top of page

Nutrition, Part 2: Nutrition in Oriental Medicine

Nutrition, Part 1 introduced the idea of nutrition as medicine, and explained the value of consuming whole foods instead of processed or refined foods for health. Now we will explore what Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has to say about nutrition.

TCM Theory in a Nutshell

TCM views a person as a complex network of interrelated energetic systems, which include our organs, glands, cells, hormones and neurotransmitters, as well as our thoughts, attitudes and beliefs. Our physical, mental and emotional health is a direct manifestation of the functioning of these systems, and of the interrelationship between them. The quality of these interactions ultimately determines the quality of our overall Qi (“chee”), or vital life energy.

Chinese Medicine’s view is that all disease and illness stems from a disruption in the natural state of harmony between these systems and energies; a breakdown in the natural balance, or homeostasis, in this network that makes up the whole of what we are.

Therefore, TCM focuses on re-establishing balanced relationships in the body, so that it can more quickly and easily heal current ills and avoid future ones.  A diagnosis in Chinese Medicine is a description of the specific type of imbalance, or “pattern of disharmony” that needs to be addressed.

TCM Nutritional Therapy

Nutritional therapy is one branch of TCM, which also includes acupuncture, herbal medicine, manual therapies, and gentle exercise. Just as specific acu-points and Chinese herbs can be used to treat individual TCM diagnoses, so can specific foods be used (or avoided) for their particular effects.

TCM classifies foods according to their effects on the body in several ways. One is by thermal nature; each food can be grouped according to its post-digestive effect on the body, regardless of its physical temperature: Cold, Cool, Neutral, Warm and Hot. (For clarity, when referring to the TCM concept, I will capitalize the word). Another classification of food is flavor:  Bitter, Sweet, Salty, Spicy/Acrid and Sour, and the absence of flavor, Bland.

Each taste has a specific action on the body, and the stronger the flavor, the stronger its action. For instance, the Spicy flavor has a thermal nature of Hot or Warm; the spicier the food, the Hotter its post-digestive effect on the body.

Ideally, we should all be eating a balanced combination of (or moderate amount of) each flavor, of foods from the Neutral, Slightly Warming and Slightly Cooling thermal categories, though this balance changes depending on the season, and each individual’s condition.

Knowing how much an individual should be eating from each food classification is specific to his/her TCM diagnosis. To give a simplified example, people with very weak digestion who get chilled easily and have low energy should focus their diet on Warming, slightly Sweet and slightly Acrid foods. People with stronger digestion who tend to be hot, and have considerable inflammation need to consume more Cooling, Bitter and Sour foods.

In order to receive the most benefit from TCM Nutritional therapy for your health condition, I encourage you to seek the services of an acupuncture physician trained in TCM nutritional therapy. However, I will review some of the important key concepts here, which apply to most everyone, regardless of their individual diagnosis.

Digestion According to TCM

The quality of our digestion is paramount to our health. If we have poor digestion or absorption, we will not derive maximum nutritional benefit from food, no matter what we eat. Therefore, TCM seeks to optimize digestive function and energy, referred to as the Spleen Qi (“chee”).

What does the spleen have to do with digestion? Well, “Spleen” is actually short for “Spleen-Pancreas.”  The ancient Chinese were actually referring to the two organs as one. Therefore, all of the functions that modern medicine ascribes to the pancreas and to the spleen (along with several other functions) are associated with the Spleen in Chinese Medicine: which includes digesting food, absorbing nutrients, regulating blood sugar, assisting immune system function and influencing the quality of the blood .

According to TCM, if our Spleen Qi is optimal, our food will be digested easily and we will have minimal food sensitivities, plenty of daily energy, a balanced metabolism and a healthy body weight, naturally. Spleen Qi is so highly regarded in TCM that there is an entire school of thought which says nearly all chronic disorders can trace their origins back to the inhibition of the digestive Qi.

