Chinese medicine places high value on diet and nutrition. However, rather than the popular “you are what you eat” dogma, Chinese medical theory asserts that balanced dietary practices are just one piece of a healthy lifestyle.
There are four basic foundations of achieving and maintaining good health- diet, exercise, adequate rest and relaxation, and a good mental attitude.
The Chinese diet of balance is very different than that in the West. In cooperation with a Chinese medicine practitioner and nutritionist, individuals can tailor their diets to incorporate a variety of tastes, foods and herbs that will best serve their health needs. The Chinese diet system is about expanding food options in order to encompass all types of diet and nutrition sources.
There are five flavors/tastes in this paradigm– spicy, sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Particular tastes tend to have particular properties. For example, bitter foods and herbs tend to be drying and Cold in nature, which makes them ideal for treating Damp Heat conditions. The bland flavor property is considered in addition to the basic five, and tends to aid areas unreachable by other flavors. Foods and herbs can have more than one taste or can incorporate all five.
Certain tastes are drawn to particular organ systems. As a basic and not absolute nutrition guide, salty tends toward the Kidneys and Bladder; sour to the Liver and Gall Bladder; bitter to the Heart and Small Intestine; spicy to the Lungs and Large Intestine; and sweet to the Spleen and Stomach.
The principles of yin and yang also apply to foods. Meats tend to be yang in energy, while vegetables are yin. As a very general nutrition guide, one can achieve balance by eating yang foods during winter (the most yin time of year) and yin foods in the summer (the most yang time of year). Sometimes it is appropriate to have a diet that is in tune with the season, and each individual requires different properties and energies in their diet.
A diet rich in grains and legumes and poor in fats and refined sugars frees qi so it can move through your system. This flow can cause negative emotions until it has a chance to become established. You should attempt a gradual and comfortable transition. To help the body purify itself, eat Liver-cleansing foods such as beets, carrots and burdock. It is also wise to work in conjunction with other aspects of healing, such as acupuncture and herbs.
When choosing dietary therapy, people with chronic sinusitis, general fatigue or digestive problems should change their diet immediately. For others, the transition should be more gradual in order to ease into a new nutrient system, because sudden changes can shock the body.
Each flavor corresponds to a paired set of internal organs:
• Sour flavor enters the Liver and Gallbladder;
• Bitter flavor enters the Heart and Small Intestine;
• Sweet flavor enters the Spleen and Stomach;
• Spicy enters the Lung and Large Intestine;
• Salty flavor enters the Kidney and Bladder.
The nature of food
The key to healthy eating in Chinese medicine is to eat certain foods that correspond to your condition as well as your surrounding environment. For example, Charleston has a very warm damp climate; therefore, people who live within this environment are more likely to have more damp-heat related disorders, such as joint pain, arthritis, allergies, and digestive disorders. It is therefore wise not to eat excessive amounts of damp causing foods within a damp environment, for example; dairy or fried foods or excessive amounts of raw foods. In order the eat optimally to support your health one should eat warm foods when the climate is cold and cooling foods during the summer months. In general it is best to lightly steam vegetables and consume liquids at room temperature or warmer. Consuming iced beverages or excessive raw vegetables tend to slow down digestive function and impair nutrient absorption.