Food Therapy and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
There is so much conflicting information about food and diet that it becomes nearly impossible to know what the ‘best food’ to eat really is, or if certain foods are ‘good’ for you or ‘bad’ for you. In Chinese medicine, there are not ‘good’ foods or ‘bad’ foods; there are appropriate foods for each individual and inappropriate food for a specific individual, just as there are appropriate herbs for each individual depending on what their health needs are. Yang warming tonic herbs would be quite beneficial for an individual who is cold and fatigued; however, the same nourishing warming herbs may cause irritation and headaches in someone who is thirsty and experiencing night sweats as seen with Yin Deficiency. Like herbs, foods have different energetic qualities; they can be warming or cooling for example. In Chinese medicine, food therapy is simply part of the larger system of medicine which includes acupressure and herbalism.
- Learn how vitamins are used in Chinese medicine here!
- How Chinese medicine addresses stomach problems and pain linked here!
- How to improve your digestion with Chinese medicine linked here!
I thought salad was good for me!
During the 80’s and 90’s well-intentioned health food proponents touted the benefits of raw foods and the importance of enzymes from raw food for digestion. According to TCM, there are three very important errors in this logic:
- No one dietary guideline is going to be correct for all individuals.
- Raw foods tend to be ‘Cold’ and an over-consumption of them will damage the Spleen energetic organ system. In Chinese medicine the Spleen is paired with the Stomach and is central in the proper digestion and absorption of food. Therefore, a diet with an overabundance of raw vegetables, juiced vegetables, raw fruits and fruit juices is going to have the opposite effect on your health than argued.
- Those consuming large amounts of raw foods often see loose bowel movements throughout the day as a sign that the digestive system is purging more efficiently due to enzymes; loose bowel movements are actually a symptom of Spleen damage in TCM.
Rye, kasha, amaranth, azuki bean, cooked soy beans, millet, bitter greens such as arugula and dandelion (in moderation as they are cold), cooked celery, turnip, asparagus, radish, green onions, cooked carrots, horseradish, garlic, pumpkin, winter squash, yams, sunflower seeds. Consider Restore the Middle Way herb formula.
Avoid or use in small amounts: dairy, meat, eggs, tofu, fried foods, refined carbohydrates, sweets, cucumber, watermelon, fruits, and fruit juices.
I thought water was good for me!
It is true that you want to stay hydrated; beyond this, forcing liquids just so you can say that you had your ‘8 glasses of water’ each day may only be putting an extra burden on the Kidneys according to TCM. Additionally, chronic dryness and thirst are likely an indication of Yin Deficiency where your cells are not properly absorbing the water that you are consuming. Imagine that your cells are dry peat moss; you add water to the peat moss, but it just rolls off. If you have become Yin Deficient, Yin tonic herbs and foods are utilized to improve the cells permeability so that the water you consume can actually be used by the cells.
I thought drinking iced water helps will help me lose weight!
A really great way to see all of the blood drain out of your acupuncturists face would be to announce that you are drinking large amounts of iced water because you read that it would crank up your metabolism and help you lose weight. This latest misguided logic combines the ability to damage the Spleen AND compromise the Kidney energetic systems according to Chinese medicine; the result would be weight gain and more serious imbalances that could take years to repair.
Rice (preferably brown short grain), amaranth grain, quinoa, millet, wheat germ, barley, black beans, tofu, kidney beans, mung beans, tofu, seaweed, spirulina, string beans, beets, white mulberry, goji berry and coconut water. In moderation: pork, clam, oysters, sardine, eggs, blackberry, raspberry. With more extreme conditions: dairy products, watermelon, banana, grapes. Consider Yin Valley herb formula.
Avoid: fats. red meat, alcohol, coffee, spices
I thought drinking large amounts of water would help keep my body detoxed!
A lot of people feel that water consumed is going to bathe there cells and tissue and result in a body cleanse. In reality, only the amount of fluids required for normal bodily cellular function is going to permeate in to the tissue; the rest will be excreted through the urine. Again, forcing fluids will only contribute to poor health and Kidney Deficiency over time and disrupt the Yin-Yang balance of the body.
