Food As Medicine
In Chinese medicine, food is recognized as an important healing force. There is a common expression in Chinese medical theory: “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 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.
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 on good dietary practice agree, we start with the basics:
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 energetically 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. 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.
And in that same vein, we advocate eating as local as possible. This can be challenging, but with the popularity of farmer’s markets and the growing emphasis in stores of providing locally grown produce, for many this has become a more integral way of eating. When produce is fresh and picked closer to the time it is eaten, fruits and vegetables are more nutrient dense and have more life energy (“qi”). Eating local is healthy, supports local farmers, and when food does not have to be trucked or flown in from long distances, it honors the environment and a more sustainable planet.
1) Eat whole foods; minimize processed foods
2) As much as possible, eat foods that are in season
3) Eat local
4) Eat mostly vegetables
Check out the Interactive Seasonal Ingredients Map from Epicurious to find out what fruits and vegetables are fresh and seasonal in your area month by month.
Bone Broth is an excellent means of nourishing the deep energies of the body and is extremely nutritious.
Chinese Medicine Energetics
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.
In Chinese medicine, we advocate the ideal of eating meals when you are relaxed, in a peaceful environment, and at a slow pace. Call it conscious eating; enjoying your food. Heated discussions, stress, or work are best avoided at meal times. As Michael Pollan says in his “Food Rules”, “do all your eating at a table (no, a desk is not a table)”. If we eat while we’re working, or while watching TV or driving, we eat mindlessly — and as a result, eat a lot more than we would if we were eating at a table, paying attention to what we’re doing, and our digestive process and enzyme production is less efficient.
Food should be chewed thoroughly, thus improving digestion and assimilation of nutrients. Water or beverages should be used sparingly with meals, with the majority of your fluid intake between meals. This prevents the digestive juices from being diluted, and prevents the water from carrying the food to the next stage of digestion prematurely.
Some concepts of Chinese medicine that are most emphasized for promoting good digestion are:
1) eating meals at regular times
2) eating foods that are sufficiently warming to support the digestive fire. This means avoiding ice in drinks and eating foods that are raw or cold in temperature, except in the warm season.
3) eat a variety of whole foods that have different flavors, energies, and organic actions.
These guidelines are generally good for everyone. In a Chinese medicine approach, we then begin looking at optimal diet in very individualized ways. Each person is different, with a different constitution, different lifestyles of activity and exercise, and different physical health concerns. People with diabetes, autoimmune disorders, food sensitivities, or menopausal hot flashes, as examples, all need slightly different dietary emphasis. It makes sense that within a foundation of good general dietary practice, guidelines for each individual will be somewhat different.
Temperature of Foods
In Chinese dietary therapy we classify the temperature nature of food by the heating or cooling effect it has on the body. This is not specifically about how cold or hot foods are served, but their energetic nature. Foods can be classified as Hot, Warm, Neutral, Cool, or Cold. In general, in the cold seasons, warmer foods provide a good balance, while cooler foods are handled better in the summer heat. But constitution and conditions are important to take into consideration and each will be advised to eat primarily within certain energetic categories in order to achieve and maintain balance. Some examples of foods in each category are:
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 Flavors
All foods and herbs in traditional Chinese medicine are assigned properties according to the five flavors: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty. Foods within these flavors categories have particular effects on the individual organ and meridian systems of the body. Within our regular diet, it is ideal to include foods of each of the five flavors.
Bitter foods such as rhubarb, dandelion leaf, turnip, bitter gourd, asparagus and coffee tend to descend qi, drain heat and dry dampness. Some bitter foods have a purgative effect as they induce bowel movements. Energetically, the flavor bitter is associated with the fire element and goes to the Heart and Small Intestine.
Sour foods such as grapefruit, lemon, apple, strawberry, oranges, olives, plums, and vinegar are astringent. They generate yin fluids and are cooling, and in small amounts may aid digestion. Energetically, the flavor sour is associated with the wood element and goes to the Liver and Gall Bladder.
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 clearing mucus. Energetically, the flavor spicy is associated with the metal element and goes to the Lung and Large Intestine.
Salty foods such as kelp, soy sauce, seaweed, sea shrimp, oyster, and duck are cooling and hold fluids in the body. They have a downward flowing action, soften hardness, and lubricate intestines to act as a purgative. Energetically, the flavor salty is associated with the water element and goes to the kidney and bladder.
Sweet foods are tonifying and can be divided into two groups: sweet and cooling or sweet and warming. Warm, nourishing foods include meat, legumes, nuts, dairy products and starchy vegetables. Cool nourishing foods include fruits, sugar, honey and other sweeteners, as well as potatoes and rice. Energetically, the flavor sweet is associated with the earth element and goes to the Spleen and Stomach.
Foods therapy is also used to support the individual energetics defined by both constitution and the disorder being addressed. Below are some dietary guidelines that may be helpful in addressing energetic conditions.
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. 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:
•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. 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, kidneys (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:
• 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 transport 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 Spleen by eliminating raw, cold, processed, sugary, fatty, fried foods. Foods 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)
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. Food to build blood includes:
• 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
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. Our ability to create qi is dependent on our diet and lifestyle, as well as inherent constitution and we can support this process through breathing exercises, physical exercise, and good dietary habits. Spleen qi specifically refers to the qi that is assimilated from food, which is dependent on both the quality of the food and the ability to digest optimally. Foods especially useful to tonify Spleen Qi Deficiency:
• 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.