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  • Writer's pictureDr. Monica L. Hilton, DACM, LAc

Food is Medicine: An Intro to TCM Nutrition

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Nutrition therapy has been used for over 3000 years in the management of disease and to maintain health. Early concepts of TCM dietary therapy were mentioned in the Huang Di Nei Jing, a classical TCM text, as a means to enhance the effects of herbal medicine. Information has been refined over the years and foods are now also used to prevent and treat disease.

Unlike Western nutrition’s focus on the biochemical makeup of foods, TCM nutrition focuses on the energetic qualities of foods. Dietary recommendations are made based on the patient’s TCM diagnosis. Like Chinese herbal medicine, foods are selected based on their function, temperature, flavor, direction, and ability to influence a specific organ or channel. We’ll discuss a few general principles of TCM nutrition below.

According to TCM Nutrition theory, every food has an energetic thermal nature that has a specific effect on the body. The five energetic temperatures are hot, warm, cold, cool, and neutral:

Hot foods like lamb, ginger, and cinnamon are used to increase yang, warm the body, eliminate external and internal cold, and activate defensive qi.

Warm foods like chicken and beef strengthen yang, tonify qi, and warm the body.

Cold foods like watermelon and bananas cool the body and have a calming effect on the Shen.

Cool foods like cucumber and spinach are used to supplement the body fluids and clear heat.

Neutral foods like rice, honey, or lentils build up qi and body fluids as well as harmonize the body.

There are five flavors used to classify foods in TCM: sweet, pungent, bitter, salty, and sour. Each flavor is distinguished by its yin or yang quality, the direction of movement, influence on the organ networks, and general functions:

Sweet foods are yang in nature, move upward, influence the Spleen and Stomach, tonify, moisten, and build yin.

Pungent foods are also yang in nature, move upward and outward, influence the Lung and Large Intestine, disperse stagnation, stimulate digestion, and disperse external pathogens.

Bitter foods are yin in nature, move downward, influence the Heart and Small Intestine, break up obstructions, and clear heat.

Salty foods are yin in nature, move downward and inward, influence the Kidney and Urinary Bladder, moisten, soften, and detoxify.

Sour foods are also yin in nature, move inward, influence the Liver and Gall Bladder, stimulate contractions, and astringe.

Let’s take a look at the TCM energetics of the different food groups:

In Western and Eastern nutrition vegetables are an essential part of a healthy diet. In TCM Nutrition, vegetables can tonify qi and blood, regulate qi, clear heat and cleanse the body of toxins. The temperature and flavor of the vegetable also play a role in its function. For example, sweet vegetables like sweet potato and carrots can tonify qi whereas bitter vegetables are more effective in clearing heat and toxins.

Fruits are used to generate fluids and promote bowel movements due to their fiber content. Some fruits like cherry and banana tonify qi and blood.

Grains tonify qi, regulate body fluids, and are often used as a base for a medicinal porridge like congee.

Beans also tonify qi and tend to be drying in nature. They help promote urination and bowel movements due to their fiber content.

Nuts and seeds tonify qi and blood, moisten yin, and also promote bowel movements due to their high oil content.

Animal products such as lamb, chicken, and beef are the strongest foods to tonify qi and blood. In general, fish tends to have a milder tonifying effect. Oily fish like salmon can also moisten yin and blood.

Thanks for stopping by! Come back to learn more about TCM nutrition and how you can use food as medicine. 😊

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