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Chinese Diet Therapy and Traditional Chinese Medicine

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One of the great things about Traditional Chinese medicine is the acknowledgement of individuality. This also applies to dietary factors. In Traditional Chinese medicine, there is no such thing as “one size fits all” dietary or herbal regimens. Everything is uniquely customized based on the person’s needs, and it’s acknowledged that each individual’s needs may differ significantly.

Balanced Diet and the Five Tastes

A balanced diet, from the viewpoint of traditional Chinese medicine, differs very much from that in Western society. A balanced diet in the Chinese system involves the inclusion of the five tastes – salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and spicy. Herbs and foods that have a specific taste are likely to have specific qualities. Bitter foods and herbs, for instance, are likely to be Cold and drying. Their qualities are thus considered to be useful in the treatment of Damp Heat conditions, but not appropriate for individuals who are too Dry and/or too Cold. A lot of these bitter foods and herbs possess antibiotic-like attributes. Salty foods and herbs, on the other hand, are likely to be moistening and warming. This makes them ideal for individuals suffering from Dryness and Cold, although in people with Damp and Hot, they should be cautiously utilized.

Besides those five main flavors, Chinese medicine also recognizes a bland taste. Bland tasting foods and herbs usually have the effect of draining Dampness and entering areas in the body where other tastes cannot enter. Some researchers make a distinction between astringent and sour rather than grouping both tastes under sour. Foods and herbs with sour taste oftentimes are moistening and possess heating energy. Astringent foods and herbs usually are drying and cooling. It’s important to note that these general observations about taste also have certain exceptions.

There are herbs and foods that can possess more than one taste. One herb that actually possesses all the five tastes is Wu Wei Hsi and is prized for this unique quality. In English, it is actually called Five Flavor Seed.

Proportion of the Tastes

A balanced diet from the Chinese perspective is one that includes all the five tastes. However, the proportion of the tastes tends to differ based on the season of year and the needs of the person. For someone with Deficient Yang, the person might require a higher percentage of foods that possess Yang energy compared to people without such deficiency. These foods containing Yang energy will furnish the person with Yang energy adequate enough to obtain the proper balance of Yin/Yang energy in his/her body. Conversely, a Yin Deficient person will require a higher percentage of foods having Yin energy. Sour, salty, and sweet herbs and foods are not recommended for someone with Dampness conditions since they generate moist in the body. If an individual has Dampness issues in his body, he obviously should not eat an abundant amount of herbs and foods that have moistening qualities that will only exacerbate the Dampness. However, these foods are beneficial for people with Dryness problems. (Here again, there are exceptions. The practitioner or therapist should bear that in mind if a person is too Cold or too Hot Cold. Sweet is usually cooling while sour and salty are oftentimes heating even though these three tastes tend to moisten. In instances of Damp Heat, Sour is likely to be more heating compared to salty so therefore, be careful with Sour).

For people with excessive Damp, foods with bitter, spicy, and/or astringent tastes can be very good for their condition and fair for people with excessive Dryness. You should also take into account the herb/food’s thermal energy. The foods and herbs that are astringent are usually cooling, but the bitter herbs even more cooling than the astringent. On the other hand, spicy foods and herbs are usually very heating.

Yin and Yang Foods

Thus, we can see that traditional Chinese medicine is, in large part, all about balancing out opposites. Foods and herbs packed with Yang energy are recommended for people with Deficient Yang. During the most Yin time of the year, winter, eating a lot of Yang foods is advised while during the most Yang time of the year, which is summer, eating a lot of Yin foods is appropriate. It is sometimes also a good thing to be in harmony with the season –eating Yang foods and eating Yin foods during summer and winter respectively, are sometimes good. All these will depend on the needs of the person.

As a rule, veggies are categorized as Yin while meats are Yang. Also the preparation of the food can also be a factor in how much Yin or Yang energy the food will have. Yang is increased in frying while Yin becomes the more dominant energy in foods that are steamed. Therefore, steamed veggies are more Yin, while stir-fried veggies are more Yang. Yang Deficient individuals are more likely to prefer stir-fry veggies while, on the other hand, people who are Deficient in Yin would likely find eating steamed veggies beneficial than eating stir-fried ones. Foods that are served warm and cooked tend to be more warming compared to foods that are cold and raw. Celery that is cooked stir-fried and served warm, for instance, has a very Yang and warming quality compared to raw celery that is served in cold salad.

