Updated: Apr 14, 2018
In Western diet, foods are evaluated for proteins, calories, carbohydrates, vitamins, and other nutritional contents.
However in Chinese diet, we look for not only vitamins and minerals but also the energetic properties of food such as temperature, flavour and movement. Other less importance aspects include meridian tropism and common and organic actions.
These refer to specific internal organs or the meridians on which the foods can interact. For example, celery acts on the stomach and lungs, while carrots acts on the lungs and spleen. According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), foods are, just as herbs, can be selected and prepared appropriately to tonify, cleanse and regulate the body.
The energies of foods
Chinese tea is considered to have "cool" energy even though it is a hot drink. The energies of foods refer to their capacity to generate sensations - either hot or cold - in the human body.
The five kinds of energy are cold, hot, warm, cool and neutral, and this refers not to the state of the food but its effect on our bodies. For example, tea has a cool energy, it means that when we drink hot tea, it generates cool energy and it is therefore considered a cool beverage.
Shortly after you have drunk hot tea, the heat begins to fade quickly and it begins to generate cool energy internally, allowing your body to cool off.
It is important to know about the energies of food because different energies act upon the human body in different ways and affect our state of health. If a person suffers from cold rheumatism and the pain is particularly severe on cold winters day, eating foods with a warm or hot energy shall relieve the pain considerably.
Or if a person suffers from skin eruptions that worsen when exposed to heat, it is beneficial to eat foods with a cold or cool energy to relieve the symptoms.
To seek a balance in diet, we can define food as predominantly yin or yang. If you eat predominantly yin foods, your body will be capable of producing more yin energy - darker, slower-moving and colder. In contrast, eating predominantly yang foods will produce more yang energy - faster, hotter and much more energetic.
It's helpful to remember certain rules to determine the type of energy a food produces:
If it grows in the air and sunshine, it is probably yang;
If it grows in the earth and darkness, it is probably yin;
If it is soft, wet and cool, it is more yin;
if it is hard, dry and spicy, it is more yang.
The five flavors of foods
Bean curd is sweet in flavor, cool in energy and tends to move downward and inward. The Chinese think flavor is very important because it helps to send nutrition via the meridians to the corresponding organs. If we eat a balanced meal with many tastes, we feel satisfied and don't binge. The five flavors of food include pungent (acrid), sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.
Some foods may possess two different flavors or a bland flavor which means it has little or not taste. For example, cucumbers have both sweet and bland flavors. Foods with a bland flavor usually promote urination and may be used as diuretic, coix seed and wax gourd are outstanding examples of this kind. In addition, foods with a strong scent are categorized as "aromatic", such as basil, fennel, coriander, peppermint and citrus fruits. These foods can be eaten to enliven the spleen, stimulate appetite, promote qi (vital energy) circulation, resolve dampness and turbidity, refresh the mind, open up the orifices, and detoxify.
The movements of foods
Food acts on the body through specialized movements. Depending on the properties of food, food moves in different regions within the body and can drive qi (vital energy) in the same direction as well. TCM claims that disease is caused when any of the external or exogenous evils exert too much influence on our body, foods that have specialized movements can be used to counter these evils. For example, when a person suffers from mild flu (which caused by exogenous wind invasion), foods with a floating action such as green onion and fresh ginger can expel the evils out of the body.
In general, foods like leaves and flowers and those with light and loose qualities possess a tendency to move upwards or outwards; while roots and seeds and fruits that are heavy and hard in qualities possess a tendency to move downwards or inwards. However there are many other exceptions and some foods can move in two directions e.g. lettuce possess both downward and inward movements.
Two other terms are also used to describe the movements of foods: glossy (sliding) and astringent. Glossy foods such as honey, banana, white fungus and milk facilitate movement by acting as a lubricant. This is why these are good for constipation and internal dryness. On the other hand, astringent foods such as guava, plum, euryale seed and lotus seed slow down movement, which is good for diarrhea and seminal emission. The movements of foods can be changed through certain methods of cooking.
These and other Traditional Chinese practices all form part of TCM, each adding a little to the history and methodology of Acupuncture and Herbs.
Eca Brady is a fully licensed physician of Chinese Medicine BSc(Ac) MBAcC PGDip(CHM), practicing from Harley Street, London. Make an appointment for an Acupuncture or Herb treatment and we can discuss how we can help you, to read more about Eca click here.
Excerpts from the original article by Shennong.