Updated: Dec 9, 2022
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:
This article is Part 3: Food and Cooking
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.
This article will explain
In TCM, foods have different energies and effects. Chinese classics like the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (神农本草经) explain that there are four energies: cold, cool, warm, and hot. We can also add neutral energy for foods that are neither cooling nor warming.
The food energy refers to how the food makes 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.
In terms of food effects, we have to look at the five flavors: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent/spicy, and salty.
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.
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/Black/Purple (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 yellow in color, which means it helps the stomach/spleen and treats digestion related issues like nausea. When the stomach has excess cold energy, you might feel morning sickness or get car sick, and ginger also helps treat these. But if your body is showing symptoms of excess heat, such as redness and constipation, then ginger would not be appropriate.
Food Temperature and Degree of Cookedness
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.
In terms of proportion, different people have different health situations and body constitutions, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. But generally speaking, TCM views the sweet flavor (e.g., grains, legumes, starchy vegetables) as the main dish, with the other flavors being complementary. I think Dr. Yi Song created a good visual:
From the image, we can see lots of whole grains, beans & lentils, nuts, and fruits, and veggies. All these combined should provide the five flavors and five colors. If we look at it from the western medicine perspective, most of these belong in the sweet category and provide carbs. Beans and lentils provide lots of protein, while seeds and nuts provide healthy fat. Around a third of the plate is fruits and vegetables, which provides a variety of vitamins and natural sugars (which are much healthier than processed sugars).
Although there is no meat in the image, TCM is not against meat. However, TCM recommends no more than 10% of our meal be meat. From western medicine, we know that meat has a lot of saturated fat, and factory farmed meat has lots of harmful chemicals.
Notice that healthy eating in TCM is quite simple and tasty. It promotes eating a variety of flavors and colors, and it emphasizes natural and plant-based foods. When we have all the flavors from natural foods in a meal, we reduce cravings for unhealthy foods.
An Unhealthy Diet
TCM does not actually ban any foods, but there are common foods that people commonly eat too much of or eat in the wrong situations.
For most people in most situations, we should reduce these foods:
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. (But if your body constitution has too much heat, then these foods can lower your heat)
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. (But some herbal formulae do use alcohol to treat certain illnesses)
Dairy: Dairy is very damp and cold, so it weakens the digestive organs and easily creates excess mucous in the body. Avoid large amounts of dairy.
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.
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 raw, boiling, steaming, stewing, stir frying, baking/roasting, and grilling.
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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Stir Frying: Cooking food in hot oil over a wok or pan.
Stir frying (e.g., fried rice, fried vegetables) adds yang energy to food. You can use high heat to make the surface of the food crunchy (yang) while maintaining the inner juice (yin) and nutrients.
6. Baking/Roasting: Cooking food in dry heat such as an oven.
Baking food (e.g., roast vegetables, bread) adds yang energy. It is good for balancing cooling foods with a lot of yin energy.
7. Grilling: Cooking by applying direct heat to the surface of the food
Grilling (e.g., BBQ skewers) adds a lot of yang energy.
It’s also important to eat according to the season because our body interacts with the changing environment. Eating to balance the environment of that season helps our body stay healthy. Generally speaking, whatever season we are in, we should eat less of that season's element and more of the opposite season's element. For example, in Spring, we should eat less sour (wood) and more pungent (metal) because Spring is wood and Autumn is metal. Let's go through each season in further detail.
In spring, the wood element is strongest, so we should eat less sour foods to prevent excess wood in the body. We should increase sweet and pungent flavors because they help the liver (the wood organ) regulate qi throughout the body. Examples of foods include leafy greens, asparagus, mushrooms, peas, and may culinary herbs.
In summer, the fire element is strongest, so we should eat less bitter foods. Summer is a season of fast growth, and our bodies’ qi and blood also become more vigorous in this season. This can cause the heart to over-function, which then weakens the lungs. Hence we should eat more pungent flavors to support the lungs and reduce bitter flavors to calm down the heart.
People also sweat a lot in the summer, and excess sweating dissipates the heart’s qi. Eating salty flavors can help retain liquids in the body. Summer is of course a very hot season with a lot of yang energy, so we should eat more cooling foods such as fruits and vegetables to provide a cooling energy and adequate fluids.
Examples of foods to avoid would be bitter foods like coffee, grapefruit, and dark leafy greens. Examples of foods to eat in the summer would be cooling or pungent foods, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, most fruits, and culinary herbs. These foods are typically ready to be harvested in summer.
In autumn, the metal element is strongest, so we should eat less pungent/spicy foods. Autumn has very cold winds, and pungent/spicy foods open up our skin pores, which can make it easier for us to get sick from the cold autumn wind.
Since the lungs are most affected by the dry winds in autumn, we should eat more sweet foods such as grains and root vegetables, which are ready to be harvested in autumn. These sweet foods will promote the production of body fluids to prevent dryness. Sour foods also help in autumn because they help to retain liquids.
In winter, the water element is strongest, so we should eat less salty foods, most of which are also cold-natured. Instead, we should eat more bitter foods of the fire element and add warming spices. The kidneys are associated with the water element, and a hyperactive kidney weakens the heart. Hence, eating less salty foods and more bitter foods reduces the burden on the kidneys and supports the heart.
Know your body’s constitution
From a TCM perspective, we eat food to balance our body’s constitution, and our constitution can get affected by the outer environment. For example, summer is a very hot season, so it’s easy to get a lot of yang in this season. Hence we should eat more yin foods like fruits and cooling vegetables. However, you have to pay attention to your constitution first. If you know your constitution is cold and lacking yang, then even if it is summer, you should still eat in a way to nourish your yang.
Other TCM Eating Tips
Tip 1: Listen to your body
Just because someone tells you a food is good doesn’t mean it’s good for YOUR body. Pay careful attention to how you feel after eating a food you suspect isn’t working for you.
Tip 2: Eat until 80% full
Eating until 100% full burdens the stomach and spleen. It’s no surprise that people living in Blue Zones (areas in the world where there are the most number of people living healthily to 100) all eat until 80% full.
Tip 3: Eat at regular times
The stomach and spleen love routine. Eating irregularly will make them unhappy.
Tip 4: Eat mindfully
When we are in a state of stress or worry, our digestive organs can’t function properly. We should focus on our food and feel gratitude for our food when eating to support the stomach and spleen.
Tip 5: Eat regional
According to TCM, food that grows naturally in our region at the time it is harvested is more beneficial to the people living in that region. For example, it's better to eat apples freshly harvested from your province than to eat apples shipped to your grocery store from another country harvested at who-knows-when.
Tip 6: Walk after eating
A short walk helps the digestive organs.
Tip 7: Do a quick massage on your shin
Before or after your meal, spend a minute to push along the tendon that’s on the outer side of the shin, which is a part of your stomach meridian. TCM doctor Jason Chong demonstrates in this video:
In addition to the outer side of the shin, you can also do the inner side, which is a part of your spleen meridian.
Understanding TCM’s viewpoint on food gives us a whole new appreciation for the impact of food on our health apart from just nutrition. In TCM, food is categorized based on its energy (from cold to hot), flavor, and color. A healthy diet in TCM consists mostly of grain and vegetables, with a side of sour, pungent, bitter, and salty foods. TCM also explains that the digestive organs prefer cooked and warm foods over raw and cold foods.
This article also looked at different cooking methods and how they impact the energy and nutrient-absorption of the food. Finally, it talked about seasonal eating and other eating tips. The next article will go into detail about the five major organs in our bodies.
Lastly, I want to thank Dr. Kun Liu for reviewing this article and giving me diet coaching!