It’s quite apparent that a chili pepper is a ‘Hot’ food, but did you know that in Chinese nutritional therapy, trout and lamb are considered hot foods too? Or that mango and seaweed are Cold foods?
In Chinese nutritional therapy, which is a branch of Chinese medicine, all foods can be classified based on their energetic temperature (i.e., Hot, Warm, Neutral, Cool, and Cold). It illustrates the impact of food on the body; or in simple terms, what it does to your body when you eat it. This is in accordance with the holistic perspective of Chinese Medicine, although it is a bit different with the theories of Western nutrition.
While Western nutritionists know that a banana, for example, is known to be rich in potassium, vitamins B6 and C and fiber, to a practitioner of Chinese medicine this is all irrelevant, since this information does not comprise a part of the medical foundation the practitioner is following. On the other hand, the idea that bananas nourish Yin and are Sweet and Cold is significant in Chinese medicine – since according to this Eastern medical concept, an individual who experiences constipation and who is on the Dry and Warm side, bananas would be an appropriate food to balance (treat) their condition although for a Damp and Cold person, they may exacerbate an existing condition.
Yin and Yang
Energetics is a major field of study in Chinese medicine. It mainly deals with a person’s energetic body: his Chi. Each healing modalities of Chinese medicine deals first and foremost with Chi, and Chinese Nutritional therapy, is no exception. Nutritional therapy follows an individual Chinese diagnosis based on a single or multiple ‘patterns of energetic disharmony’ much the same way as qi gong, tui na massage, Chinese herbal medicine, and acupuncture in West Orange.
This does not mean that there is no value in identifying the chemical composition of a food; in fact, the modern practitioner often needs to rely on this important information, but to him understanding the standard energetic descriptions of food is equal to an understanding of diet and the diagnosis and plan of treatment of Western nutritional therapy. This makes what you eat a fundamental and essential part of any therapy.
Foods are classified based on their temperature, actions, paths, and flavors. The food’s five flavors are associated with the five elements of Chinese Medicine, as well as to various organs:
1. Pungent: This flavor is associated with the Lung and the Metal element. It scatters stagnation and enhances the flow of Blood and Chi.
2. Sweet: It is associated with the Spleen and Earth. Of all the flavors, sweet is the most nourishing and building. We need to note that sweet refers to the natural sweet flavor of grains, fruits and root vegetables – although unmistakably extremely sweet, processed sweeteners such as sugar are devoid of any nourishing effects.
3. Bitter: This is associated with Heart and Fire. This flavor has a drying and draining quality. It is very helpful in excess patterns and weak on people for who are deficient and/or Cold.
4. Sour: Sour is associated with the Liver and Wood. It has an astringent effect, promoting absorption and contraction. This flavor is useful for overcoming stagnation.
5. Salty: It is associated with the Kidneys and Water. Salty promotes movement downwards and inwards and regulates fluid in the body. It detoxifies and softens.
Lastly, the path of a food refers to what energy channel or meridian is impacted, while action pertains to a food’s other therapeutic effects (i.e., whether it improves Blood circulation, eliminates pathogenic Heat, or tonifies Chi). Combining the flavor, temperature, path, and actions of food provides a larger outline of food’s energetic attributes.
To illustrate this concept, we’ll use the Walnut as an example. Walnut is Sweet, Warm, and goes through the Kidney meridians. It clears Phlegm; neutralizes Cold; and tonifies Yin, Chi, and Yang. These properties and actions of Walnut can help us determine if it is helpful to a person who is deficient in Kidney Yin and Yang (walnut is just one of the few foods that can tonify both Yang and Yin simultaneously) and because it is Warm, it can help treat Deficient Kidney Yang.
A Healthy Diet
Several hundred years ago, the father or medicine Hippocrates uttered “Let food be your medicine and medicine your food.” When he said this, he was unaware that Chinese physicians at that time were thinking the same thing: that medicine and food come from the same source.
Nutritional therapy in ancient China was deemed the first treatment of choice for most health problems, and other methods such as tui na massage, herbal medicine, and acupuncture, were only considered when food therapy did not work. Today, in China the frequent use of medicinal foods is still practiced among the population in a more intelligent and complex manner than the West’s ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ attitude. Medicinal foods are usually served as soups or other dishes to preserve a person’s wellbeing and health.
