Food As Medicine: A Chinese Perspective

In Chinese medicine and culture, food is recognized as an important healing force. Sun Si-miao, one of the great physicians and writers of the 6th century, wrote that “a true doctor first finds out the cause of disease, and having found that out, he tries to cure it first by food. If that is unsuccessful, only then does he use stronger medicine”.

In Chinese medicine and culture, food is recognized as an important healing force. There is a common expression in Chinese medical understanding: “medicine and food share the same origin”. In other words, food and medicine are not so different. Sun Si-miao, one of the great physicians and writers of the 6th century, wrote that “a true doctor first finds out the cause of disease, and having found that out, he tries to cure it first by food. If that is unsuccessful, only then does he use stronger medicine”.

Sun Si-miao placed great importance on yang sheng (translated as “nourishing life”) and advocated the cultivation of health of mind, body and spirit through diet and lifestyle. This included many aspects of “qi cultivation”, always seeing the whole body as an integrated system, and working to achieve balance of mind and body, and harmony between the body and environment.


The Basics

In these modern times, when there is so much information about different diets and advice is frequently conflicting, it can be hard to know what to eat. Our current health care crisis is in large part a crisis of the American diet. In Chinese medicine, as most modern authorities in the West agree, we should start with the basics:


1) Eat whole foods; minimize processed foods and eat mostly vegetables
2) As much as possible, eat foods that are in season
3) Eat local and fresh, nutrient density means more qi, or “life energy”

As much as possible, choose foods that are not processed or changed from their whole state.  This often boils down to what Michael Pollan advises: Don’t eat anything that lists more than five ingredients on the label, or ingredients you can’t pronounce.

From this starting point, the Chinese medicine perspective also advises us to eat as seasonally as possible.  For example, watermelon is very cooling to the body, and is best eaten during the hot summer weather, but may contribute to illnesses of a cold nature if eaten in a cold winter environment. It makes sense if one is eating seasonally, that it is best eaten when it naturally ripens in the summer months. Pears are cool, moistening, and nourish the yin, and so are excellent to eat in the dry autumn season, the time in which that fruit ripens.  Nature has an inherent wisdom of providing what is balancing to our bodies at the time when it is needed.


Optimizing the Digestive Fire

Good nutrition is dependent on both eating healthy, balanced foods, and your body’s ability to break down and absorb the nutrients from those foods. 

Chinese medicine wisdom advocates the ideal of eating meals when you are relaxed, in a peaceful environment, and at a slow pace, in order to best digest and get the nutrition that your food contains. Call it conscious eating; enjoying your food. Heated discussions, stress, or work are best avoided at meal times as that interferes with digestive enzyme secretion.

East Asian culture puts great emphasis on the temperature of foods and the importance of supporting the “digestive fire”. Warmth promotes relaxation in the gastrointestinal tract, and foods consumed should be sufficiently warming to support this fire. This means avoiding ice in drinks and eating an excess of foods that are raw or cold in temperature, except in the warm season. Particularly in the winter, or when people are rehabilitating from an illness or surgery, it is strongly recommended to eat primarily warm soups and cooked foods that are boiled, steamed, sir-fried, or baked. Raw vegetables are cooling and especially when the environment is cold or a person runs cold, raw foods can cool the natural “fire” and excessively slow metabolism and the ability to circulate and warm the body.


The Balance of Cooling and Heating Foods

In Chinese dietary therapy, one of the primary ways that food is classified is by the heating and cooling effect on the body. This is not always about the actual temperature of the food as in cold from the refrigerator, though that does come into play as well. The energetic nature of foods can be hot, warm, neutral, cool, or cold.

In cold weather and environments, it can be quite important to eat warm foods in order to create and maintain a healthy balance, while in hot environments and hot summer weather, cooling food are more appropriate. But constitution is also a consideration, and depending on whether a person runs particularly hot or cold, certain foods will be recommended in order to correct the imbalance.

