Medicine modalities like acupuncture and herbal prescriptions. The dietary principles discussed here can be applied to any type of cuisine worldwide.

Chinese medicine classifies food according to its energetic effects rather than according to its components. Certain foods are viewed as warming and nourishing while others are seen as cooling and eliminating; some foods are useful for building qi while others have blood, yang or yin building properties. Breakfast consisting of a banana and yoghurt will always have the same nutritional value in western medicine no matter who is eating it, in traditional Chinese medicine it may be seen as beneficial for those with yin deficiency conditions but detrimental to those with yang deficiency or dampness.

It is important to know about the energies of food because different energies act upon the human body in different ways and affect our state of health. If a person suffers from cold rheumatism and the pain is particularly severe on cold winter day, eating foods with a warm or hot energy can help relieve the pain. If a person suffers from skin eruptions that worsen when exposed to heat, it is beneficial to eat foods with a cold or cool energy to help relieve the symptoms.

Depending on our constitution, food in this context either assists or hinders our daily efforts to maintain our health or recover from illness. It is not just a matter of eating nourishing healthy food but of eating nourishing healthy food that is right for individual body types.

General considerations to determine the type of energy a food produces:

- If it grows in the air and sunshine, it is probably yang

- If it grows in the earth and darkness, it is probably yin

- If it is soft, wet and cool, it is more yin

- If it is hard, dry and spicy, it is more yang


The Five Flavours

All foods in traditional Chinese medicine are assigned properties according to the five flavours: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty; and the four natures: cool, cold, warm and hot.

The flavour of food (sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty) can be used to predict its effects on the body. The nature of food (cool, cold, warm and hot) also has a direct effect on the body. Even the way food is prepared can make it more suitable to an individual’s constitution:

(Coolest)  Raw – Steamed - Boiled - Stewed - Stir fried – Baked - Deep fried - Roasted  (Warmest)

Bitter foods such as rhubarb and dandelion leaf tend to descend qi, clear heat and dry dampness, stimulate appetite, and promote lowering effects like urination and bowel movements. Energetically, the flavor bitter affects the Heart and the Small intestine; excess injures the bones.

Sour foods such as grapefruit and olives are astringent, generating yin fluids, and are cooling.The astringent character helps to arrest abnormal discharge of fluids and other substances from the body, such as diarrhea and heavy sweating. In small amounts they aid digestion. Energetically, the flavor sour affects the Liver and the gallbladder; excess injures the nerves.

Pungent or spicy foods such as onion and cayenne pepper have a warming action, promote distributions and circulations, and stimulate appetite.They also are useful to disperse mucus from the lungs. Energetically, the flavor spicy affects the Lungs and the Large Intestine; excess injures the qi.

Salty foods such as kelp and soy sauce are cooling and hold fluids in the body. They dissipate accumulations, soften hardness, and lubricate intestines to induce bowel movements. They have a downward flowing action. Energetically, the flavor salty affects the Kidney and the Bladder; excess injures the blood.

Sweet foods: lubricate and nourish the body. They can be divided into two groups(a) sweet foods that are neutral and nourishing or warm and nourishing; these include meats, legumes, nuts and dairy products (b) sweet foods that are cooling; these include many fruits, sugar, honey as well as potatoes, rice and apples. Energetically, the flavor sweet is tonifying and goes to the Spleen; excess injures the muscles.

Don’t miss our next articles since I will be giving you more tips about the health benefits that food gives us according to the Traditional Chinese Medicine point of view.

If you’re interested in learning and applying a different nutritional philosophy to your daily life in order to achieve a better health, come visit our Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Clinic, ACU4U, near Houston’s Texas Medical Center. Our highly trained, licensed practitioners will ensure that you receive the most pertinent nutritional guidance to complement your acupuncture treatment so you can live life to its fullest.