Diet and Nutrition
According to traditional Chinese medicine, what we regularly ingest is extremely important to maintaining vitality and preventing illness from taking root. In fact, many medical conditions can be dramatically improved by simply modifying our diet. Whenever possible, we should try to eat fresh, whole, unprocessed natural foods free from chemicals, additives and preservatives. These foods are said to be ‘full of qi‘ or energy. The general guidelines to maintaining a healthy diet are to eat meals at regular times, eat seasonal foods, and keep a ‘well-balanced’ diet.
Eating at Regular Intervals
Our bodies thrive on routine. Eating breakfast, lunch and dinner helps us maintain the proper amount of energy to do all the things we’d like each and everyday. It is a common saying in Chinese medicine that eating breakfast “wakes up the digestive system.” Those of us who skip breakfast in order to lose weight or simply because we don’t think we have the time are throwing off our natural metabolic rhythm. This can lead to a sluggish metabolism where food is not digested properly and nutrients are not properly distributed to our cells. It is also important not to eat dinner too close to bedtime. This may inhibit good digestion and contribute to poor sleep.
Seasonality plays an important role in proper eating habits. Visiting the local farmer’s market is a good way to judge what produce is in season. As humans, we achieve wellness by living according to the cycles of nature. In the hot summer, we are likely to be more active and, thus, smaller, lighter meals composed of lean meats and summer produce—salads, leafy greens, and cooling fruits—keep us cool, light and afoot. The winter is a time of storing up energy and resting. Heavier foods like root vegetables, stews and meats keep us warm, nurtured, and defend against the harsher climates.
Rather than breaking down nutrition into proteins, carbohydrates, sugars and fats, Chinese medicine utilizes flavors and temperatures of foods to guide us on how to structure a well-balanced meal. According to Chinese medicine, foods are classified under one of five flavors—salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and spicy. These flavors not only refer to how they may taste in our mouth, but each flavor has an inherent quality and performs a particular action in our body. Furthermore, each flavor is associated with a major organ of the body, so a balance of all flavors on your dinner plate helps to ensure the functioning of all of our organs and organ systems.
- Salty: Foods that are naturally salty generally come from the sea—ocean fish, shellfish, seaweed and salt. Salt has a strong effect on our fluids and especially on our kidney functions. Too much salty food can cause fluid retention and damage the physiological activity of our kidneys. Remember that many processed foods and fast food contain high amounts of salt.
- Sweet: Sweet foods have a nourishing effect on our bodies. Sweet foods may give us energy but eating too much of it can ‘clog up’ our digestive system and slow it down. The spleen and stomach, the organs associated with digestion in Chinese medicine, like it best when we eat sweets in their original, natural and whole forms—fruits, whole grains, and vegetables—because they provide us with the most sustained form of nutrients.
- Sour: Foods that are sour in nature—lemons, vinegar, yogurt and some fruits—are closely related to the liver and gallbladder in Chinese medicine. Sour foods are understood to be astringent in nature and help us reduce perspiration and retain our needed fluids. The vitality of our tendons and ligaments are closely related to the liver functions in Chinese medicine so too much sour food can cause unneeded contracture, pain and cramping of our sinews.
- Bitter: Naturally bitter foods like kale, mustard greens, escarole, and asparagus help the body circulate and expel fluids as well as eliminate heat and toxicity through the bowels. Coffee is considered a bitter food and while it does stimulate fluid circulation and increase metabolism, too much can be overly drying on the system.
- Spicy: Many of the spices we add to our foods tend to increase circulation and warm the body. They can help promote a therapeutic sweat when we’ve caught a cold and aim to ‘push out’ a pathogen, but in large quantities, spices and spicy food can be overly drying and heating to our system.
Eating an array of warm and cool foods also helps ensure a well-balanced diet. According to Chinese medicine dietary therapy, foods are not only considered ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ by how they are prepared (i.e., roasting, broiling, heating=warm; iced, raw=cold), but are also categorized by their inherent temperature-based nature. Warming foods stimulate bodily functions and warm us up while cold foods can sedate or cool us down. Too much warm food can overly stimulate or heat up the body while consuming too many cold foods can slow down physiological processes.
Table of Hot and Cold Natured Foods
- Cottage Cheese
- River fish
- Cow’s milk & other dairy products
- Green lentils
- Mung beans
- Soft cheeses
- Steamed foods
- Tea (green)
- Tofu, Soy, Bean curd
- Tomatoes (raw)
- White Wine
- Broad beans
- Brown Rice
- Fish such as salmon, tuna, catfish and shark
- Grains and legumes (most)
- Nuts (most)
- String beans
- White sugar
- Goat’s Milk
- Root vegetables
- Red beans
- Red Wine
- Roasted foods
- Sesame seeds
- Smoked foods
- Tomatoes (cooked)
- Brown lentils
- Brussel sprouts
- Cayenne pepper
What To Eat When You’re Sick or Recovering
The general rule of thumb for those of us who are sick or recovering from an illness is to eat simple, bland, cooked foods. No matter what type of ailment we may have, when our bodies are compromised, it is important to cook the food we eat in order to transfer the nutrients to our cells as easily as possible. Cooked foods are already partially broken down so our digestive system doesn’t have to work too hard to process the remaining amounts. Simple and bland foods like oatmeal, soups and rice porridge tend not to stress our digestive systems but rather, have a soothing and nurturing effect. Try to avoid consuming too much sugar, raw vegetables, dairy products, greasy foods and icy drinks during a period of recovery.