Warm or hot foods are considered more yang and help to establish balance in conditions that are excessively cold, or yin. Foods that are cold or cool are generally more yin in nature and can help when conditions are excessively yang, or hot. Some examples of foods in each temperature category are the following:

Hot: Butter, chocolate, coffee, crispy rice, beets, curry, hot chilies, lamb, mango, onions, peanut butter, sesame seed, smoked fish, trout.

Warm: beef, cheese, brown sugar, honey chestnuts, chicken, egg yolk, dates, garlic, ginger, green pepper, ham, leeks, oats, peaches, pomegranates, potato, turkey, turnips, vinegar, walnuts, purples plum, fig, onion, oats, black tea

Neutral: apricots, beet roots, broad beans, bread, brown rice, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cherries, egg whites, grapes, honey, water, milk, peanuts, peas, pork, pumpkin, raisins, salmon, sugar, sweet potatoes.

Cool: Almonds, apples, barley, broccoli, corn, fish, mushrooms, celery, wheat, turnips, tangerines, strawberries, pineapple, oranges, pears, mango, crab, lemon, green tea, daikon, watercress, salt.

Cold: Bananas, bean sprouts, duck, grapefruit, melons, green tea, cucumber, lettuce, ice cream, mussels, peppermint, tofu, tomato, water chestnut, oysters, yogurt.

Preparation Methods: The temperature of the food is also affected by the preparation methods. Raw foods are the coldest, and require the body to add heat to digest them. Long term consumption of large amounts of raw food is thought to be depleting of the body’s digestive fire. The way food is prepared may make it more suitable for an individual’s constitution. From coolest to warmest: raw, steamed, boiled, stewed, stir-fried, baked, fried, roasted.


The Five Element Flavors

Eating a variety of whole foods that have different flavors, energies, and organic actions is commonly advocated in both Eastern and Western dietary practice. In traditional Chinese medicine, all foods and herbs are assigned properties according to the five flavors: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent/spicy and salty. Foods within these flavor categories have particular effects on the individual organ and meridian systems of the body, and are associated with the five elements. In our regular diets, it is ideal to include foods of each of the five flavors, but according to one’s predisposition to an excess or deficiency of any particular element, diet choices can be used to create more balance.

Fire Element – Bitter foods such as rhubarb, dandelion leaf, turnip, bitter gourd, asparagus and coffee tend to descend qi, drain heat and are somewhat drying. Some bitter foods have a purgative effect as they induce bowel movements. In traditional Chinese medicine, bitter foods and herbs are often used to dry damp conditions and for people with damp constitutions who tend to retention of fluids. The flavor bitter is associated with the fire element and goes to the Heart and Small Intestine.

Wood Element – Sour foods such as grapefruit, lemon, apple, strawberry, oranges, olives, plums, and vinegar are astringent. These foods are generally cooling, astringent, and encourage the body to hold on to fluids. In small amounts, they can aid digestion. Energetically, the flavor sour is associated with the wood element and goes to the Liver and Gall Bladder.

Metal Element – Pungent or spicy foods such as onion, pepper, mustard seed, cinnamon, ginger, and cayenne pepper have a warming action, promoting energy to move upwards and outwards to the body’s surface, moving qi and circulating the blood. They also are useful in stimulating the appetite and dispersing mucus from the lungs. From a traditional Chinese medicine view, the flavor spicy is associated with the metal element and goes to the Lung and Large Intestine.

Water Element – Salty foods such as kelp, soy sauce, seaweed, shrimp, oyster, and duck are cooling and hold fluids in the body. They have a downward flowing action, soften hard accumulations, disperse nodules, and lubricate the intestines to act as a purgative. In Energetically, the flavor salty is associated with the water element and goes the organs of the Kidney and Bladder.

Earth Element – Sweet foods are tonifying and harmonizing and relax tension and pain. They can be divided into two groups: sweet foods that are cool and nourishing, or warm and nourishing. Warm, nourishing includes meat, legumes, nuts, dairy products and starchy vegetables. Nourishing cooling foods include fruits, berries, honey and other natural sweeteners, as well as simple carbohydrates such as potatoes and rice. From a traditional Chinese medicine perspective, the flavor sweet is associated with the earth element and goes to the Spleen and Stomach.


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