TCM: Food and Cooking

Updated: Sep 29

Welcome to this article series on Tradition Chinese Medicine (TCM). The aim of this series is to provide you with foundational and practical knowledge of TCM that you can use to improve your own health at home in daily life. The recommendations in this series are simple, accessible, and mostly free. After all, good health should be something that is accessible to everyone!


Here is a clickable table of contents for this series:

  1. Introduction and Foundation

  2. The Five Elements Profiles

  3. Food and Cooking

  4. The Five Major Organs

  5. The Nine Body Constitutions

  6. The Body Clock

  7. Common Treatments from a Practitioner

  8. My Experience with TCM

This article is Part 3: Food and Cooking

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In the previous articles, we laid the foundation for TCM by talking about yin yang, qi, blood, acupoints, and the five elements. One of the key factors to health and illness is food. This article will explain how TCM views food, which builds upon the five elements framework. In short, foods all have their specific qualities, and whether or not a food is good for you depends on if your body’s qualities are a good fit for that food’s qualities.


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This article will explain

  1. Food energies

  2. Five flavors

  3. Food colors

  4. A healthy diet

  5. An unhealthy diet

  6. Clear bland diet

  7. Cooking methods

  8. Seasonal eating

  9. Other TCM eating tips

Food Energies

In TCM, foods have different energies and effects. The five energies are cold, cool, neutral, warm, and hot.

This refers to how they make the body feel, not the temperature of the food. For example, lettuce is considered cold, so even if you eat hot, cooked lettuce, the energy is still cold. Another example: Chinese tea is considered cool even though we drink it hot. After drinking the tea, the heat fades quickly and generates cool energy in the body. Here is a table to summarize the energy of foods.


Food Flavors

In terms of food effects, we have to look at the five flavors:


Recall from the previous lesson that TCM associates each of the five elements to a taste and organ. That means foods of a particular taste will be good for the organ of that element. For example, the metal element is associated with the pungent and spicy flavors and the lungs and large intestines. That means eating pungent or spicy foods like ginger, garlic, and chili peppers will help those two organs.


Note that different foods in the same category have different levels of strength in effect. For example, both ginger and chili peppers are spicy, but chili peppers are much stronger than ginger. Hence it is much easier for people to get excess heat symptoms such as canker sores and constipation from eating chili peppers compared to ginger.


Another important point is that when TCM talks about sweet food or salty food, it's not talking about processed white table sugar or processed white table salt. It's talking about naturally sweet foods or naturally salty foods. For the salty flavor, natural sea salt counts. Sea salt comes in crystals and is not homogenous in color; it might be a little gray or even pink. Natural sugars and natural sea salt are binded to many nutrients that processed sugar and salt do not have.


Food Colors

Remember that each element also has a corresponding color, as shown above in the color of each row. Eating foods of that element’s color also helps the organ of that element. For example, eating white or white-center foods like help the nourish lungs and large intestines. Here are common foods under each color category:

  • Green (wood): leafy greens, beans, avocado

  • Red (fire): tomatoes, carrots, strawberries, raspberries, apples

  • Yellow (earth): lemon, soy beans, barley, summer squash

  • White (metal): daikon radish, turnip, cauliflower, potatoes, mushrooms, garlic, onion, and apples

  • Blue or Black (Water): seaweed/kelp, black beans, black rice, blackberries, blue berries, eggplant/aubergine


A Healthy Diet

In the west, people look at food in terms of calories and nutrients. There’s a lot of focus on getting enough calories in a day, as well as getting enough nutrients. There’s this assumption that everyone’s bodies are the same. If a food is nutritious, it should be good for everybody.


In TCM, whether or not a food is healthy for you depends on your body’s situation and the qualities of that food. If that food has qualities that nurture your specific body situation, then it is healthy for you. For example, you might hear that ginger is really healthy, and a western view would just recommend ginger for everyone. In TCM, ginger is good if you need more metal element to nurture your lungs or more warm energy to balance your yin. But if your body is showing symptoms of excess yang, such as redness and constipation, then ginger would not be appropriate.


Generally speaking, TCM views a healthy diet as having a lot of the sweet flavor with small amounts of bitter, sour, salty, and pungent foods. Examples of sweet foods that make up most of the diet are grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and fruits. Many of these sweet foods have other flavors to provide balance, but if not, then other flavored foods would be added as condiments.


TCM typically recommends warm, well-cooked foods. The way TCM views digestion is like a cooking pot. Our body needs food to be at 37 degrees Celsius to digest it. If the food is too cold, then the body needs to divert energy from other parts of the body to warming that food up. Well-cooked foods also tend to be softer and basically partially digested, so it takes less energy for the stomach and spleen, which makes it easier on the whole body.


