The Secret to using Food as Medicine! Part 1
Updated: Mar 19
The Chinese love food. As we all should, after all it is our main source of nourishment, and we partake in it on average three times per day. It is such an important part of life, that in Beijing the customary greeting “Have you eaten?” is said everywhere in place of the standard “How are you going?” in English speaking countries.
Click to read other articles in this series, The Secret to Using Food as Medicine!
Part 1, The Secret to Using Food as Medicine
It is no surprise then that Food as Medicine is considered to be one of the 5 main pillars of Chinese Medicine. The other 4 pillars, being Massage, Acupuncture/Moxibustion, Herbal Medicine, and QiGong (YangShen). Food as therapy is much more than just a diet plan. It is a topic that can be as complex to master as any of the other pillars of Chinese Medicine. In this series of articles, I will attempt to describe the principles of food as medicine, along with some practical advice, and specific recipes for improving particular disorders.
Chinese Food Therapy is designed not only to maintain health, but also to treat many ailments, such as the common cold, and more complex diseases like psoriasis, diabetes, hypertension, digestive problems, autoimmune disorders, and so forth, as a medicine. This is quite different to western dietary advice, which primarily focuses on weight loss.
When using food as medicine, it is just as important to know what foods to avoid in order to heal a problem, as it is to know which foods can treat it. In this way, we can become empowered to better manage our own health, and healing.
The guidelines and principles involved in using food as medicine are the same as that used in Chinese Herbal Medicine. Chinese Medicine is the original functional medicine!
Chinese Medicine views each person as being unique, requiring a personalised health care strategy for maintenance, healing, and longevity. It is based on the wisdom that varied interconnected relationships of systems within our body interact, and that this interaction or web of relationships is responsible for healing or the development of disease when out of balance. These interactions include biological and physiological processes, as well as the mind, and emotions. Chinese Medicine also views the human body as a perfect self-regulating organism with the inherent ability to heal and prevent disease when in balance. Health in Chinese Medicine is considered to be an abundance of vitality and happiness, and not simply the absence of disease.
In order to use food as medicine, we must first understand some of the principles involved to recognise what foods are right for a person, at a particular time, and for a particular condition. In Chinese Food Therapy, every food is classified according to how it acts upon and effects different systems of the body. Through detailed observation of biology, nature, seasons, and internal processes, a brilliant system was developed over thousands of years to describe, map, and understand the complex inter-relationships of many different interacting systems. The power and application of food as medicine in Chinese Medicine revolves around the 5 flavors, the 5 energies, and the 5 movements of particular foods, and combinations of foods.
Foods are categorised in western dietary therapy according to phytonutrients, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Chinese food therapy does something similar but discerns different qualities and actions of foods by their flavor, energy, and movement. Most foods have a mixture of flavors, energies, and movements, just as they have different phytonutrients, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
When using food as Chinese Medicine, we use the 5 flavors, 5 energies, and 5 movements to discern how they effect the different systems of the body, and how we can use them to maintain or find balance.
The 5 flavors consist of: Bitter, Sweet, Pungent, Salty, and Sour.
The 5 energies consist of: Hot, Warm, Neutral, Cool, and Cold.
The 5 movements consist of: Upward, Downward, Inward, Outward, and Obstructive.
These characteristics are used to understand how different foods have an effect upon the human body. They refer to how food effects particular internal organs, how food has a capacity to generate sensations either hot or cold in the body, and how food effects the movement of metabolic, and physiological processes.
To understand this better, I will describe how each characteristic effects the body.
Effects particular internal organs:
Bitter flavor acts on the Heart and Small Intestine (i.e. Hops, lettuce, radish, rocket)
Sweet flavor acts on the Pancreas and Stomach (i.e. sugar, cherry, pumpkin, carrot)
Pungent flavor acts on the Lungs and Large Intestine (i.e. chive, coriander, cloves)
Salty flavor acts on the Kidneys and Bladder (i.e. salt, kelp, brined foods)
Sour flavor acts on the Liver and Gall Bladder (i.e. lemon, pear, plum, vinegar)
How do these flavors effect the organs?
It is common knowledge in both western and eastern dietary nutrition that sweet foods tend to make people put on weight. Sweet foods tend to contain a large amount of calories. In Chinese Medicine the sweet flavor acts on the digestive organs of the pancreas and stomach, and can therefore improve digestive function for people with weak digestive systems. But too much can lead to obesity, and type 2 diabetes (effecting pancreatic enzymes).
