Health Concerns: Combining Modern Research & Ancient Wisdom

Chinese Dietary Therapy

by Andrew Gaeddert

Chinese dietary therapy is based on the basic principle of eating a more balance diet according to one's own constitution and is a complex practice that identifies and treats the underlying patterns of imbalance.  The key to creating an optimal diet is to understand that there is no single best diet for everyone.  Our rates of metabolism are different, the climates that we live in vary, and our physical activity levels differ.  Furthermore, we all have different health patterns.  While some individuals are rarely ill, others are frequently sick.  Also, areas of the body that are affected by the same pathogen in some people may differ in others.  Every human body has some basic requirements in common and Chinese Medicine dietary therapy starts with these basics in mind.

Chinese Dietary Principles

The Chinese Medicine diet is based on energetic principles to encourage balance, clean burning digestion, and a well-functioning body, free of diseases and full of energy.  In Chinese Medicine training, we learn how to restore balance in your body when it has become imbalanced and is now manifesting pain or disease.  Chinese Medicine can use needles or herbs to achieve this balance, but also includes a wide range of tools such as qi gong, tai chi, and dietary therapy.  While these methods can heal disease by fixing imbalances, the main key is preventing your body to become imbalanced to begin with.

From a traditional Chinese energetic perspective, eating a small amount of meat once per a day was seen as beneficial.  Even Tibetan Buddhist monks, who believe in the sanctity of all living creatures, would eat meat occasionally in order to sustain the warmth against the harsh Himalayan winters.  Most people have busy lives with demanding schedules, and need the energy and nutrition that protein in meat provides.  For vegetarians, there are alternative choices in obtaining protein through various foods that produce good energy and have a healthy nutritional balance.  It is possible to obtain adequate nutrition as a vegetarian.  Although most individuals in our society are not vegetarians, many people in their attempt to reduce or eliminate meat from their diet actually end up eating an excess of dairy products in the form of yogurt, cheese and milk.

According to Chinese dietary principles, only children should consume milk.  One of the common energetic imbalances is a preponderance of dampness.  Dairy products, in addition to being highly allergenic substances, are not suitable for individuals with this type of imbalance and should be avoided.  In particular, cheese is too warm in property and also produces dampness.  Individuals with a dampness pattern may be healthier by perhaps eating a small amount of meat, or by learning how to correctly obtain protein from vegetable sources, rather than relying heavily on dairy products.

Another Chinese dietary principle is that all food should be eaten while it is warm or hot.  In order to utilize food for energy, the body must first bring it to body temperature.  Thus, if food is consumed while hot, the body can immediately transform it into energy.  This is why drinks with ice, or those consumed upon removal from the refrigerator, should be avoided.  Preferably, all beverages should be consumed hot, even water, although this is not always practical.  When eating out, request beverages without ice.  At home, simply do not put ice in drinks and allow refrigerated ones to come to room temperature before drinking.  Since liquids facilitate the transformation of food into energy, hot water or herbal tea should be taken with meals.

Cooked food actually helps with digestion, since the heating process breaks down the cell walls of vegetables (where most of the vitamins and nutrients are located).  By eating mainly warm or hot food, one will feel more energetic and have fewer digestive complaints.

Another aspect of Chinese diet, which is common to many spiritual traditions, is chewing food carefully.  Most individuals chew inattentively and then gulp their food down with liquids.  By taking time to chew (usually seven or more times for each bite), digestion is enhanced, as is the enjoyment of the food. Mealtimes should be relaxed and without pressure to finish.  The Chinese also advocate eating in season.  For healthy people, this means that when the climate is cold, hot food should be taken, and when the weather is warm, the food temperature may be cooler.  Individuals who are not in good health should eat hot food only.  Fruits should be eaten in their whole forms, and should not be consumed as juices since they tend to be too concentrated.

Ancient Wisdom

Li Dongguan, a famous physician of the Jin dynasty, stated that the primordial Qi of the spleen and stomach is the foundation of life.  Pathogenic injury of the spleen and stomach can cause various diseases.  Li advocated restraint in food and drink, eating more cereals than meat, being content with life without fame and wealth, and shunning worry and desire.  To cultivate the primordial Qi, one should keep warm and avoid wind, cold and overexertion.

Chen Zhongling of the Qing dynasty indicated in his Four Essentials of Health Preservation to eat and drink in moderation, avoid invasion of wind and cold, "spare the mind," and shun anger. According to Chinese medicine, if the mind is not calm, problems with the circulation of Qi and blood will arise.  Perhaps one would do well to bear in mind the Chinese adage: "Laughter makes one ten years younger, distress causes one’s hair to become gray, and anger hastens one's death."  A renowned Chinese poet once wrote, "... with the spirit improved and the mind in a pleasant frame, disease can be cured."


Many people drink enormous amounts of coffee.  However, not only is caffeine a stimulant with immediate effects, it also overstimulates the adrenal gland which leads to a delayed feeling of fatigue.  Furthermore, the acids in coffee can cause digestive problems.  In Chinese medicine, coffee is known to be sweet and warm, which is why many coffee drinkers have a preponderance of dampness in their system.  On the other hand, tea is slightly bitter and cool, thus making it an important component of Chinese (and Asian) diet.

There are several kinds of tea, the more common of which are green, black, and herbal.  Green tea is cool in property; it is capable of reducing fever and is taken in the summer.  Black tea warms the spleen and stomach and is particularly suitable to drink in winter.  Herbal teas, such as jasmine, may be taken during all seasons.

The Tang dynasty poet Lu Tong once wrote, "Seven bowls of tea brings seven advantages:  One, it promotes the production of body fluids and quenches thirst; two, it refreshes the mind; three, it helps digestion; four, it induces sweating to relieve the common cold; five, it helps people reduce weight; six, it activates thinking and strengthens memory; and seven, it ensures longevity."

Dietary Guidelines

Dietary changes should be introduced slowly, so as not to cause imbalance, exacerbate existing conditions, or even bring on new illnesses.  To go too quickly from a high protein and/or junk food diet to one that consists mainly of vegetables and grains is unwise.  It is also important to avoid overeating; a better method is to eat a lower quantity more frequently, and to stop eating before one is full.  Breakfast and lunch should be the main meals, and dinner just a light meal.  The following are guidelines according to Chinese dietary principles that may be helpful in improving one's diet and health.

Processed foods and beverages that should be avoided:

  • Refined sugars, white sugar, cane juice
  • Alcohol (except with individuals with cold patterns)
  • Raw foods (except during summer months or in warm climates)
  • Junk food
  • Greasy and fried foods
  • Sweets and diet foods
  • Ice cold foods and beverages
  • Fruit juices

Recommended healthy alternatives foods and beverages:

  • Lean meat -- 2 oz. per day
  • Vegetables -- fresh, lightly cooked or stir-fried, with skins retained (skinless for irritable bowel sufferers)
  • Eggs -- in moderation
  • Fruits -- whole (candidiasis sufferers may need to avoid)
  • Grains -- should be the mainstay of the diet, including rice, whole grains (if not allergic), millet, wheat (if not allergic), buckwheat, corn (if not allergic)
  • Oats, beans and peas
  • Stews, casseroles, soups
  • Unrefined cane juice or powder
  • Rice syrup
  • Green stevia extract, powder
  • Unrefined olive oil, sesame oil, cold pressed flax oil

Foods that may need evaluation:

  • Soy products
  • Yeast-containing foods
  • Vinegar
  • Fermented foods
  • Nuts
  • Cereals (may exacerbate digestive conditions)
  • Spicy foods
  • Citrus fruit
  • Tomato products
  • Shellfish

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