East Meets West at the Dinner Table: An Introduction to Chinese Food Therapy

New Life Journal
By Lorraine H. Harris, L.Ac., Dipl. O.M., & MTOM

Many Americans now recognize what ancient civilizations have known for thousands of years-that the key to optimal health may lie within the foods we eat. While we tend to approach eating from a rote standpoint by embracing the specific dietary guidelines of the popular Atkins, South Beach, and blood-type regimes, Chinese food therapy makes recommendations that are unique to every individual. Its approach seeks to address the root cause of a problem, rather than focusing on simply eliminating symptoms.

Ancient Chinese philosophy maintains that from total consciousness emerged a duality, a yin/yang dynamic that is a continuum of opposites inherent in all of life; this belief is the foundation of all aspects of Chinese medicine. Yin is characterized by such qualities as feminine, dark, cool, damp, dense, nurturing, and creative, while its yang counterpart is characterized by such qualities as masculine, warm, light, dry, and expressive. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on the idea that illness arises when the yin/yang within us becomes unbalanced

At the core of Chinese nutrition is the restoration of this yin/yang balance through the foods we eat. Perhaps this idea is less foreign than it initially sounds, because each of us contains an innate capacity to sense what we need; for example, that afternoon chocolate craving may be the body’s way of indicating that the liver energy needs to be soothed. Unfortunately, as we come to rely more on fad diets and culturally-popular eating models, we tend to overlook and dismiss our own inherent wisdom, catapulting our bodies out of the yin/yang balance.

Some people fear that a foray into Chinese food therapy will result in a mandate to eat foods that are unfamiliar, difficult to purchase and prepare, and unpleasant-tasting. Actually, if you have ever sampled sesame seeds, cinnamon, or cloves, or enjoyed beets, squash, tomatoes or broccoli, you have eaten some Chinese nutritional fare. The idea is to address “dis-ease” at its most basic level-how you are nourished. For instance, a practitioner may determine that there is a spleen deficiency and recommend orange and yellow fruits and vegetables. Or for those who experience the excess heat of heartburn, cooling foods such as apples and cucumbers might appear on the shopping list. The taste of a food also relates to the organ system it supports. Thus, sweet foods nourish the spleen, sour foods nourish the liver, bitter foods nourish the heart, spicy foods nourish the lungs, and salty foods nourish the kidneys.

A practitioner of Chinese food therapy draws from various Chinese theoretical models to evaluate a client’s nutritional needs. One of these models is the Five Element theory, which assigns general qualities, characteristics, and specific foods to the elements of metal, earth, fire, wood and water.

Five Element Characteristics and Corresponding Foods\
Element Personality Traits
Metal The scientist, fine artist or neurosurgeon – one who is interested
in precision and quality
Earth The caregiver, educator, or intellect – one who looks after others
Fire The entertainer – one who exhibits a passion for what they do
Wood The General, planner, or director – one who has a plan of action
Water The reflector or philosopher -one who seeks truth

For example, the qualities associated with water are reflective, meditative, truth-seeking, and philosophical; its related foods are seaweed, salt, and minerals. After interviewing the client about his or her health history, the practitioner uses the information presented to determine where the disharmonies lie, and then recommends foods to remedy the problem. This one-on-one approach honors and respects the body’s ability to reveal precisely what it needs. The result is a “food prescription” that will not only address the imbalance, but will also be compatible with the client’s lifestyle.

Using foods to heal the body does not necessarily mean sacrificing your favorite dishes. It is true that in more acute cases, it is sometimes necessary to temporarily refrain from certain food choices. For example, asthmatics may need to initially eliminate ice cream, because cold foods deplete the spleen energy, which then in turn sends fluid to the lungs. Once balance is restored, however, eliminated foods can again be integrated into the food plan.

Although Chinese food therapy embraces a more individualized approach, there are some general guidelines from which most everyone can benefit. Here are some basic tips for improving digestion:

  • Cut down on raw foods, including salads, which can be difficult to digest.
  • Avoid tofu, instead selecting fermented soy products such as tempeh and miso.
  • Double the amount of water and cooking times for beans and rice, and add a piece of kombu (kelp seaweed available at health food stores) while cooking.
  • Use spices such as coriander, cumin, and fennel.
  • Eliminate iced and cold liquids with meals, instead choosing warm water or tea made with fresh ginger.

Selecting a practitioner of Chinese food therapy should be done carefully; not everyone who has studied some aspect of the vast body of work known as Chinese medicine has specific expertise in this area. Finding someone with whom you feel comfortable and confident will smooth the way for a wonderful journey into the healing properties of nature’s bounty.