Health and balance with diet from a Chinese energetic perspective is different from the approach of Western nutrition. Where modern Western thinking prescribes the same diet for a wide group of people regardless of their constitution and health patterns, and looks primarily at the chemical composition of foods, in energetic medicine, every individual is different.
Yin and Yang
The concepts of yin and yang are integral to the concepts of Chinese medicine energetics and East Asian culture in general. They express a dynamic system of relationships, patterns and function. According to this philosophy, all phenomena consist of these two opposing, yet complimentary forces, yin and yang, that work together to maintain balance. Each of us expressed both yin and yang within us, and in our rest and activity.
Yin is described as the passive, dark, receptive, cool, and moist tendency. It is most dominant at night and its directional movement is downward and inward. It is expressed in the ability of the roots of plants to take in nourishment, and in the winter season and the dormancy and quiet that is necessary for renewal. It is the tendency slow down, to go inward and reflect, and in the 24 hour cycle is most dominant in the quiet, peaceful qualities of night time.
Yang is the opposite of yin and is represented by the active, light, warm, dry and creative principles. It is most dominant during the day and its directional movement is outward and upward. In the environment, this energy is expressed by the warmth of the sun, growth of plants above the ground, and creative movement. The yang is said to rise in the spring and is at its height in the summer. It is the tendency to activity, to be outward and open, and in the 24 hour cycle, it represents the dynamic, bright qualities of day time.
There are several layers of assessment with Chinese energetics, but looking at the constitution is the foundation. In this system, someone who is a very thin, dry, wiry and anxious type would need a diet that is moistening, nourishing, calming and possibly cooling. Whereas someone who is sluggish, retains fluids easily, and fatigues easily might need to eat a diet with warming, energizing and drying foods in order to achieve balance.
Below are some guidelines for each of the primary constitutional types: Yin deficiency, yang deficiency, damp phlegm accumulation, qi deficiency and blood deficiency. It is common for individuals to overlap into more than one category, and for complex patterns it can be useful to consult with a Chinese medicine practitioner, however this will help you get started.
Yin represents the energy that is responsible for moistening and cooling bodily functions. When this energy is depleted your body begins to show signs of “heating up”. This is not a true heat but rather a lack of the moistening and cooling functions that are necessary to maintain a healthy balance.
Some signs that might be present when the yin is deficient are: insomnia or restless sleep, night sweats or excessive heat at night, hot flashes, dryness, thirst, waking at around 3 am and an energy drop at around 3 pm, flushing, restlessness, nervous energy, tendency to feel ungrounded, short menstrual cycles, premature graying, and low back weakness.
In general it is recommended that yin deficient individuals make time for rest and getting enough sleep, to avoid yin depleting activities like overwork, intensive exercise, dehydration, and overheating. Meditation and calming practices are beneficial.
Foods that nourish the yin include:
- Grains: barley, millet
- Vegetables: alfalfa sprout, artichoke, asparagus, kelp, mung bean sprout, pea, potato, seaweed, string bean, sweet potato, tomato, water chestnut, yam, zucchini
- Fruit: apple, apricot, avocado, banana, lemon, lime, mango, mulberry, pear, persimmon, pineapple, pomegranate, watermelon
- Beans: adzuki, black beans, black soya, kidney, lima, mung
- Bean Products: tofu
- Nuts and seeds: coconut milk, sesame seed, black sesame seed, walnut
- Fish: fish in general but especially clam, fresh water clam, crab, cuttlefish, oyster, octopus, sardine
- Meat: beef, duck, goose, pork, pork kidney, rabbit
- Dairy: cheese, chicken egg, cow’s milk, duck egg
- Herbs and spices: marjoram, nettle
- Oils and condiments: honey, malt
Foods to avoid or limit:
- Stimulating foods such as the following will further deplete yin: caffeine, alcohol, sugar and strongly heating, pungent spices.
Yang represents the energy that is responsible for warming and activating bodily functions. When this energy is depleted your body begins to slow down, displaying signs of under activity and sensations of coldness.