Tonify Liver Blood – greens, spirulina, red grapes, blackberries, blueberries, blackstrap molasses, gelatin, cardoon, artichoke, red beets, alfalfa, kelp, avocado, nettle, dates, mulberry fruit, sesame seed, oysters, chicken soup, eggs, pork, beef and animal liver
Cool Liver Heat – mung beans, mung sprouts, nettle, celery, seaweed, lettuce, rye bread, quinoa, amaranth, millet, cucumber, watercress, tofu, cheese, plums, mushrooms, rhubarb, radish and daikon radish, raw green vegetable juices
Extinguish Liver Wind – celery, basil, sage, fennel, ginger, anise, oats, black soybean, black sesame seed, pine nuts, vinegar, coconut, cold-pressed flax oil, lemon, western skullcap, and chamomile Avoid: eggs, crab meat and buckwheat
Warming Foods for Yang or Qi Deficiency
Garlic, black pepper, ginger, basil, rosemary, cinnamon, cloves, chili peppers, fennel, cumin, onion, vinegar, winter squash, kale, mustard leaf, butter, lamb, beef, chicken, trout, mussel, shrimp, molasses, walnuts, sesame seeds, lentils, black beans, aduki beans; cooked fruit: coconut, raspberry, date, cherry, peach, guava. Consider Ancestor Treasure formula.
Avoid: raw fruits, vegetables and juices, eggplant, asparagus, wheat, dairy.
Healing Congee Recipes
For those who are recovering from serious chronic illness, congees are a way to rebuild the health with a cereal of rice or grain combined with appropriate foods and tonic herbs. This type of therapeutic porridge is easy on the digestive system and is well assimilated for those who are weakened from chronic disease. Cook as you would rice or grain.
Detoxification congee recipe:
1 cup barley rice
1 T. each ground burdock root, turmeric, coriander seed (or 3 T. of Central River powdered herbal formula)
2 cups water
Dash of salt
Poor digestion congee recipe:
1 cup brown rice
1 T. each ground codonopsis, hawthorn berries, fennel seed
2 cups water
Dash of salt
Healthy Diet and Chinese Food Therapy
Remember, always love your Spleen! The Spleen is in charge of the transformation and transportation of foods and fluids after the stomach has rotted and ripened them. In other words, the Spleen determines how foods are utilized in the body and plays an important role in safe weight loss. Nourishing the Spleen with tonic herbs helps it do its job more efficiently. The Spleen also houses the pancreas and oversees blood sugar levels and the proper utilization of blood sugar. It is widely understood in Chinese medicine that sweet cravings are a result of Spleen Qi Deficiency. The Spleen is damaged by Dampness and foods that create Dampness. These would include fried foods, sugars, iced drinks and an over consumption of raw foods; ironically, too much salad, juicing, and fruits will damage the Spleen and cause additional weight gain.
Again, remember that there are no ‘bad foods’, only inappropriate foods. There are certainly some non-foods, such as sodas, that are ‘bad’ for you. However, all real whole foods have a place in our lives if used appropriately or in moderation. A fabulous slice of cheesecake may not be listed below as an acceptable part of your everyday diet, but once in a while you must feed the spirit. Trust that your body is wise and will absorb and utilize necessary nutrients and dispose of inappropriate substances. If you scold yourself the whole time you are eating your cheesecake and telling yourself that it is going to give you a heart attack, it will surely damage your health. On the other hand, if you enjoy it and honor the wisdom of your body, it can do you no harm (in moderation of course).
Helpful Diet Tips
Many improvements in diet have more to do with honoring food than villainizing it. Much of the food listed must be prepared. Making time to prepare the food that will help to heal you is part of the process in becoming well. Eating out from time to time while making good menu choices will work in a pinch, but for long-standing wellness you will probably have to become skilled in food preparation (unless you have scores of healthy restaurants in your area).
- Taking time to enjoy your meal will be the next part of the learning process. You will get more nutritional goodness out of a hotdog that you lovingly prepare, sit down to in thanks, and enjoy with candlelight and music than a tofu burger you inhale while driving down the interstate.
- Try to include ½ cup each of leafy greens, beans-legumes, vegetables, nuts-seeds, mushrooms-onions, and cooked berries every day; this leaves little appetite for poor nutritional choices.
- As part of Asian Food Therapy tradition, it is imperative that breakfast be included as part of a healing regiment, especially if you are trying to lose weight as the Spleen is most active in the morning.
- For hunger between meals and to avoid snacking, consider broths and miso soup.
- All meals should be consumed before 7:30PM.
- It should be assumed that organic and locally grown foods would be preferred when available.
Anti-inflammatory Healthy Foods Diet
This is in no way a comprehensive list of foods; however, it should be a starter guideline.