100 Degree Soup

To borrow from Bob Flaw’s, The Tao of Healthy Eating, our digestive system must transform the food we eat into a 100 degree “soup” before it can be broken down and used. The more our food is like a 100 degree soup before we eat it, the less stress it places on the digestion. This is why it is so beneficial to thoroughly chew our food, warm it in our mouths, and mix it well with saliva before swallowing. It also explains why TCM recommends eating warm soups, broths and porridge’s, and sipping warm teas, especially for people with weak Spleen Qi.

Avoid foods which are Iced, Frozen or Chilled

When we douse our 100 degree soup with chilled or iced foods or beverages, we can greatly impair our digestive function and weaken the Spleen Qi. The TCM diagnosis known as “Cold in the Middle” can create symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating and cramping, watery diarrhea with undigested food in the stool, and vomiting. Over time, consuming iced or frozen items can contribute to long-term digestive difficulties as well as certain gynecological disorders.

Instead, it is preferable to drink warm or room-temperature beverages, primarily between meals, and avoid frozen desserts.

Moderate your Intake of Raw Foods

Most raw foods, including fruits and vegetables, are found in the Cold or Cooling thermal categories. Just as iced foods tend to put a chill on our 100 degree soup, so do many Cold category foods. However, we shouldn’t necessarily avoid all raw foods. Raw vegetables and fruits are filled with beneficial vitamins, minerals, fiber and enzymes. The amount of raw food that is appropriate for a given individual is determined by his/her specific condition and TCM diagnosis.  This, again, is where the concept of moderation is important.

Some raw foods, however, are actually Warm category foods, such as garlic, onion, chive, ginger, chestnuts, pine nuts and walnuts. So, when other raw foods are eaten, it is advisable to combine them with some of these Warm category foods to counter-balance the Cold nature of the raw foods.

Cooking vegetables Warms their thermal nature by partially breaking down the tough cellulose walls that surround each plant cell, so the nutrients inside are more accessible. Simply steaming, lightly sautéing or tossing them into a hot broth for several minutes can be enough to make them easier on the Spleen Qi.

Another way to energetically Warm your raw fruits and vegetables is by putting them through a blender. Green smoothies are a quick, easy and tasty way to increase your intake of whole fruits and vegetables, and blending helps to break down the tough cellulose walls that lock away the abundant nutrients. However, blending is not as Warming as cooking is, so I recommend adding a dash of Warming ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, or clove to your smoothies.

Avoid Foods Which Produce “Dampness

In TCM, pathogenic Dampness refers to a murky type of residue that is a bi-product of incomplete or poor digestion. In TCM, a food is placed in the Dampness-producing category if it tends to burden the Spleen Qi digestive function such that Dampness is formed.  In fact, Dampness can be formed anytime the Spleen Qi is weakened.

According to TCM, Dampness accumulation in the body can manifest as water retention, excess body fat, excess mucous, yeast or bacterial overgrowth or infection, watery discharges, feeling of heaviness or stifling, certain types of headaches, and muzzy-headedness. Long-standing Dampness can eventually congeal into “Phlegm” which, according to TCM, can cause myriad other accumulation or congestive disorders including cysts, lipomas, nodules, tumors, arthritis, allergies, asthma, coronary artery disease, obesity, autoimmune conditions, and even psychosis.

If we are eating only whole foods, we are already avoiding many of the Dampness-producing foods; the more processed or refined the food, the greater its tendency to produce Dampness. This includes milled grains (flour) and bread. Rich, heavy foods tend to create Dampness, as does overeating at meals, eating too frequently and overdrinking of alcohol.

Milk, as lactation from another species of animal, is designed by nature to be made for baby cows (or goats), not humans, and it just so happens that dairy products are among the most Dampness/Phlegm-producing, mucous-forming foods that we consume.  (Non-dairy alternatives, made with rice milk, almond milk, or hemp milk are healthier options.)  (For a short video on how Dairy foods create pathogenic Phlegm in the body, click here.)

Sugars, sweeteners, and fruit juices have too much concentrated Sweet flavor, which depletes the Spleen Qi function and adds to Dampness.

Wheat also tends to produce Dampness; the recent boom in gluten-free products is a result of more people finding that they feel better by eliminating wheat.

