Chinese medicine diet categorizes foods according to their energetic effects rather than according to their component parts. Some foods are viewed as nourishing and warming while others are seen as eliminating and cooling; certain foods are beneficial for building qi while others have a yang, yin, or blood building proprieties. Therefore, while a breakfast consisting of a yogurt and banana will always have the equal nutritional value in western medicine no matter who is consuming it, in traditional Chinese medicine it might be seen as useful for those with yang deficiency conditions but harmful to those with yin deficiency or dampness.
Foods in this context either hinder or assist our daily efforts to recover from illness or maintain health, depending on your constitution. It’s not just a matter of consuming nourishing healthy foods but of consuming nourishing healthy foods, which are suitable for individual body types. Apart from foods, Chinese medicine diet as a healthy lifestyle, can include certain Tai Chi exercises.
Chinese Medicine Diet: Traditional Therapy
The 5 Flavors
All foods in traditional Chinese medicine are consigned properties, in accordance to the 5 flavors: bitter, sour, sweet, salty, and pungent; and the 4 natures: cool, cold, warm, and hot.
These flavors of food (bitter, sour, sweet, salty, and pungent) could be used to predict their effects on the body. The nature of the food (cool, cold, warm, and hot) also has direct effects on the body. The way food is cooked can make it even more suitable to a person’s constitution:
Coolest <————————————————> Warmest
Bitter foods, such as dandelion and rhubarb leaf have a tendency to descend qi, dry dampness and drain heat. Some bitter food has purgative effects as they boost bowel movements. Energetically, the flavor bitter goes to the spirit (Shen) and the heart; excess injuries the bones.
Sour foods, such as olives and grapefruit are astringent, generating yin liquids and are cooling. In small amounts, they help digestion. Energetically, the flavor sour goes to the spirit soul (hun) and liver; excess injures the nerves.
Spicy or pungent foods such as cayenne pepper and onion have a warming action, promoting energy to move outwards and upwards to the surface of the body, moving qi and circulating the blood. They also are beneficial to disperse mucus from your lungs. Actively, the savor spicy goes to the animal soul (po) and lungs; excess injuries the qi.
Salty foods such as soy and kelp sauce are cooling and hold liquids in the body. They have a downward rolling action, soften hardness, and act as a laxative. Energetically, the flavor salty goes to the will (Zhi) and kidney; excess injures the blood.
Sweet foods could be divided into 2 groups: sweet foods that are warm and nourishing or neutral and nourishing, these include legumes, meat, starchy vegetables, nuts, and dairy products; sweet foods that are cooling, these include honey, sugar, fruits, and other sweeteners, as well as rice, apples, and potatoes. Energetically, the flavor sweet is unifying and goes to the mind (Yi) and spleen; excess injures the muscles.
- Yin Deficiency
Yin signifies the energy which is responsible for cooling and moistening bodily functions. When this energy is depleted the body starts to show some signs of “heating up”. However, this is not a real heat but rather a lack of the cooling and moistening functions which are required to maintain a healthy balance.
Foods to eat
In order to tonify Yin, you should consume these foods:
- Vegetables: artichoke, kelp, potato, string bean, tomato, zucchini, pea, alfalfa sprout, asparagus, sweet potato, yam, seaweed, and water chestnut.
- Grains: millet, barley
- Bean products: tofu
- Fruit: apricot, apple, avocado, lemon, banana, lime, pineapple, persimmon, mulberry, mango, pomegranate, pear, watermelon.
- Beans: black beans, adzuki, lima, kidney, black soy, mung.
- Seeds and nuts: sesame seed, coconut milk, walnut, black sesame seed.
- Meat: duck, beef, pork, goose, rabbit, pork kidney.
- Fish: fish generally but a mostly clam, freshwater clam, cuttlefish, crab, octopus, oyster, sardine.
- Dairy: chicken egg, cheese, duck egg, cow’s milk.
- Oils and condiments: malt, honey.
- Spices and herbs: nettle, marjoram.
- Common supplements: royal jelly, American ginseng.
Examples of every day western foods which could be used to build yin, include:
- Omelets with cheese
- Fish dishes with coconut milk
- Fruit smoothies with banana and honey or a fruit salad.
- Egg salads and asparagus with sesame seeds.
- Baked potato stuffed with tofu with sesame seeds and soya sauce.
