At the dawn of western medicine in ancient Greece, around 400 BC, Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food”. Now let me tell you, he was not very popular for saying this and it actually led to some very unfortunate actions by the ruling establishment. Although the ruling Greeks missed the message, a few thousand miles away in China, Traditional Chinese Medicine’s approach to diet was already well established.
Fast forward a few thousand years and modern medicine seems to still be following the same ruling elite with its limited views on the importance of nutritional education for its medical professionals. I’m always surprised as a TCM Acupuncturist when I speak to my many western MD patients regarding nutrition and the minute role that nutrition played in their medical training.
In TCM we receive hundreds of hours of nutritional instruction versus the meagre handful of hours that many of my patients describe they received. That’s because the eastern approach is all about understanding the interaction between the outside world and the internal body.
How can you heal dis-ease in the body due to inflammation, if the food you are eating is inflammatory?
How can you heal dis-ease in the body due to bacterial imbalance in the gut, if the food you are eating is killing off the necessary gut bacteria?
How can you heal dis-ease in the body due to vitamin or mineral deficiency, If the food you are eating is lacking in those vital nutrients?
How can you lose weight if the food you are eating is making you fat?
How can you be healthy, if the food you are eating causes dis-ease?
Traditional Chinese Medicine Diet
Now, from a TCM perspective, different foods and flavours interact with the different organs in the body in very specific ways. It's much more complicated than the notion of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away!”
As with all things in the world and in the body, there needs to be a balance between yin and yang. For life to not only survive but to thrive, there needs to be a balance between hot and cold, dry and wet, sweet and sour, salty and pungent, etc. You get the idea!
No matter what the stimuli, too much or too little end up causing problems. Thankfully our body is great at telling us what it needs. We just need to listen. What if I was to tell you that when you crave a certain flavour, it is your body telling you there is a weakness or deficiency in a certain organ?
Now here is where things get complicated because the weakness is often caused by ingesting too much of the specific flavour that you then end up craving. Remember I said too much of anything, even something good is not good (tequila doesn’t count, it’s always good! That's my story and I’m sticking to it!!! lol)
So if you work from the premise that your body needs a balanced intake of all five flavours to evenly stimulate all ten major paired organs, then you can begin to use food to balance out disharmonies and dis-ease. This can be done by increasing or decreasing your intake of certain flavours based on symptoms that arise.
But to do that we need to know what symptoms go with which organs:
Liver / Gallbladder symptoms
Achy pain in the body especially down the side of the body
Red, dry or itchy eyes
Regularly waking between 1-3 am
Damage to the tendons and connective tissue
Feelings of anger, irritability, stress
Flavour the affect the Liver / Gallbladder
The sour flavour stimulates the liver and gallbladder. This would foods such as;
lemons, apples, apricots, blackberries, black currants, cheese, crabapples, gooseberries, grapes, grapefruit, green leafy vegetables, lemons, lychees, mandarin oranges, mangoes, olives, peaches, pears, pineapples, plums, pomegranates, raspberries, sour plums, strawberries, tomatoes, trout, tangerines, vinegar, yogurt
Heat / Small Intestine Symptoms
Tightness in the chest
Burning / painful urination
Feelings of hate
Flavour that affect the Heart / Small Intestine
The Bitter flavour stimulates the heart and small intestine. This would include foods such as;
Alfalfa, asparagus, beer, broccoli, chicory, celery, coffee, grapefruit, lettuce, radish, raspberry leaf, tea, turnips, vinegar, watercress
Spleen and Stomach Symptoms
Gurgling in the stomach
Lack of appetite
Feelings of anxiety, worry and overthinking
Flavour that affect the Spleen / Stomach
The Sweet flavour stimulates the spleen and stomach. This would include foods such as;
adzuki beans, apples, apricots, barley, beef, beetroot, cabbage, carrots, celery, cheese, cherries, chicken, chickpeas, coffee, corrugates, corn, cucumber, dates, grapes, grapefruit, honey, kidney beans, lamb, lettuce, malt, mandarins, mung beans, mushrooms, oranges, mild, oats, peaches, peanuts, pears, pineapples, plums, pork, potatoes, radishes, raspberries, rice, spinach, strawberries, sugar, tomatoes, walnuts, wheat, wine, beer
Lung and Large Intestine Symptoms
Shortness of breath
Cough, sore throat
Feelings of depression/sadness/grief
Flavour that affect the Lung / Large Intestine
The Pungent flavour stimulates the lung and the large intestine. This would include foods such as;
black pepper, cayenne pepper, chilli, cloves, cumin, garlic, oregano, green peppers, horseradish, leeks, marjoram, mint, mustard, nutmeg, peppermint, radishes, rosemary, soya oil, turnips, watercress, wheat germ, wine
Kidney and Bladder Symptoms
Sore lower back
Ringing in the ears
Low sex drive
Feeling of fear
Flavour that affect the Kidney / Bladder
The Salty flavour stimulates the kidney and bladder. This would include foods such as;
barley, crab, duck, garlic, ham, kelp, lobster, millet, mussels, oysters, pork, salt, sardines, seaweed, salmon, soya sauce
As I mentioned before, the body needs a balanced diet of all five flavours to maintain its balance. However, within each of the five flavours, there are certain foods that cause the body to warm up and dry out, while there are others that cause it to moisten and cool.