According to the Neijing, veggies and grains which should comprise the majority of a person’s diet, and meat and fruits that provide a secondary role. Because meat is cheap in the West, we tend to eat far too much of it. Eating a lot of meat can put a strain on our digestion. It can indeed strengthen our body but eating too much of it overburdens our digestive system and can be a factor in the rise of various health conditions.
On the other hand, a ‘clear’ and light diet as espoused by Chinese nutritional therapy, is made up of vegetables and whole grains, with a little stir fried or steamed meat, seeds, nuts, and fruit. Processed, heavy, and rich foods are minimally served since they contribute to pathogenic Dampness and Heat in the body.
How food is prepared and cooked is also essential to its energetic properties. In Chinese medicine, raw or cold foods (which include raw fruit, smoothies, and salads) have cold and detoxifying properties. Therefore, they can be useful for robust and strong people with a hot nature but should not be eaten in large amounts by people with digestive problems or people who are weak or cold.
Because the body expends too much energy trying to digest raw and/or cold food, people suffering from indigestion, IBS, bloating, food intolerance and other digestive disorders should avoid them and instead eat warm and/or cooked foods. Casseroles, stews, and soups that have been slowly cooked are ideal for most people since they can be digested easily, and reach the abdomen in a state where their Chi can readily be used.
The manner a person eats is also an essential aspect in Chinese nutritional therapy. People should focus and enjoy their food when they eat. They should eat in a relaxed and calm setting. Our digestion tends to slow down when we eat while reading or when watching TV. Unfortunately, many times, our modern way of living forces us to eat ‘on the run’ and we really don’t take pleasure in food anymore. But if you have the time, make it a point to sit in a table and take your sweet time to relish your food. This will help your Chi do its work without distraction which will benefit your digestion.
Aside from eating at a slower pace, chewing our food properly is also an important part of getting the most out of your food. A well chewed food makes it easy to digest which reduces the strain on your digestive system. Chewing your food a hundred times or ‘until it is water may be a bit of an exaggeration but we hope you get our point.
Lastly, one more important aspect to nutritional therapy is the time we eat our food. According to Adelle Davis, and American nutritionist, we need to ‘eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper’ which corresponds perfectly with the Chinese perspective of proper eating. The time from 7 am to 11am is when the digestive system is at its strongest and the time from 7 pm to 11 pm is when it’s at its weakest. Therefore, having a large breakfast in the morning and a small meal in the evening (preferably earlier than 7 pm) is a good idea. If you are attempting to lose weight, this becomes even more important. In fact, the reason Japanese sumo wrestlers are massive is that they eat large meals late in the evening to maintain their bulk, which is the opposite of losing weight.
Implementing This Practice
If you are new to Chinese nutritional therapy, you may be overwhelmed by the amount of information there is t know about foods, especially if you know little or nothing about Chinese medicine. You don’t need to know a lot about Chinese medicine in general or about Chinese nutritional therapy in particular in order to enjoy the benefits of foods. You only need to know and apply some of its basic principles. For a healthy diet, the basic recommendation is perhaps eating plenty of vegetables and whole grains, eating warm and/or cooked foods and minimizing consumption of raw and cold foods, avoidance or lessening the intake of artificial and refined foods, eating breakfast, chewing your food well, being relaxed while eating, and enjoying your meals.
In addition, make small adjustments to the foods you eat although you shouldn’t get too hung up in the details. It’s first important to know your energetic state – your underlying energetic imbalance(s). You need a qualified Chinese Medicine practitioner for that. This person should have training in dietary therapy in various levels and with lots of experience and knowledge and an understanding of what other types of therapies whether it be qi gong, herbal medicine acupuncture, etc., that could perfectly complement their main mode of intervention
Once you have been diagnosed, make a list of foods that tend to worsen your condition and foods that will make it better. Modification should be gentle, and oftentimes within a varied and with range of diet that should include all of the temperatures and tastes or flavors of food. According to Daverick Leggett, a Chinese Nutrition author, this gentle adjustment as known as the ‘dietary tilt’ – a slight but marked modification to your diet that directs it toward the right direction for healing.
You can delight in eating a wide variety of foods in this manner, foods that will improve your specific energetic state, increasing your overall well-being and health, but without restricting yourself to a strict regimen. This will lead to the betterment of a specific condition, as your body is able to gain more Chi from your food and your digestive function significantly improves. You begin to experience greater levels of energy, get better sleep, stronger immunity, and many other benefits, enabling you to discover what medicine and food really do ‘come from the same source,’ really means.