Sometimes it seems hard to distinguish the flavor of particular foods, but the Chinese have been able to categorise them through many centuries of experience, based upon deductive reasoning and how they elicit similar effects upon internal organs and specific actions on the body, such as: sweating, astringing, purging, and softening.
To understand this in more detail, here is a general list of common actions of foods in regards to flavor:
Bitter foods such as hops and rocket, can act on the Heart and Small Intestine by reducing body heat, drying body fluids, and inducing diarrhea.
Sweet foods such as honey, and watermelon acting on the pancreas and stomach can slow down acute symptoms and neutralize the toxic effects of other foods. They tend to be moistening and nutrient dense.
Pungent foods such as ginger, green onion, and peppermint acting on the lungs (skin) and large intestine can induce perspiration and promote energy circulation.
Salty foods such as seaweed act on the kidney and bladder and can soften hardness of glands, muscles, lymph nodes etc. (think of how a salty brine is used to soften foods like corned beef, eggplant, cucumbers, etc).
Sour foods such as lemon and plum acting on the liver and Gall Bladder can obstruct and astringe the movements, and are useful therefore in countering diarrhea and excessive perspiration.
There is an additional subcategory to the 5 flavors called light flavor, or little taste. For example, something could be categorised as lightly sweet, or lightly bitter. Foods with a light flavor promote urination, like a diuretic. Some examples are:
Lightly Bitter: Pearl Barley, Kidney Beans, White Fungus
Lightly Sweet: Cucumbers, Mung beans
Lightly Pungent: Asparagus, Caraway
In the western diet, we tend to eat too much sweet and salty foods, and not enough sour and bitter. As a result we also tend to have a larger proportion of obesity, diabetes, digestive, and cardiac problems.
Generate sensations, hot or cold in the body.
Eating hot natured foods will make us experience hot sensations in the body, and foods with cold energy, give us cold sensations. Just like consuming a hot soup, or drinking an icy cold drink. But, there is an important distinction. The energy of food is categorised by how it effects the body, and not on how it appears temporarily. For example a frozen hot chilli, is hot natured even if it is frozen, because it will make the body hot.
It is important to know the energy of a food in order to know if it is helpful or damaging for a particular person at a particular time. For example, a person who has a red complexion, and skin rashes that worsen when exposed to heat would benefit by eating cool or cold natured foods to relieve their symptoms. Conversely someone with joint pain that is worse on a cold winter’s day, would benefit by eating foods that are warm or hot to ease the pain.
The correct balance of energies to be eaten by one person may differ with another person. Therefore coffee which is hot natured may be good for someone that has a constitution that is cold, and tea which is cold natured may cause the same person to have diarrhea or other problems because it is too cold energetically for their body type.
The 5 energies are categorised like a scale:
Hot - Warm – Neutral - Cool - Cold
So you may be wondering how to apply this knowledge? As a generality, lets assume you start feeling a cold coming on, after being caught in the rain on a winter’s day. You prepare some hot ginger and green onion soup, and drink it hot. You start to feel warmer immediately, because ginger and scallions have a warming energy, they also happen to have a pungent flavor that makes you sweat. This will help to not only warm up the body, but also to sweat out the pathogen. But, if you made mung bean soup instead of ginger and green onion, your symptoms may worsen because mung beans have a cold energy.
Conversely, say you have a bad eruption of hives, acne or eczema that is really red and itchy. You prepare some Mung Bean soup, which has a cold energy. After a few days of eating it, your symptoms improve. But, if you instead ate hot spicy curries, your itching and redness would probably get much worse.
Some common foods and their energies:
Cold Foods: Bamboo shoots, Bananas, clams, grapefruit, kelp, lettuce, persimmon, salt, water chestnuts, watermelon.
Slightly Cold Foods: hops, tomato
Cool Foods: apples, pears, oranges, strawberries, radish, barley, chicken egg whites, button mushrooms, cucumbers, eggplant, pearl barley, lettuce, marjoram, mung bean, peppermint, sesame oil, spinach
Neutral foods: apricot, beetroot, black sesame seed, carrot, celery, chicken egg yolk, corn, duck, figs, grapes, honey, kidney beans, olives, pineapple, plum, potato, pumpkin, adzuki beans, shiitake mushrooms, string beans, sunflower seeds, sweet rice, sweet potato.
