Traditional Chinese Dietary Medicine
Chinese medicine classifies food according to its energetic effects rather than
according to its component parts. 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 proprieties.
Thus while a breakfast consisting of a banana and yoghurt will always have the same
nutritional valve 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.
Food in this context either assists or hinders our daily efforts to maintain health
or recover from illness, depending on our constitution. It is not just a matter
of eating nourishing healthy food but of eating nourishing healthy food that is
right for individual body types.
Thus a person’s underlying constitution, including the strength of their digestive
system, determines what foods are most suitable. At the same time Chinese medicine
emphasises guidelines on how food should be prepared and eaten if it is to be utilised
in the most efficient way.
The Five Flavours
All foods in traditional Chinese medicine are assigned according to the five flavours:
sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty and the four natures: cool, cold warm and
The flavour of food (sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty) can be used to predict
its effects on the body. Many foods belong to more than one of the five flavours,
for example vinegar is seen as being both bitter and sour and cheese as being sour
The nature of food (cool, cold, warm and hot) also has a direct effect on the body
and modifying its preparation can make it more suitable to an individual’s constitution.
Raw food is the most cooling for the body, requiring more energy to digest than
food that has been cooked. Examples of the same food prepared in a different manner
are muesli compared with porridge, salads compared with stir-fried and roasted vegetables,
or a piece of fruit that is compared with one that is stewed or baked.
In this context a ( cooked) potato salad is viewed as more warming than a (raw)
green salad but not as warming as a hot baked potato, although the basic qualities
of the potato will remain unchanged (that of a sweet flavour with qi and blood tonifing
The five flavours of food with examples
Bitter foods Such as rhubarb and dandelion leaf, tend to drain heat and cool. Some
bitter foods such as rhubarb have a purgative effect as they induce bowel movements
Sour foods Such as grapefruit and olives are cooling and in small amounts aid digestion
Pungent or spicy foods Such as onion and cayenne pepper have a warming action, promoting
energy to move upwards and outwards to the body’s surface. They also have useful
properties in dispersing mucus from the lungs.
Salty foods such as kelp and soya sauce are cooling and hold fluids in the body.
Sweet foods can be divided into two groups 1) Sweet foods that are neutral and nourishing
or warm and nourishing, these include meat, legumes, nuts, dairy products and starchy
vegetables. 2) Sweet foods that are cooling, these include fruits, sugar, honey
and other sweeteners. Potatoes, rice and apples are all considered to belong to
the sweet flavour.
Preparation of food and its influence on the nature of food.
Strengthening the Spleen
Traditional Chinese dietary therapy places strong emphasis on the efficient functioning
of the spleen to extract maximum value from food. There are several simple but important
factors that help to maximise Spleen qi.
Eating a suitable Breakfast
The most suitable time for eating breakfast according to the Chinese 24 hour energy
clock is between seven to nine am when the Stomach’s energy is at its peak. This
is when the body should be hungry and ready to start the day’s digestive process.
If a person is not hungry in the morning it implies a weakness in the digestive
system often resulting from faulty eating habits such as such as eating large meals
late at night or regularly skipping breakfast to save on calories or time.
A sugary breakfast such as processed white toast and jam or cornflakes with milk
and sugar is not a nutritionally balanced start to the day. There are however, a
variety of breakfasts to suit all types and while bread, fruit, yoghurt, muesli,
bacon, eggs, pancakes, or porridges form the mainstay of a western approach to breakfast,
soups, congees, stir fried vegetables and rice or noodles with meat or tofu are
also regularly eaten as breakfast in other cultures.
Breakfast does not have to be a huge meal, but it should preferably be eaten with
an hour of waking. Depending on the underlying energic pattern of the individual
and taking into account the seasonal environment (cooler foods such as yogurt and
fruit can be consumed in warmer weather, with warmer cooked foods such as porridges
chosen in colder weather). Some quick and easy suggestions to choose from include;
- Fruit salad with nuts
- Muesli and yoghurt
- Fruit smoothies ( a drink made by blending yoghurt, milk and fruit together)
- Whole grain bread with hummus, tomato and avocado
- Muesli pre-soaked overnight and eaten with seasonal fruit
- Oat porridges with stewed apple and cinnamon
- Rice porridges with soya milk apricots and almonds
- Scrambled, poached eggs or omelettes with spinach and mushrooms
- Miso soup with tofu
- Noodle soup with vegetables
Avoiding eating large meals late at night
A large meal taken late in the evening, before sleeping, strains the digestive system,
as at this time the Stomach qi is near to its lowest ebb in the 24 hour cycle. Eating
late in this way can lead to food accumulation, manifesting with digestive problems
such as feeling bloated and full on waking in the morning. Prolonged late eating
can lead to chronic digestive problems
Developing regular eating patterns
Irregular eating times and irregular quantities of food are detrimental to an efficient
digestive system. While rigid meal times are not required, taking regular meals
instead of frequently skipping meals, imposing self starvation or over eating will
be rewarded by a more efficient digestive system.
Appropriate fluid intake
A small amount of warm liquid (such as green tea), with a meal can promote effective
digestion, but more than one to two cups, especially if chilled, has the potential
to “swamp” the Stomach and impair digestion.
Ideally the greater part of the fluids consumed in-between meals should be warm
or at room temperature as chilled drinks cool and slow down the digestive process.
Wine, in moderation, has warming properties when taken at mealtimes.
Enjoyment of eating
It is also important to remember that our bodies are designed to enjoy the food
we eat. Our tongues are pre-programmed to recognise and enjoy the different tastes
and our sense of smell will stimulate the production of salvia. Sitting down to
eat breakfast, having lunch away from the office desk and timing the evening meal
so that it does not coincide with the TV news can all enhance our awareness and
enjoyment of our food and this will also serve to assist healthy digestion.
Diet During pregnancy
During pregnancy women are prone to developing some dampness and heat as a matter
of course. This can mean that certain foods women may have previously thought of
as healthy, for example dairy foods or orange juice, may contribute to problems
by further increasing dampness.
Pregnancy may also be characterised by food cravings. It would be pleasing to assume
that these cravings were always directed toward beneficial foods and indeed they
sometimes are, but this is not always the case. However, even apparently unhealthy
cravings such as a desire for fried take away- foods, can indicate a real dietary
need, in this case for more high quality fat in the diet.
If the craving is for very unusual substances such as clay or ashes it is termed
‘pica’ and thought to be due to nutritional deficiency.
While traditional Chinese food therapy often lists what are considered to many to
be strange foods (such as birds nest and sparrow), the adaptation of traditional
Chinese dietary principals into a western diet can be straightforward.
There is an abundance of everyday foods that can be used without resorting to strange
tasting herbs or difficult to tract down ingredients.
The following information can be used to encourage women to consume foods that they
are familiar with and enjoy.
That food effects individuals differently is usually obvious to people, although
they may not understand why, for example a person with an underlying yang deficiency
will find it unpleasant to drink a glass of iced water quickly, while their friend
with an excess internal heat condition will crave drinks straight from the fridge
or water cooler.
A person prone to phlegm disharmonies may immediately notice phlegm forming in the
back of their throat following an ice cream, while others notice no such effects.
Or a person with a yang deficiency will enjoy a warm curry, while those with a yin
deficiency finds that hot spicy foods can trigger feelings hot flushes.
It is therefore important in traditional Chinese medicine, to help individuals find
healthy foods that suit their bodies rather than following set guidelines rather
than propose set dietary guidelines that ignore individual constitutional differences