- Miso soup with seaweed and tofu.
- Apple and pork dishes.
Foods to avoid
Stimulating foods as the following can only further deplete yin: alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and pungent spices.
Note: Yin building foods tend to congest the spleen and promote stagnation if large quantities are eaten. It’s, therefore, important to eat small amounts frequently rather than large servings irregularly.
- Yang Deficiency
Yang signifies the energy which is responsible for activating and warming bodily functions. When this kind of energy is depleted our bodies begin to slow down, showing sensations of coldness and signs of under activity.
The list of foods that will help you tonify yang include:
- Vegetables: mustard greens, radish, squash, turnip, leek, scallion, sweet potato, watercress.
- Grains: sweet (glutinous) rice, quinoa, wheat germ.
- Fruit: litchi, cherry, peach, logan, strawberry, raspberry.
- Seeds and nuts: pine nuts, walnuts, chestnuts, pistachio nuts.
- Meat: lamb, chicken, kidneys (both lamb and beef), venison.
- Fish: lobster, shrimp, anchovy, trout, mussel, prawn.
- Spices and herbs: black pepper, basil, cayenne, caper, cinnamon bark, chive seed, dill seed, clove, fennel seed, garlic, fenugreek seed, horseradish, peppermint, nutmeg, sage, star anise, rosemary, thyme, turmeric, white pepper.
- Beverages: jasmine tea, chai tea.
- Common supplements: brown sugar, algae, vinegar, malt sugar, Korean ginseng.
Examples of everyday western foods which could be used to build yang include:
- Roasted vegetables with rosemary
- Roast chicken with thyme and sage
- Rice porridge with nutmeg, cinnamon, and some brown sugar.
- Potato and leek soup with black pepper.
Or by adding some of the several spices as listed above to meals when cooking.
Foods to avoid:
- Cold liquids and cold food will further drain the yang energy of the body. Here “cold foods” include not just foods that are directly taken from the refrigerator but also raw foods, as those require more energy for digestion compared to pre-cooked foods. This might mean picking steamed veggies over a green salad or switching from oatmeal to granola for breakfast.
- Using a warming cooking process will also boost the body’s energy by preserving yang, thus slow-roasted foods, stews, and soups become the meals of choice for people with a predominate yang deficiency. Don’t use hot seasoning to excess that will induce sweating and have drying effects on your body.
- Damp-Phlegm Accumulation
Dampness exemplifies a condition existing in the body, which is a reflection of dampness as it happens in nature, as humidity. It arises from the incapacity of the digestive system to transport fluids, or from our bodies being overwhelmed by exterior damp from the environment, (humid weather or living conditions, clammy foods). It could also arise from the response to a disease, or from the overuse of medicine which promotes dampness, like certain antibiotics.
Phlegm is considered as a condensed type of dampness. With a Damp-Phlegm Accumulation diagnosis, it’s essential to nourish the spleen by eliminating raw, processed, cold, fatty, fried, and sugary foods.
Foods to resolve dampness include:
- Vegetables: button mushroom, corn, caper, alfalfa sprout, pumpkin, parsley, white fungus, onion, scallion, radish, parsley, turnip, kohlrabi, mustard lead.
- Beans: lentils, aduki, kidney.
- Grains: barley, rye, corn, basmati rice.
- Fish: mackerel, tuna, anchovy, eel.
- Spices, herbs: garlic, white pepper, marjoram, parsley, aniseed, nettle, horseradish.
- Beverages: jasmine tea, raspberry leaf tea, green tea.
Foods that are beneficial to resolve damp combining with heat:
- Fruit: cranberry, blueberry, umeboshi
- Vegetables: celery, asparagus, Chinese cabbage.
- Spices, herbs:
- Beans: a kidney.
Foods that are beneficial to resolve phlegm:
- Fish: shrimp, clam, lobster.
- Vegetables: olive, button mushroom, watercress, onion, radish, plantain, daikon, shiitake mushroom, mustard leaf.
- Seeds, nuts: walnuts, almonds.
- Spices, herbs: cardamom, horseradish, garlic, caraway, mustard seed, black or white pepper, thyme, marjoram.
- Beverages: soya milk, black tea.
- Common supplements: garlic and horseradish.
Foods that are beneficial to resolve phlegm with heat:
- Fruit: grapefruit, apple peel, lemon peel, tangerine peel, pear, persimmon.
