How to eat according to traditional chinese medicine

When it comes to nutrition, everyone’s approach is different. Our perspectives and diets vary greatly. While some enjoy a laissez-faire relationship with food, others are healing from disordered eating. Some of us use food as fuel. Others eat for convenience. Some follow the science, others follow their cravings. At any rate, we’re all bio-individuals. We come from unique vantage points, nutritional needs, and cultural influences. Accessibility and budgets play a role, too. No matter where you fall on the nutrition spectrum, knowledge is power. Knowing what optimally fuels your body—and your lifestyle—is a game-changer. That’s where traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) comes in. Want to understand how the energy of foods impacts your health? Read on. The traditional Chinese medicine diet can help you take your longevity to the next level.

citrus_traditional chinese medicine diet

A pathway to natural healing

Traditional Chinese medicine is an ancient and natural form of healing. It recognizes the inseparable relationship of mind, body, spirit, and nature. Ancient practitioners arrived at TCM’s principles and theories through actual observation of the invisible world—including how the body’s organs function, energetically. They saw the body’s functions and connections to the five major elements of the planet: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. Now, thousands of years later, physicists describe this same understanding of the principle of Yin-Yang as complementarity (one of the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics).

dry brush_traditional chinese medicine diet

What is the chinese medicine diet?

While a Western approach to diet emphasizes nutritional value and structure—think: protein, fat, carbs, calories, etc.—traditional Chinese medicine focuses more on energetic principles. The Chinese medicine diet encourages eating in accordance to your body constitution, current health conditions, and the current season. According to TCM, healthy eating habits are the foundation of good health. A nutritious diet consists of local, seasonal foods and includes a variety of fresh produce, complex carbs, healthy fats, and proteins. 

Your diet is ‘the fork’

As mentioned, the traditional Chinese medicine diet is based on a food’s energetic principles. High level, foods are either damp-natured, cold-natured, and hot-natured. Once you understand an ingredient’s energetic nature, you can eat for optimal digestion, healthy organs, and more. Ultimately, TCM is rooted in the belief that your diet is called the fork. Meaning, you hold the valuable key to your health—in your hands. You have the ability to choose foods that either encourage balance or cause instability.

groceries_traditional chinese medicine diet

dietary principles of traditional chinese medicine

Knowing that nutrition plays a vital role in the upkeep and repair of the only “house” you will ever own—your body—it’s important to choose foods that support your home’s wellbeing. Said differently: the foundation for healthy living begins with what’s on your plate. According to the traditional Chinese medicine diet, the following principles will help you achieve balance, longevity, energy, and more.

Eat At regular hours

And, don’t skip breakfast! The Stomach meridian peaks between 7:00 and 9:00am, making this the best time to have breakfast. To keep blood sugar balanced, aim to eat every 3-4 hours. TCM encourages not eating too close to bedtime, but this will vary based on your activity level and nutritional needs. I prefer a bedtime snack, but that’s what works best for my body!

incorporate protein with every meal

Your digestive system processes proteins more slowly than carbohydrates, and this keeps blood glucose more stable. Quality sources of protein: eggs, chicken, beef, fish, lentils, beans, soy (however, you may want to limit soy—more on this, below), as well as nuts and seeds. When possible, choose organic, pasture-raised, and / or wild-caught animal protein.

before eating, drink warm water

Or, an herbal tea! By doing so, the stomach muscles relax and digestion is more fluid.

avoid sweets and deep-fried foods

According to TCM, sweets and too many oily foods damage the spleen. By eating these foods, you will impair the digestive system’s capacity to properly process its contents, which will lead to bloating, gas, fatigue, and brain fog. While deprivation and restriction are not the goal, aim to eat sweets and deep-fried foods on occasion.

focus on seasonal eating

This principle helps support optimal digestion. During the winter, you should eat warming foods—soups and cooked meals with meats and root vegetables. During the summer, it’s encouraged to cut down on meat consumption and eat more cooling foods, like salads and raw veggies.

