Chinese Dietary Therapy – Balancing the Body with Foods and Seasons

By Darren Holman, L. Ac.

Chinese medicine is constantly trying to balance the body, and one tool we have for doing this is the food we eat. The foods we eat are the building blocks for who we are, and one of the most direct ways we have of affecting our own health. In Chinese medicine we strive to keep the body in balance with the proper amount of yin and yang energies. These energies affect our bodies from the season, our activity level, the foods we eat, and the way we prepare these foods. We will start be discussing the seasons.

Remember that each one of us has a different constitution, and tendency towards different types of imbalances. Your diet will need to be catered towards these factors. For example people with weak digestion will want to avoid eating too much cold food, while some one with recurrent acne, and skin rashes should avoid consumption of too much hot food.

What I am outlining in this article are simple guidelines for how the nature, and flavor of foods interact with the body, and which foods should be eaten in each season. These guidelines are for a healthy person’s body that is reasonably balanced. We are going to examine the temperature nature of foods, the flavor action of foods, the energetic movements of the seasons and what foods should be eaten to be in harmony with them.

In Chinese dietary therapy we classify the temperature nature of food by the heating or cooling effect it has on the body. Foods can be classified as Hot, Warm, Neutral, Cool, or Cold. Some examples of each category are:

Hot: Butter, chocolate, coffee, crispy rice, curry, hot chilies, lamb, mango, onions, peanut butter, sesame seeds, smoked fish, trout, and whisky.

Warm: beef, cheese, brown sugar, chestnuts, chicken, egg yolk, dates, garlic, ginger, green pepper, ham, leeks, oats, peaches, pomegranates, potato, turkey, turnips, vinegar, walnuts, wine.

Neutral: apricots, beet roots, broad beans, bread, brown rice, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cherries, egg whites, grapes, honey, water, milk, oysters, peanuts, peas, pork, raisins, salmon, sugar, sweet potatoes, plums.

Cool: Almonds, apples, barley, broccoli, corn, fish, mushrooms, celery, wheat, turnips, tangerines, strawberries, pineapple, oranges, pears, mangos, watermelon, salt.

Cold: Bananas, bean sprouts, duck, grapefruit, green tea, cucumbers, lettuce, ice cream, mussels, peppermint, tofu, tomato, yogurt.

The temperature of the food is also affected by the preparation methods. Raw foods are the coldest, and require the body to add heat to digest them. Long term consumption of large amounts of raw food is thought to be depleting of the body’s digestive fire. Boiling and steaming are the cooking methods that add the least heat to food’s nature, while frying, grilling, and roasting add the most.

We also consider the flavor of the food and its effects on the body. The Chinese classify flavor into five types; sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty. These flavors correspond to the seasons, organs, and elements. Each flavor also has its own effects on the body.

Sour corresponds to spring time, the liver, and the element of wood. The sour taste is astringent, obstructs movement, and can be used to stop sweating or diarrhea. Over indulgence in sour foods can weaken the spleen and cause damage to the muscles. This can be counteracted with pungent foods. Some examples of sour foods are; apples, apricots, grapefruit, oranges, mangoes, olives, peaches, pineapple, plums, tomatoes, strawberries, and vinegar.

Bitter corresponds to summer, the heart, and the element of fire. The bitter taste is drying and strengthening to the spleen, and reduces body heat. Bitter foods can be used to induce diarrhea to purge the body. An over indulgence in bitter foods can cause stomach energy to stagnate and wither the skin. This can be counter acted with salty foods. Some examples of bitter foods are; asparagus, celery, coffee, hops, lettuce, kohlrabi, and sea grass.

Sweet corresponds to late summer, the spleen, and the element of earth. The sweet taste is harmonizing and slows down acute symptoms, and neutralizes toxic effects of other foods. Over indulgence in sweet foods can cause bone pain, kidney problems, fullness in the chest, and hair loss. You can counteract this by eating sour foods. Some examples of sweet foods are; bamboo shoots, honey, sugar, watermelon, tofu, carrot, coconut, corn, eggplant, figs, grapes, apples, olives, peaches, wheat, and walnuts.

Pungent corresponds to fall, the lungs, and the element of metal. The pungent taste is dispersing, can induce perspiration, and promotes energy circulation. An over indulgence of pungent foods can cause muscle knots, unhealthy finger and toe nails, and damaged shen (loss spirit or vitality in the eyes, restlessness.) You can counter act this by eating bitter foods. Some examples of pungent foods are black pepper, chives, cinnamon, cloves, dill seed, fennel, garlic, ginger, green onion, green pepper, mustard greens, radishes, spearmint, rosemary, white pepper, and wine.

Salty corresponds to winter, the kidneys, and the element of water. The salty flavor is softening, and can be used to help with nodules, hard lymph nodes, and hardening of the muscles or glands. Excessive intake of salty foods can lead to deficient muscles and flesh, lack of strength in the bones, and depression. The can be balanced out by eating more sweet foods. Some examples of salty foods are; barley, chives, clams, kelp, oysters, pork, sea grass, and sea weed.

The Chinese believe that a balanced diet has some of each flavor in each meal. As you have probably noticed some foods have a combination of flavors and fall into multiple categories. There is an art to finding flavorful combinations that balance the body and promote good health.

The Chinese categorize the year into five seasons; spring, summer, late summer, fall, and winter. Each season has its own energetic disposition that matches the agricultural lifestyle. We think of these dispositions in terms of energy movement and temperature. Chinese believe you should reinforce this natural movement by eating foods that are in accordance with the season.

In the spring energy is moving upward in growth, you can support this with foods that have a neutral nature, and flavors that are pungent, sweet, or bitter. In summer energy is moving out ward in expression. You can support this with foods have hot nature, and who’s flavor are pungent and sweet. In the autumn energy is moving downward to be stored. You can support this by eating foods that have cold, cool, or warm nature, and sweet or sour flavors. In the winter energy moves inward in hibernation. You can support this with food with cold nature, and bitter or salty flavor.

Remember that good nutrition is dependent on two things; 1) eating healthy balanced foods, and 2) how well your body is able to absorb them. The Chinese believe that all meals should be eaten in a peaceful place, and while you are relaxed, and at a slow pace. Heated discussions, stress, or work should be avoided at meal times. Food should be chewed thoroughly until it is nearly liquid in consistency. This will improve digestion and assimilation of the food. Water or beverage should be used sparingly with meals, with the majority of your fluid intake between meals. This prevents the digestive juices from being diluted, and from prevents the water from carrying the food to the next stage of digestion prematurely.

If you are interested in learning more about Chinese dietary therapy there are many good books available, and numerous websites. One I recommend is “Chinese System of Food Cures: Prevention and Remedies’ by Henry C. Lu, published by Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. New York, 1986. I hope you enjoy delicious healthy eating that is balancing for your body, this summer, and throughout the year.

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