- Vegetables: water chestnut, radish, seaweed.
- Spices and herbs:
- Beverages: grapefruit juice, pear juice, elderflower tea, peppermint tea.
Foods that are beneficial to resolve phlegm with cold:
- Spices and herbs: black pepper, basil, fennel seeds, juniper, fresh ginger, cinnamon bark, savory, rosemary, onion.
- Vegetables: scallion, onion, mustard leaf.
- Beverages: freshly grated ginger tea, jasmine tea.
- Blood Deficiency
In traditional Chinese medicine, the concept of blood is similar to the western concept in which it has both a moistening and nourishing function. Though, the emphasis of the concept of blood deficiency is placed on the body’s qi. Our blood is considerate as a condensed form of qi, where qi is playing a crucial role in assisting the blood in circulating to where it’s required. Attention is also focused on the strength of the ability of your digestive system to successfully obtain all the nutrients from the food that are essential for the production of blood.
Foods to build blood includes:
- Vegetables: artichoke, alfalfa sprout, button mushroom, beetroot, celery, cabbage, dark leafy green, dandelion leaf, shiitake mushroom, kelp, spinach, wheatgrass, watercress.
- Grains: sweet rice, rice, oats, bran, wheat, corn, barley.
- Fruit: apricot, apple, avocado, fig, date, longan, grape, mulberry.
- Seeds and nuts: black sesame, almonds.
- Beans: black soy, aduki, kidney.
- Meat: all read meat particularly liver and bone marrow (sheep, pork, beef)
- Fish: tuna, sardine, oyster, octopus, mussel.
- Dairy: chicken, egg.
- Spices, herbs: parsley, nettle.
- Oils, condiments: molasses, amasake.
- Beverages: soy milk.
- Common supplements: pollen, tongue, algae.
Examples of everyday western foods which could be used to build blood include:
- Dark leafy green salads with grated beetroot and avocado.
- Rice porridges with almonds, apricots, and soy milk.
- Mussel chowder and calamari.
- Scrambled eggs and parsley.
- Kidney mushroom and bean lasagna with a spinach salad.
- Snacks of almonds and dried apricots.
- Qi Deficiency
Foods especially beneficial to tonify spleen qi deficiency:
- Vegetables: yam, sweet potato, squash, potato.
- Grains: sweet rice, rice, oats.
- Bean product:
- Fruits: cherries, figs, dates, longan, grapes.
- Meat: chicken, lamb, ham, beef, goose.
- Herbs and spices:
- Supplements: pollen, algae, royal jelly, Chinese ginseng, American ginseng.
Examples of every day western foods which could be used to build qi, include:
- Roasted sweet potatoes with yams and pumpkin.
- Oat porridge with honey and dates.
- Chicken stir fries with rice and shiitake mushrooms.
- Tuna fish pie made with hard-boiled eggs and served with corn and mashed potatoes.
- Shepherd’s pie with lamb or beef mince, carrots, mushrooms, and mashed potato.
- Homemade oat/muesli with dates and honey.
- Stir fried tofu, mushrooms and eggplant with black sesame seeds on rice.
Individuals with Qi deficiency have a tendency to seek out sweet foods. In traditional Chinese medicine diet there are 2 categories for sweet foods:
Termed empty sweet that in small amounts are considered eliminating and cooling. It contains simple sugars such as juices, fruits, raw sugar, and honey.
Termed full sweet that is considerate nourishing and warming It includes protein, complex carbohydrates, and foods such as red dates, meat, potatoes, and rice.
If you like western diet, try paleo: How to Make the Paleo Diet a Routine Part of Your Lifestyle?
Is Chinese Medicine Diet Safe?
Chinese medicine diet is generally safe. There have been certain reports of some Chinese herbal products being contaminated with toxins, heavy metals, and drugs, or not containing the listed ingredients. Several of the herbs used in Chinese medicine diet can interact with drugs, have side effects, or be dangerous for people with certain medical conditions.
Chinese medicine diet is not one-size-fits-all, however, approaches each individual distinctly, inspecting them as a whole: spirit, mind, and body.
In order to use this section, it’s useful to know what your Chinese medical diagnosis is. If one has yin deficiency, for example, then one wants to choose food to tonify yin. And If one is too hot one wants to pick food that is too cold. If a person has stagnation it should choose foods to promote movement.
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