An ideal meal in TCM would involve all the flavors, with majority sweet (carbs) and cooked foods. For example, a meal could have

  • A bowl of rice or noodles (grains = sweet)

  • A dish of stir fried tomatoes (sour), carrots (sweet), and broccoli (bitter), seasoned with some salt (salty) and garlic (pungent)

  • Optional meat dish should take up no more than 10% of the meal

The sweet grains would make up 50% of the meal, while all the other flavors make up the other 50% based on your body's needs and the season (see Seasonal Eating section). Notice that healthy eating in TCM is quite simple and tasty. When we have all the flavors from natural foods in a meal, we reduce cravings for unhealthy snacks like salty and oily chips or sweet and bitter chocolate.


An Unhealthy Diet

TCM also has some general guidelines about which foods to avoid or at least reduce:

  • Raw foods and iced beverages because it they are a shock to the body, and it takes a lot of energy for the body to heat up those foods for digestion.

  • Oily, greasy, and deep fried foods because they can easily cause excess dampness, heat, and stagnation.

  • Processed foods because they cause inflammation. These are foods that are produced in a factory, such as any packaged foods that come in boxes, plastic wrappers, or cans. These foods usually have at least 5 ingredients, most of which are scientific names that normal people don't understand.

  • Alcohol because it can easily lead to excess heat and is highly damaging to the liver

  • Meat: TCM is not against meat, but it cautions that meat should be no more than 10% of the diet. Meat is very high in yang energy, so it’s easy to eat too much and then have too much yang energy. Meat should never be the centerpiece of a meal.

  • Dairy: Dairy is very damp and cold, so it weakens the digestive organs. If you eat dairy, do so in very small amounts because a little will have a big impact.


Clear Bland Diet

If you are experiencing poor digestion, you can try the Clear Bland Diet. Basically, you eat really bland and cooked foods like white rice, stews, and cooked veggies such that they are nice and soft. All these foods are really easy to digest, and it’s basically food that you would use to wean a baby. You’re not allowed to eat processed foods, meaning anything that has artificial ingredients or that comes in a box, can, jar, or package. You also can’t eat rich and heavy foods such as dairy.


Do this until you feel your digestion is good again; it usually takes 3 to 5 days. After that, add back foods one by one and pay attention to how you feel after you add back a food. If you experience negative symptoms, then your body probably has a problem with that food.


Cooking Methods

TCM also has some guidelines about how to cook foods. Different cooking methods will be more yang or yin. In general, cooking with fire adds yang energy. The fire dries, hardens, and shrinks the food. Food gets harder to digest this way, and it should be avoided by people are have too much yang in the body. Cooking with water adds more yin. The food becomes more moist and soft, becoming easy to digest. This is good for all people. Most spices and seasonings are warm or hot in nature, so they are good for balancing cool and cold foods like many vegetables.


The main cooking methods are

  1. Raw

  2. Boiling

  3. Steaming

  4. Stewing

  5. Stir frying

  6. Baking/roasting

  7. Grilling

Raw

People often eat raw salad vegetables, fruits, and nuts. No one really thinks about cooking fruit, though it certainly can be done! In the west, raw vegetables are viewed to be healthier because it offers more vitamins and nutrients, whereas cooking them gets rid of some of those nutrients. The west focuses on the food.


In TCM, the focus is on the person. Yes, raw vegetables have more nutrients, but does the person have a strong enough digestive system to actually digest raw foods? Raw vegetables and fruits are very cooling. Some signs of your digestive system being too weak and cold to handle raw foods would be bloating, having gas, stomach pain, or diarrhea after eating raw foods. In that case, you should cook your foods instead. If you don’t have those problems, and you’re generally pretty hot and energetic, then you have the digestive heat and strength to handle raw foods.


Note however that our bodies change over time. So even if raw foods work for you now, they might not work for you in the future if for some reason your digestive system weakens. If that happens, then you know to cook your foods.


Boiling: Cooking food in boiling water

Boiling foods (e.g., soups and stews) will warm the food and the nutrients will flow out into the liquid. Hence, it’s best to drink the soup rather than throwing away those nutrients. Boiling with too much water will reduce the yang energy and is not recommended.


Steaming: Cooking food with steam from boiling water

Steaming foods (e.g., steamed vegetables, dumplings) is a neutral cooking method, and it is one of the healthiest ways. It helps to retain the nutrients and does not change the energy of the food much.


Stewing: Cooking food slowly for a long period of time with a minimum amount of liquid.

Stewing food (e.g., using a slow cooker) is great for restoring yang energy in people lacking yang.