Other Dampness-producers are eggs, concentrated fats and oils (including nut butters and fried foods), and meats in large quantities, especially pork and beef.

Minimize Foods Which are Energetically “Hot

While a small amount of Hot category foods can be helpful to our 100 degree soup to balance Cold category foods, and for those with very Cold or weak digestion, too much Hot category food can cause an imbalance known as “Stomach Heat” which may show up as stomach pain, acid reflux, heartburn, ulcers, and ravenous appetite.

This pathogenic Heat can combine with the Dampness discussed above and migrate to other areas causing inflammatory problems such as gallbladder disorders, constipation or diarrhea, hemorrhoids, inflammatory bowel conditions, arthritis, gout, urinary or genital  infections or discharges, skin conditions, migraines, sleep disturbances, and emotional imbalances such as a “Hot” temper.

In addition to Spicy foods, other Hot category foods to use sparingly are lamb, venison, chicken, and coffee. Cooking methods that typically add too much energetic Heat to foods are grilling, barbecuing and deep frying. (Better alternatives are sautéing, boiling, baking, roasting or toasting).

Emphasize Foods that Nourish the Digestive Qi

The basic TCM recommended diet, listed from most to least amount:

[  Fresh, cooked vegetables

[  Cooked whole grains

[  Cooked whole beans/legumes

[  Raw vegetables

[  Fresh fruit

[  Nuts

[  Animal Products (fish, meat, dairy)

Vegetables, cooked whole grains and beans/legumes should make up 75-85% of the diet; fruit and nuts 10-15%; and animal products only about 5-10%.

To further enhance digestibility, the whole grains and beans may be sprouted before cooking, and nuts may be soaked or roasted.

While this diet is very similar to the Macrobiotic diet, (literally meaning “Grand Life” or “Long Life” diet) which was created using many TCM nutritional tenants, it is also remarkably aligned with those recommended by modern, physician-researchers such as Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, Dr. Neal Barnard, T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D, and others: all of whom advocate eating a diet based on vegetables, beans/legumes, whole-food starches, fruits, nuts and seeds, and while minimizing or eliminating processed, refined foods, sweeteners, concentrated fats, dairy products and most animal foods.

This type of diet has repeatedly been found to reduce rates of and progression of (and in some cases actually reverse) heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other degenerative and auto-immune diseases . We will further explore these modern-day, nutritional researchers, along with their findings and recommendations in Part 3.

Qi Quality of Food

Another factor of importance in TCM nutrition is consideration of the quality of energy (Qi) that exists in the food we put into our bodies.  We are nourished not only by the molecular structure of foods, but also by their Qi. The higher the Qi quality in the food, the more beneficial for us.

The quality of a plant’s Qi is dependent on the quality of the soil, air, water and sunlight in which it grows. The quality of an animal’s Qi is directly linked to the quality of the environment, food and water that is provided, as well as the animal’s interactions with others.

The fresher, healthier and less processed that a food is, the more beneficial Qi that food contains and contributes to our bodies when we eat it. Here is a useful way to envision this concept:  Put a food in water, and see if it shows any signs of life. For example, we can put a freshly cut kale leaf or celery stick in water, and for a time the stem will continue to draw the water in and keep the leaf fresh, (like a bouquet of flowers).

Similarly, we can put raw whole grains, beans, nuts or seeds in water, and they will begin to sprout, as will the seeds from fresh fruit:  there are living processes still happening in that food, meaning there is higher quality Qi in the food. This is the best time to prepare and eat it, because this living Qi will be imparted to our own bodies.

The more time that lapses between harvest and consumption, and the more refined or processed, the less living Qi a food will have. This is why it is best to eat whole foods which are seasonal and locally grown, so they can be harvested when they are ripe and avoid losing vital Qi as they are shipped long distances to our local markets. This is also why it is better to avoid “seedless” varieties of vegetables and fruits, as well as foods that have been irradiated or genetically modified.

Part 3 will discuss the TCM viewpoint and the modern nutritional research regarding animal protein in the diet.

Dawn Potter, AP, Dipl.OM

(excerpts published in Tampa Bay Wellness, May 2011)


bottom of page