Vegetables (25%) Try to consume a large variety of vegetables, organic when possible. Eat at least 1/2 cup of greens per day, one salad, and 1/2 cup of assorted vegetables per day
Enjoy Abundant Amounts of: steamed carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, turnip greens, collards, kale, mustard greens, steamed cauliflower, steamed broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, Napa cabbage, winter squash , sweet potato, yam, onions, leeks, scallions, shallots, asparagus, cooked beets, steamed celery, Jerusalem artichoke, artichoke, kohlrabi, eggplant, cooked tomatoes, cooked spinach, steamed zucchini, green beans, grape leaves, mushrooms, peppers, green peas, gobo-burdock root, seaweed, snap bean, Brussels sprout, chard, lamb's quarters, okra, steamed summer squash
Enjoy in moderation: cucumber, lettuce, potatoes, raw tomato, corn, raw vegetables
Legumes--Beans, Peas, Lentils (15%) Try to consume at least 1/2 cup of legumes daily
Enjoy in abundance: aduki bean, black bean, lentils, tofu, tempeh, TVP textured vegetable protein, split peas, whole peas, pinto beans, kidney beans, lima beans, black eyed peas, mung bean, soybean, garbanzo, miso, sesame, hummus
Nuts and Seeds (5-10%) Try to consume 1/4 cup per day
Enjoy in abundance: nuts & seeds--especially in shell, almond, black sesame seed, chia seed, flax seed, pecans, pine nut, pistachio, pumpkin seed, squash seeds, sunflower seed, walnut, hummus
Avoid: rancid nuts-*when nuts are hulled or shelled they immediately begin to deteriorate, processed peanut butter, peanuts, cashews
Enjoy in abundance: short grain brown rice, brown rice, oats, barley, wild rice, millet, amaranth, whole grain breads, rye, kashi, buckwheat, bran, spelt, foods made with whole grains
Enjoy in moderation: corn meal, maize, polenta
Avoid: white rice, white bread, potatoes, foods made w/white flour, pasta, noodles, soft whole wheat breads, French bread, rolls, cereal, cake, cookies, and processed cereals
Sweeteners (>1%) Refined sugars create Dampness in the body
Enjoy in small amounts: rice syrup, stevia, maple syrup, barley malt, date sugar, agave, molasses, unrefined cane juice or powder, local raw honey, small piece dark chocolate
Avoid: white sugar, cane juice or sugar, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose , brown sugar, Nutrasweet™, Splenda™ , any artificial sweetener, turbinado sugar, candy
Oils (5%) Fried foods increase Dampness in the body
Enjoy in moderation: unrefined olive oil, unrefined oleic sunflower oil, unrefined canola oil, unrefined oleic safflower oil, unrefined sesame oil, ghee, coconut oil
Avoid: fried foods, animal fats, hydrogenated vegetable oil, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, peanut oil, palm oil, cottonseed oil, corn oil, margarine, shortening, refined canola oil, and refined vegetable oils
Enjoy in moderation: cottage cheese, yogurt, organic 1% milk, lite sour cream, ghee, unprocessed cheese
Avoid: ice cream, frozen yogurt, sweetened yogurts
Beverages (3% caloric)
Enjoy to satisfaction: herb teas, clean water (room temp), green tea,
Enjoy in moderation: black tea, organic milk, coffee, soy milk, red wine, rice milk, oat milk
Avoid: forcing liquids, juice, iced beverages, iced tea, iced water, beer, sodas, and alcohol
Animal Protein (5-10%)
Enjoy in moderation: organic beef, organic chicken, lean pork, lamb, quail, eggs, cold water fish, seafood
Avoid: lunch meat, meat fats, and canned meats
Fruits (5%) Try to consume several tablespoons of berries each day
Enjoy in abundance: avocado, tomatoes
Enjoy in moderation: stewed apples, figs, grapes, grapefruit, lemon, mulberry, oranges, tangerine, papaya, cooked peaches, cooked pears, raspberry, blackberry pineapple, plums, pomegranate, strawberries, goji berry, raisins, apricot, cranberry, quince, guava, bananas, apples, watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew melon
Avoid: all refined fruit juices
Kerschbaum E, Nüssler V. Cancer Prevention with Nutrition and Lifestyle. Visc Med. 2019;35(4):204‐209. doi:10.1159/000501776
Martin BR. Complementary Medicine Therapies That May Assist With Weight Loss: A Narrative Review. J Chiropr Med. 2019;18(2):115‐126. doi:10.1016/j.jcm.2018.10.004
Haß U, Herpich C, Norman K. Anti-Inflammatory Diets and Fatigue. Nutrients. 2019;11(10):2315. Published 2019 Sep 30. doi:10.3390/nu11102315
Maleki SJ, Crespo JF, Cabanillas B. Anti-inflammatory effects of flavonoids. Food Chem. 2019;299:125124. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2019.125124
Tolkien K, Bradburn S, Murgatroyd C. An anti-inflammatory diet as a potential intervention for depressive disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clin Nutr. 2019;38(5):2045‐2052. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2018.11.007