Once again a balanced diet of yin and yang is equally important. There are foods that are considered hot, warm, neutral, cool and cold. As with all things once again, too much of any one thing is not good.
Thermic Effect of Food
Hot - Black pepper, butter, chicken fat, chocolate, coffee, crispy rice, curry, hot chillies, lamb, mango, onions, peanut butter, sesame seeds, smoked fish, trout, whisky.
Warm - beef, brown sugar, cheese, chestnuts, chicken, egg yolks, dates, garlic, ginger, green pepper, ham, leeks, oats, peach, pomegranate, potato, turkey, turnip, walnuts, vinegar, wine.
Neutral - adzuki beans, apricots, beetroot, black tea, bread, broad beans, brown rice, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cherries, chickpeas, egg white, grapes, honey, hot water, kidney beans, milk, oysters, peanuts, peas, plum, pork, potato, raisins, salmon, sugar, sweet potatoes.
Cool - Almonds, apples, asparagus, barley, beer, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, chicory, corn, fish, mushrooms, mango, mung beans, oranges, pears, pineapple, radishes, rhubarb, salt, seaweed, spinach, strawberries, tangerines, turnip, watermelon, wheat, wild rice.
Cold - Banana, bean sprouts, cucumber, duck, grapefruit, green tea, lettuce, ice cream, mussels, peppermint, sorbet, tofu, tomato, watermelon, yogurt.
How to apply a Traditional Chinese Medicine Diet
First, write out an inventory list of physical and emotional issues you experience in your body that seem to be bothering you on a continual or regular basis. Chronic headache, backache. Bloating, anxiety, dry eyes, depression, etc.
Match up those symptoms with the organ symptom lists above to see which organ is unhappy.
Write out what you eat for a week (being honest! Everything counts, it's not your birthday, and even if it is, IT STILL COUNTS! LOL)
Once again, match up the foods to the flavour lists above to see which flavours you eat most and which organ they are affecting, as well as which flavours you are missing.
Look over your diet once again and match up the foods this time to the Thermic chart to see what temperature stimulation your food is providing or not providing.
Now, compare your symptoms, associated organs, flavours and temps and ask yourself the following;
- Is there a good balance of all five flavours in your diet?
- Is there a good balance of all temperatures in your diet?
- Do the symptoms you experience correspond to flavours you eat too much of or very little of?
- If you are eating too little of the associated flavour, simply add more to your diet
- If you are eating too much of the associated flavour, simply reduce the amount in your diet.
- If you are eating too little of an associated temperature food, simply add more to balance your diet
- If you are eating too much of an associated temperature food, simply reduce the amount to balance your diet.
Balance is key. You don’t have to be perfect but the more mindful you are of including balance in thermic effect as well as flavour stimulation, the faster your diet, your Qi, and your body will come back into balance and ultimately, health.
If counting calories or macros is driving you crazy, maybe it’s time to create a different relationship with food. Applying a Traditional Chinese Medicine approach to diet will create a relationship that connects you to the “effect” different foods have on the functioning of your body rather than simply how they taste in the moment. Give it a try.
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