once a year, detox

Between the myriad of chemicals we’re exposed to—to our sedentary habits and general life stressors—we accumulate toxins in the body. A body that is burdened with toxins is sluggish. This can lead to fatigue, poor immunity, chronic infections, and many other conditions. See here for an Ayurveda detox. Disclaimer: consult your physician before undergoing an Ayurveda detox.

soup_Traditional Chinese Medicine diet

How foods are classified in TCM

In Chinese medicine, foods are classed as either heating, cooling, drying, or damp. Balancing these energetic properties is key for health, helping to prevent illness, and more. Below, discover which foods heat and cool the body, as well as foods that create dryness and dampness.

signs of too much heat

To begin, these are signs of too much heat: redness, burning sensations, inflammation, acidity, loose stools and ‘fiery’ emotions like irritability and anger. Conditions associated with excess heat include autoimmune conditions, high blood pressure, migraines, acid reflux, acne, and stress / anger management.

how to balance excess heat:
  • Reduce hot foods and drinks—pungent spices such as chili and dry ginger, red meat, and oily foods.
  • Eliminate chemical food additives, like coffee and alcohol.
  • Eat more salads, raw foods, green smoothies, bitter vegetables, and herbs.
  • Do regular fasting and detoxification to reduce excess heat.
harvest salad_traditional chinese medicine diet

signs of too much cold

Excess cold manifests as a pale complexion, feeling cold and weak, muscle spasms, feeling unmotivated and emotionally withdrawn. According to TCM, conditions connected to excess cold are: poor circulation (cold hands and feet, Raynaud’s disease), weak digestion (low appetite, IBS, period cramps), low thyroid function (feeling sluggish, weight gain, tiredness), poor memory and concentration, exhaustion, and depression.

how to balance excess cold:
  • Reduce refrigerated and frozen foods, including ice cream, iced drinks, and raw / leafy foods.
  • Avoid fasting and detoxification.
  • Eat more warming foods like soups, curries and cooked vegetables. Add spicy herbs to food including ginger, garlic, black pepper, and cinnamon to increase circulation and digestion.
  • Drink warm drinks like herbal teas and water at room-temperature.
  • Vigorous exercise, saunas, and oil massages can also balance excess cold.
tea_traditional chinese medicine diet

Signs of too much dryness

When the body is too dry, conditions like weight loss, dry skin, gas, bloating and feelings of fear and anxiety are normal. Other conditions linked to excess dryness include: flaky and itchy skin, dry mouth, IBS with constipation, tremors, insomnia, and osteoarthritis.

How to balance excess dryness:
  • Reduce dry and crunchy foods such as crackers, starchy grains, and legumes.
  • Avoid green tea and cinnamon.
  • Drink more fluids, especially filtered water.
  • Eat foods that are lightly cooked or steamed—sweet fruits, root vegetables, and non-dairy milks.
grain bowls_traditional chinese medicine diet

Signs of too much dampness

When the body is too damp, it’s expressed as weight gain, fluid accumulation, watery discharges, lethargy, lumps and cysts, nausea, and feelings of over-sentimentality. Conditions related to excess dampness are: obesity, fluid retention / swelling, candida, PCOS, benign cysts, excess sweating, and fungal diseases (ringworm and athlete’s foot).

How to balance excess damp:
  • Reduce dairy.
  • Limit sweet or high-water content fruits and vegetables, like cucumber and melon.
  • Avoid sugar, gluten, and refined carbohydrates.
  • Eat drier and crunchier foods: celery, asparagus, pumpkin, whole grains, onion, ginger, garlic and aromatic spices. Avoid greasy foods.
  • Limit alcohol and drink green tea.
  • Add warming and drying spices to food, such as cinnamon.
healthy salads_traditional chinese medicine diet

Balance is key for health

Ultimately, take all of these suggestions with a grain of salt! The goal with the Traditional Chinese Medicine diet is to consume foods that balance your body’s energy. Decrease excess heat with cooling foods, and reduce dampness with drying foods. Achieving balance is the best way to prevent disease and mental disharmony.

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This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and we recommend that you always consult with your healthcare provider.

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