Food Therapy in Chinese Medicine

Hippocrates, the father of medicine, once said: “Let food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food.” Food therapy is the foundation of Chinese medicine.

For thousands of years, Chinese medicine has focused on food cures.

One of the major differences between Chinese medicine and Western medicine with regard to food therapy is that the former uses diet to prevent and cure illness, while the latter seldom uses foods for symptomatic treatment of disease, other than using diet exclusively for treating obesity problems.

Another major difference is that Chinese medicine takes into consideration not just the nutrients of foods, such as carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals, but also the flavors, the energies, and the movements of foods in relation to different body organs.

In Chinese medicine, foods have five flavors: bitter, pungent, salty, sour, and sweet. Flavors in foods don’t just give you the taste: they have an impact on your internal organs.

Foods with bitter taste, such as bitter melon (Chinese vegetable), lettuce, and radish, affect your heart and small intestine. Such foods reduce your body heat and dry your body fluids. This explains why herbs used to treat fever and diarrhea always taste bitter because of their “drying” effect.

Foods, such as chive, clove, coriander, ginger, parsley and peppermint, have a pungent flavor, which acts on your lungs and large intestine. Foods with pungent flavor induce perspiration and promote energy circulation.

Foods with salty flavor, such as salt, kelp, and seaweed, affect your kidneys and bladder. Salty foods can soften hardness, and therefore they are ideal for treating symptoms involving the hardening of muscles.

Foods, which are sour in taste, such as mango, lemon, pear, and plum, affect your liver and gall bladder. Such foods obstruct movements, and are therefore ideal for treating diarrhea and controlling excessive sweating.

Foods with a sweet flavor are sugar, banana, beef, chestnut, and watermelon, and they affect your stomach and spleen. These foods slow down acute symptoms and neutralize the toxic effects from other foods. In Western medicine, sweet foods make you gain weight because they are often loaded with “empty calories.” From the perspective of Chinese medicine, sweet foods affect your stomach and spleen, weakening your digestive functions, and therefore making you eat more and gain more.

It should be noted that some foods have more than one flavor, and this is not uncommon. Beef is sweet, while pork is both salty and sweet.

According to Chinese medicine, foods are also considered for their energies because they generate heat or cold; that is to say, they give sensation of heat or cold to the human body. For example, if you drink a glass of cold water, you body feels cold; but that sensation is only temporary, while the sensations from foods are more lasting.

The foods, whether they are hot or cold, have a more lasting sensation on your body. Foods have five energies: hot, cold, warm, cool, and neutral. Tea, for example, gives cold energy, even if it is hot tea. Pepper provides hot energy, even if it is chilled. Chicken gives warm energy, and corn has neutral energy, that is, neither hot or cold. Accordingly, if your arthritis pain is more acute and severe in cold winter days, then you should take more foods that provide hot or warm energy to reduce the cold in your joints.

Furthermore, foods have four movements: the outward movement that induces perspiration and reduces pain; the inward movement that eases bowel movements and abdominal pain; the upward movement that relieves diarrhea; and the downward movement that stops vomiting or asthma.

Chinese medicine is based on balance and harmony, in which food therapy plays a pivotal role through its flavors, energies and movements. For thousands of years, the Chinese have used food science for food cures.