Some signs that might be present when the yang is deficient are: sensitivity to cold temperatures and tendency to have cold limbs, slow metabolism and difficulty loosing weight, low energy, low libido, low back or knee pain or weakness, lack of vitality in general, and frequent pale urination especially at night.
In general, it is recommended that even in the summer, yang deficient individuals avoid eating too much cold drinks and raw food, stay away from iced foods and beverages, but eat primarily warm, cooked foods that are easy to digest and do not cause more chilling.
Foods to tonify yang include:
- Grains: quinoa, sweet (glutinous) rice, wheat germ
- Vegetables: garlic, leek, mustard greens, onion, radish, scallion, squash, sweet potato, turnip
- Fruit: cherry, litchi, longan, peach, raspberry, strawberry
- Nuts and seeds: chestnuts, pine nuts, pistachio nuts, walnuts
- Fish: anchovy, lobster, mussel, prawn, shrimp, trout
- Meat: chicken, lamb, venison, kidney (both beef and lamb)
- Herbs and spices: basil, black pepper, caper, cayenne, chive, cinnamon bark, clove, dill seed, fennel seed, fenugreek seed, garlic, ginger, horseradish, nutmeg, rosemary, sage, savory, spearmint, star anise, turmeric, thyme
Foods to avoid or limit:
- Cold food and cold liquids will obstruct the body’s yang energy. Here ‘cold foods’ refers not only to those directly taken from the fridge but also to raw foods, as these require extra energy for digestion compared to pre-cooked foods. This may mean that it is best to choose steamed vegetables over a green salad, or switching from granola to oatmeal for breakfast.
- Using a warming method of cooking will also enhance the body’s energy by preserving yang, therefore soups, stews and slow roasted foods become the dishes of choice for those with a predominate yang deficiency. Do not use hot seasoning to excess, as they will induce sweating therefore having a cooling, drying effect on the body.
Damp Phlegm Accumulation
Dampness arises from the inability of the digestive system to transform and transport fluids, or from the body being overwhelmed by external damp from the environment, (damp weather or living conditions, damp-producing foods). It can also arise from response to an illness, or from the overuse of medication that promotes dampness, such as certain antibiotics. Phlegm is seen as a condensed form of dampness. With a diagnosis of Damp Phlegm Accumulation it is important to nourish the qi with highly nutrient dense foods, and limit raw, cold, processed, sugary, fatty, fried foods.
Some signs that might be present when there is excessive dampness are: fatigue and a sense of heaviness, feeling of congestion or sluggishness, excessive mucus in the morning, excessive weight especially in the belly, fluid retention, foggy thinking, cloudy urine, tendency to develop cysts or abscesses, loose stool, thick tongue coating, and health feels worse in damp weather.
In general it is recommended for those with damp phlegm constitutions to get regular exercise, incorporate more outdoor activities, avoid alcohol and dairy products, and refrain from overeating, especially carbohydrates and sweets.
Foods traditionally used to resolve dampness include:
- Grains: corn, barley, basmati rice, rye
- Vegetables: alfalfa sprout, button mushroom, caper, corn, pumpkin, radish, turnip, parsley, daikon, white fungus, kohlrabi, onion, mustard leaf, pumpkin, scallion
- Fruit: papaya, lemon, umeboshi plum
- Beans: aduki, lentils, kidney
- Fish: eel, tuna, mackerel, anchovy
- Herbs and spices: aniseed, garlic, horseradish, marjoram, nettle, parsley, white pepper
- Beverages: green tea, raspberry leaf tea, jasmine tea
Foods that are useful to resolve damp combining with heat:
- Vegetables: asparagus, celery, Chinese cabbage, spinach
- Fruit: blueberry, cranberry, umeboshi plum
- Beans: kidney
- Herbs, spices: tamarind
Foods that are useful to resolve phlegm:
- Vegetables: button mushroom, olive, shiitake mushroom, watercress, daikon, mustard leaf, onion, plantain, radish
- Nuts, Seeds: almonds, walnuts
- Fish: lobster, clam, shrimp
- Herbs, spices: caraway, cardamom, garlic, horseradish, marjoram, mustard seed, thyme, white or black pepper
Foods that are useful to resolve phlegm with heat:
- Vegetables: seaweed, radish, water chestnut
- Fruit: apple peel, grape fruit, lemon peel, pear, persimmon, tangerine peel
- Herbs and spices: licorice
- Beverages: elderflower tea, grapefruit juice, peppermint tea, grapefruit or pear juice
Foods that are useful to resolve phlegm with cold.