Warm foods: asparagus, cherries, chestnut, chicken, chives, cinnamon twig, cloves, coconut, coffee, coriander, dates, fennel, garlic, green onions, guava, ham, kumquat, mustard, leek, lamb, nutmeg, peaches, raspberries, rosemary, prawns, spearmint, squash, star anise, sweet basil, vinegar, walnuts, wine.
Hot foods: black (green, red, and white) pepper, cinnamon bark, ginger, chilli peppers, capsicum
3). Movement: Also known as the 4 movements of Qi
Picture the body divided into 4 regions:
Outside (skin and body surface)
Upper (above the waist)
Lower (below the waist)
To move outward means to move from inside towards the outside; foods with outward movements can induce perspiration and reduce fever.
To move inward means to move from outside towards the inside; foods with inward movement can ease bowel movements and abdominal swelling.
To move upwards means to move from the lower region towards the upper region; foods with upward movement can relieve diarrhea, prolapse (anus, uterus), and falling of the stomach.
To move downwards means to move from the upper region towards the lower region; foods with downward movement can relieve vomiting, hiccupping, and asthma.
Additionally, different parts of plants have different tendencies for movement:
Leaves and Flowers tend to move upwards, the lighter they are the more they lift.
Roots go downward, and can open tight spaces
Seeds and Fruits being heavy and falling, also tend to go downward.
However this is a general principle, there are many exceptions.
Some foods can move outward, such as peppermint, and some foods can move inward like banana.
Some foods move more due to their energy, such as wine which is very warm and moves upward. Salt is heavy and cold; it moves downward.
Some foods have more than one direction of movement. For instance upward and outward, or inward and downward.
There is a fifth movement not mentioned so far, which is really thought of as two sides of the same coin; glossy, and obstructive. Honey and spinach are glossy, facilitating movement, and good for constipation and internal dryness. Obstructive foods such as guava and olives, astringe and slow down movement, so are good for diarrhea and leakage.
Also preparing foods in certain ways may change their movement.
For instance, foods prepared with wine have a tendency to move upward.
Foods dry fried with ginger juice have a tendency to move outward.
Foods prepared with Vinegar become astringent and obstructive.
Foods fried in salt have a tendency to move downwards.
The movements of foods are often also closely related to their flavors and energies.
Warm & Hot Foods that have pungent and sweet flavor tend to move upwards and outwards.
Cold & Cool Foods that have a sour or salty or bitter taste tend to move downwards or inwards.
Movement of food also relates to seasons:
Foods that move upwards are good to consume in Spring, the natural time of growth.
Foods that move outward are good in summer, when its hot and things have blossomed (think perspiration and expansion).
Foods that move downward are good in Autumn, when things begin to fall, such as leaves.
Foods that move inward are good in Winter, when things move inward (indoors).
As you can see, there is a very logical reasoning in how to use food as medicine, but putting it all together can become rather complex. Its always best to start with the simplest ways, then add on and build in complexity. Start by thinking about what kind of symptoms do I have, are they more hot or cold? Do I need to clear heat, or warm things up? What organ system is involved? Do I need movement upward, downward, outward, or inward? Do I need to facilitate movement, or obstruct it? If I am trying to maintain optimal health, am I eating in accordance with the seasons? Am I eating too much or too little of a particular flavor?
In future articles, I will write about how to determine your body type, and how to eat according to your particular constitution, and how to eat according to seasonal changes. I will also include some food therapy recipes for treating specific diseases.
In the mean time, it is a good idea to start putting these principles into practice. Start observing what you are eating, and how it is effecting your body.
I wish you all abundant Qi, Health, and Prosperity!
Make a booking with R.J. or Katrina and get your health back on track
Tel: (02) 6685 7577 or book online at www.alchemywellnesscentre.com.au
Alchemy Wellness Centre is located in Byron Bay, NSW Australia
RJ Singer is a registered Acupuncturist, and Chinese Medicine Doctor with AHPRA and AACMA. He is also a highly regarded QiGong Healer and Teacher, and Feng Shui Consultant. RJ’s area of special interest is in the treatment of stubborn and difficult chronic disease, and all types of painful conditions. Katrina Hillis is a Kinergetics Kinesiologist, and a registered Remedial & Relaxation Massage Therapist with AMT, who specialises in helping people overcome emotional issues and life transitions working holistically to balance the body, mind and spirit.