The Fives Tastes and the Organ Systems of the Body

Furthermore, some tastes or flavors have an association with some of the Organ systems in the body. Salty flavor, for example, is associated with the Bladder and Kidneys. Foods are sometimes salted in order to derive the attributes of the food to the Kidneys. For people suffering from Kidney imbalances, it’s traditionally believed that adding a little bit of salt to herbal teas can help tonify the Kidneys. The Gallbladder and Liver are especially affected by the taste of sour (although you need to be careful for Damp Heat or gallstones that cause problems in the Liver.) Sweet affects the Abdomen and Spleen (Pancreas-Spleen), spicy for the Large Intestine and Lungs, and Small Intestine and the Heart the taste of Bitter.

In traditional Chinese medicine, there is no such thing as “one size fits all” or forbidden diet or foods. Sugar can be sometimes used an herbal remedy for people who need it. (In the US, this almost never occurs, but in other cultures, sugar is considered a form of medicine. The extreme overuse of sugar in the US has caused this substance to be classified as a type of “poison”).

The Fallacy of the “One Size Fits All” Paradigm

Because Western societies believe that people are all the same, they believe in the “one size fits all” paradigm. Thus, they wrongly assume a diet that works for one individual can also work for other people. Salt, for example is dangerous for people with high blood pressure and so, a low salt diet will be recommended for these people. But for people suffering from Neurally Mediated Hypotension or adrenal inadequacy, a low salt diet can be incredibly harmful for their health. Most individuals need to drink a lot of water, but this can be harmful for people suffering from epilepsy, (that is, if they do not accompany it by eating even a small amount of food like a biscuit or cracker). There are people who need to eat a considerable amount of fat more than others. This is especially true among children who are likely to develop growth and health problems especially if their parents think that limiting fat in their diets can be detrimental to their health. Certain individuals have beyond normal needs for certain minerals or vitamins due to pathogenic weaknesses in their systems or genetics. For example, goiter can be caused by iodine deficiency, but too much iodine can bring about hyperthyroidism.

But you can also consume the wrong foods at the wrong time and exacerbate an existing illness.

Certain measures should be considered when selecting foods especially if they are eaten over a long period of time on a regular basis as these foods can have a long-term and profound effect on the functions of the body. The same measures should be applied when using a specific herbal treatment over a considerable period of time. From the viewpoint of both traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine, following a varied diet is generally good for overall health and well-being.

For people suffering from chronic pain, the use of sour taste should be limited as it can affect the nerves and harm the Liver.

In diseases related to the bone, the overconsumption of bitter foods should be avoided as this taste tends to negatively affect the bones.

The muscles are especially affected by sweet taste and so taking in too much sweet can lead to muscle weakness.

The Blood can dry from salty taste and so for people with deficient Blood, this taste should be avoided.

The pungent taste disperses vital energy (Chi) and so should not be taken where there is deficient Chi.

In general, salty taste affects the Kidneys; pungent taste affects the Lungs; sweet taste influences the Spleen; bitter taste, the heart; and sour taste, the Liver. Therefore, you should not consume bitter foods if you have a diseased Lung; sweet foods should be avoided if you Kidney is weak; sour foods should not be eaten if your Spleen is diseased; if your Heart is diseased, avoid salty foods; and pungent foods are not recommended for people with diseased Lungs.

You may be wondering about the limitation on sour for Spleen conditions when the Liver actually has an association with the sour taste, the limitation on salty foods for people with Heart disease when salty has a relationship with the Kidneys, spicy food for people with Liver problems when spicy has a relationship with the Lungs, etc. These limitations are explained in the Victor-Vanquished law of the five Elements.

The Victor-Vanquished Law

This law or rule basically refers to the inverse relationship of the Organ systems each other. In a Victor-Vanquished relationship, when one gets weakened, the other gets stronger and vice-versa. If, for example excess energy builds up in the Liver, it can invade the Spleen. In traditional Chinese medicine, this condition is called Liver Invading the Spleen (since the Liver is too powerful – it can assault the Spleen as the Spleen is substantially weak). And so, when Liver invades the Spleen, it can significantly harm digestion and can be painful. If you eat or drink something sour (which is related to the Liver) and you have a weak Spleen, you invigorate the Liver but weaken the Spleen. This is the Victor-Vanquished relationship at work in the Liver and the Spleen. From time to time, in these relationships, a Vanquished Element will reverse the outcome on the Element that normally is the Victor. When this occurs, the term “Insulting” is used. In this instance, it is the Spleen (Earth Element) Insulting Liver (Wood Element).

Health’s first line of defense is diet and in traditional Chinese, this matters a lot. In certain instances, before the healing herbs are prescribed or before the herbs can work properly, the person may need to rectify his diet first.

Christina Prieto is an Orlando acupuncturist, a certified Yoga instructor and the founder of Harmony Wellness center in central Florida.

Written by Valerie

July 25th, 2017 at 5:59 am

Posted in Acupuncture