- Vegetables: mustard leaf, onion, scallion
- Herbs and spices: basil, black pepper, cinnamon bark, fennel seeds, fresh ginger, juniper, onion, rosemary, savory
- Beverages: jasmine tea, ginger tea (freshly grated)
Foods to avoid or limit:
- Dairy products
- Gluten and products with refined flour
- Cold drinks, alcohol
- Processed foods, refined sugar
- Deep fried foods
Qi refers to “life energy” and the vitality that you feel in your daily life, including the ability to be physically active, feel optimism, and prevent disease. Qi is created from the absorption of nutrients from our food and also from fresh air. Spleen qi is the term often used to specifically refer to the qi that is assimilated from food, which is dependent on both the quality of the food and the ability to digest optimally.
Some signs that might be present when the qi is deficient are: fatigue, shortness of breath, catching colds easily, poor digestion, loose stool, gas and bloating, sweating easily with little exertion, and poor appetite.
In general, for qi deficient individuals it is recommended to get enough rest, make time for recharging outdoor activities, get moderate exercise, eat a nourishing diet with whole foods, avoid processed foods, and reduce stress. Breathing exercises such as qi gong or tai chi are recommended.
Foods especially useful to tonify the qi:
- Grains: oats, rice, sweet rice, quinoa
- Vegetables: potato, squash, sweet potato, yam, shitake mushroom, parsnip
- Fruit: cherries, dates, figs, grapes, longan
- Meat: beef, chicken, goose, ham, lamb
- Fish: octopus, herring, sturgeon, mackerel
- Beans: lentil, black bean
- Herbs spices: licorice
In traditional Chinese dietary therapy there are two categories for sweet foods:
- The first is termed “empty sweet” which in small amounts is considered cooling and eliminating. It contains simple sugars such as fruits, juice, honey and raw sugar.
- The second category is termed “full sweet”, is considered warming and nourishing. It includes complex carbohydrates, protein and food such as whole grain rice, potatoes, meat and red dates.
The concept of blood in traditional Chinese medicine shares a close relationship with the western concept in that it has both a nourishing and moistening function. However, with the concept of blood deficiency, emphasis is placed on your body’s qi. Blood is seen as a condensed form of qi, with qi playing a vital role in helping the blood to circulate to where it is needed. Attention is also focused on the strength of your digestive system’s ability to successfully obtain the nutrients from your food necessary for the production of blood.
Some signs that might be present when the blood is deficient are: pale complexion, difficulty falling asleep or light sleep with easily waking, anxiety, sensitivity to sounds, fatigue, dizziness, floaters in vision, hands and feet fall asleep easily, maybe anemia, scanty menses, dry skin or eyes, and dry or thinning hair.
In general for people who tend to blood deficiency it is recommended that they eat highly nutritious foods with enough protein and good fats, get proper rest and avoid excessive busyness and stimulation, and cultivate calm with qi gong, yoga or meditation.
Foods traditionally used to build blood include:
- Grains: barley, corn, oats, rice, sweet rice, wheat, bran
- Vegetables: alfalfa sprout, artichoke, beet root, button mushroom, cabbage, celery, dandelion leaf, dark leafy greens, kelp, shiitake mushroom, spinach, watercress, nettles, wheatgrass
- Fruit: apple, apricot, avocado, date, fig, grape, longan, mulberry
- Beans: aduki, kidney
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, black sesame
- Fish: mussel, octopus, oyster, sardine, tuna
- Meat: all red meat especially bone marrow and liver (beef, pork, sheep)
- Dairy: chicken egg
- Herbs, spices: nettle, parsley
- Oils, condiments: amasake, molasses