Food as Medicine

January 20, 2020

Food and Chinese Medicine


For thousands of years, people have been looking for the best diet and healthiest foods. Today, while we have some answers, we still don’t have a definitive one. As much as we think might know about carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals, there’s always a fresh study that throws that knowledge into doubt.

China, with a culture dating back some 5,000 years, has a long and traditional understanding with food, best described as “you are what you eat” – an established saying that has greatly influenced the Chinese approach to diet over the centuries. 

The Chinese discovered the medicinal properties of herbs and food as early as 2000 BC. Some, such as ginseng are still considered to be more medicinal than just simple food.

Over the centuries, a philosophy of traditional Chinese medicine was born, focusing on five different natures – hot, warm, natural, cool, and cold – each related to the effect of the food on the human body’s temperature. 

From this gradient of temperatures came an intricate system of medication. While this system is used to determine an individual’s constitution, it also considers other factors including climate, season, age, and even the sex of the individual. The result is a diet that is tailored to the individual’s own circumstance.

People who have too much heat in their bodies sweat more and can feel hot – their tongues might swell up. In traditional Chinese medicine, the goal is to find and enjoy a diet which establishes balance again. In the case of a ‘hot’ person, foods known to be cold should be eaten – salads, green teas, cucumbers, and green peas. 

In contrast, someone who lives in a cold, wet climate will need to fortify their bodies against the climate, meaning a diet with plenty of spices to push out any lingering dampness in their bodies. 

This focus on balance can be found in an ancient Chinese saying on the seasons: “Eat radish in the winter – and ginger in the summer.” 

In the cold of winter, the balance human qi and blood weakens, pooling around and protecting vital organs. People eat more meat and foods considered to be hot, encouraging more internal heat - particularly around the stomach. Radish – a cold food – provides some relief against this inner inferno, ventilating the vital organs to achieve balance. 

Contrast this to the salad days of summer, when again the human qi and blood weaken in their balance. This time, they spread more thinly across the body, leaving the vital organs with less energy and protection. Ginger – a hot food – works to achieve balance once again, providing our organs with a warmth that matches that of the weather outside while providing equilibrium with the cold foods we otherwise enjoy in summer.

The Chinese approach to food and diet is an ancient one and a discipline that focuses on the bigger picture in which the human body is affected by both the environment and its own internal constitution. 

As a result, Chinese doctors always reject extremes – which cause imbalance – and instead recommend individual diets tailored to our unique needs. Adopting this view and understanding the logic of Chinese traditional medicine is a way to make food your doctor and achieve beneficial medical effects for various conditions.

By

Taiyi Institute

Taiyi Institute strives to bring international awareness to traditional Chinese medicine and natural healing through research, meditation, physical and mental exercise, and lifestyle activities.

Sources

1. Interview with Xunhua Zhang. 2019.

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