Chinese Dietary Therapy

DietChinese Dietary Guidelines

Dietary therapy is seen as the first line of defence against illness. Sun Szu-miao stated, “the doctor should first correct the patient’s diet and lifestyle and only if these changes do not bring the correct results should acupuncture and herbal medicine be applied.” Below are the keys to successfully using your diet to remain in good health.

A diet that is balanced in all five flavours is said to keep the bones straight, the sinews supple, the Qi and Blood flowing, the pores closed, and the functioning of the five Yin organs coordinated and harmonious. An excess of any of the flavours will eventually lead to its accumulation in the body and dysfunction of the organs and bowels.

Excess sour flavours cause overactivity of the Liver and underactivity of the Spleen. The tendons become flaccid, the skin becomes rough, thick, and wrinkled. The lips become shrivelled. Overindulgence in sour flavours is balanced by pungent flavours.

Excess bitter causes Spleen Qi to lose its moisture, affecting its ability to transform and transport food effectively. Stomach Qi cannot digest properly and may become distended. The muscles and tendons are affected and the skin becomes shrivelled and dry. The body hair falls out. Bitter can be balanced by salty flavours.

Excess sweet disturbs the Heart Qi causing it to become restless and congested, Kidney Qi is imbalanced and the complexion will blacken. There can be pain in the bones and hair loss. This is balanced by the sour flavour.

Excess pungent causes the sinews to slacken and blocks the vessels, the Shen can be disturbed and the Yuan Qi is damaged. Yuan Qi is the energy we are born with, it is inherited from our parents. We do not want to use or abuse this energy, as it dictates our health and the length of our life. There are spasms, tremors, and poor nails. This can be balanced by bitter.

Excess salt can repress Heart Qi, weaken the bones and causes muscle contraction and atrophy, coagulates the Blood circulation and changes the colour of the Blood. Balanced by sweet flavours.

This refers to the temperature food has and also that temperature’s effect on the body. Too much hot, spicy, greasy food will injure the Yuan Qi, the body fluids, and the Yin energy of the body. Too much cold, raw, and damp food will injure the Spleen and Stomach Qi, and will inhibit the effectiveness of the digestive ability.

Everybody has a different disposition when it comes to their constitution and this should be taken into consideration. For example Yin deficient people (hot types) should eat light foods which nourish the Yin (cooling energy of the body) by being easy to digest and thus easily transformed into Qi and Blood. These may include eggs, fruits, vegetables, and tofu. Yang deficient people (cold types) should eat more pungent, warming foods like beef, lamb, dog, ginger, and pepper.

Traditional East Asian medicine sees eating at a fixed time each day very appropriate as the body responds according to the circadian rhythms that are repeated daily. This can keep the body free of suffering. The exception to this rule is not to eat if you are emotionally upset. This is because the natural flow of the body’s Qi is upset and the pure and impure will not be separating during digestion, leading to food stagnation. It is better in this case to eat later.

T.E.A.M. also recommends that “you eat like a prince for breakfast, a merchant for lunch, and a pauper for dinner”, indicating that the meals get smaller throughout the day. Do not eat before dinner. The Chinese also like to say “walk 100 steps after eating”.

Failure to eat when hungry or drink when thirsty drains the Qi and Blood. On the other hand eating to excess damages the Stomach and Spleen and impairs digestion. The five results from overeating are:

  1. Too frequent urination.
  2. Too frequent defecation.
  3. Disturbed sleep.
  4. Obesity.
  5. Indigestion.

It is suggested that you stop eating when you are 70% full. This allows for thorough digestion to take place.

  • Minimse your fluid intake when eating, as this can water down your digestive enzymes.
  • Chew thoroughly before swallowing. Digestion starts in the mouth, and chewing consistently generates the saliva that holds the enzymes, while properly masticated food helps digestion because it has already physically broken down the food.
  • Eat in a calm environment. No T.V., radio, computers, arguments.
  • Put down your utensils between each mouthful.
  • In Spring it is recommended to eat more sweet foods and not to over eat.
  • In Summer consume easily digestible foods and avoid greasy, spicy food. Drink and eat foods of a cold nature, but not too many of a physically cold temperature (iced, or refridgerated.)
  • In Autumn avoid too many cold, raw food and drinks.
  • In Winter eat supplementing, highly nutritious foods for storage and repair. A little wine or alcohol is beneficial in Winter.

The flavour of food is sometimes difficult to describe, yet it provides insight into the therapeutic dimensions and actions of the food. The Five – Element associations are valuable, but for purposes of dietary healing, we must also know the flavours in terms of their thermal nature (warming/cooling value), their many remedial actions (drying, moistening, astringent, purgative, antibiotic, dispersing, tonifying etc.), where their energy is directed in the body, and how they are used therapeutically in various organ systems, not just the organs they relate to in the Five Elements. The bitter flavour of dandelion, for example, reduces both heat and damp conditions in general, particularly in those areas affected by the liver, spleen – pancreas, lungs and heart. Dandelion and other bitter foods also tend to direct energy inward and toward the lower part of the body.

The system of flavours we will use has been developed by traditional Chinese healers. Occasionally in this system, a food is assigned a flavour that does not correspond with the taste. This occurs because flavours are designated in part to reflect the properties of the food, and thus some assigned flavours may differ from the acknowledged taste.

A number of foods have two or more flavours to take into consideration, such as vinegar, which is both bitter and sour. Such a food is used therapeutically only if both flavours are needed.

Two flavours – pungent and sweet – are considered yang, tend to be warming, and direct energy outward and higher in the body. The remaining three flavours – sour, bitter and salty – are yin and cooling, and conduct energy lower and inward.

In the diet of a healthy person, the flavours should be balanced, with the sweet flavour predominating, because the Earth Element and its associated flavour – sweetness – are considered the most central aspect of the body and its nourishment. Such balancing is quite simple. It means that each day the sweet flavour – the primary flavour of most carbohydrates such as grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruit – should be accompanied by small amounts of bitter, salty, pungent and sour foods. Very often these primarily sweet carbohydrates will contain sufficient secondary flavours themselves; otherwise, condiments can be used. When health is poor and during acute disease conditions, it is usually helpful to change just two flavours, emphasizing one obviously important flavour and restricting a contraindicated one.

The flavours not only create balance but also bring a person into harmony with seasonal influences. Invariably, the question arises how to balance flavours that attune to the seasons but contradict individual needs. The answer is first to balance the individual, then to work for seasonal attunement as much as possible without violating the individual’s internal climate. For example, a person with oedema cannot ordinarily tolerate salt, and so even though more salt is normally used in the winter, those with oedema should not increase salt. Instead, they can emphasise the bitter flavour, which is drying and also helps attune the individual to the colder season.

The quantity of flavours is important. If a flavour is generally helpful for an organ function, too much of that flavour has an opposite and weakening effect. This is often seen in the use of the sweet flavour, which benefits the spleen – pancreas and digestive function. However, when too much is taken, the result is weakening of digestive absorption, mucous accumulation and blood sugar imbalances such as diabetes.

Information from Healing with Wholefoods : Paul Pitchford ( 1993 ) North Atlantic Books, California.