Like silk, paper and porcelain, traditional Chinese medicine – better known as “TCM” – is among China’s most influential exports. In short, it refers to a set of beliefs and practices designed to improve or maintain individual health by balancing life force, or Qi, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Since diet can affect this balance, tipping it one way or another like a playground seesaw, many of these beliefs and practices emphasize the importance of eating well. But TCM and Western nutrition are divided on the exact definition of this expression.
Although its beginnings are murky, TCM originated in ancient China. Legend has it that a “divine farmer” began experimenting on local animals and plants in an effort to tell the harmless from the dangerous, California practitioner Victor Cheng, L.Ac, told TZR. “And then he would impart this knowledge of, ‘This is edible, this is poisonous, this is medicinal,'” Cheng explains.
This is how food and medicine were discovered in tandem. Not that TCM practitioners make such distinctions. Unlike Western doctors, they argue that nutrition and medicine are closely linked — so much so that they are essentially “interchangeable,” Cheng says. TCM teaches that discomfort and disease can be caused as well as cured by dietary adjustments.
In order to achieve their goal, these adjustments must find a delicate balance between the essential properties of the different foods. Summarized by the sentence siqiwuwei (四气五味), or “four energies, five flavors”, these properties, which Cheng equates to dimensions rather than categories, are the basis of TCM food therapy. Foods can be hot, warm, cool and cold; similarly, they can be sweet, pungent, salty, sour and bitter, depending on the journal of traditional chinese medicine.
“[Our concept of food] is not analytical; it’s more like a description,” Cheng says. “We assume that all these medicinal plants and substances are like people. They have complexities; they have personalities; they are idiosyncratic. Instead of trying to break them down, the Chinese method [involves] try to combine them.
Depending on their individual properties, certain foods are recommended or discouraged at different times and stages of life. For example, people are encouraged to eat cooling foods like oysters in the summer and warming foods like lamb in the winter to promote health. Following these age-old rules is a literal recipe for longevity; ignoring them could lead to indigestion or worse. Miami practitioner Hong Chen, Ph.D., AP, tells TZR that shingles, the notoriously painful viral infection that looks like a red rash, develops in response to excessive body heat, meaning the sufferers may be assumed to have overheated food. Once diagnosed, they should course correct by sticking to those that cool for a while. “[S]o we would not recommend spicy food,” says Hong Chen.
Finding the middle ground between polar opposites is the keystone of TCM, says Cheng. “The ultimate goal is harmony – internal harmony, external harmony, interpersonal harmony… [But] harmony is hard to pin down. It’s like art. When you hear beautiful music, it’s very difficult for you to figure out what makes it beautiful,” Cheng says. “So in Chinese medicine, we aim for this harmonious beauty of our health. You want everything to be balanced.
In this respect, Cheng says, TCM food therapy is similar to the Western culinary tradition, though this similarity is rarely recognized. “In the summer in America, they sell lemonade, but they don’t drink lemonade in the winter. When winter is here they sell pumpkin spice lattes, but they don’t sell it in the summer. So in a sense, they personally know that lemonade gets cold and pumpkin spice gets warm,” he says.
Abstaining from eating out of season foods is one of the ways to practically integrate TCM food therapy into your daily life; another consciously eats, Nancy N. Chen, Ph.D., professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told TZR. She has spent much of her career studying culturally specific theories of health and wellness.
“Chinese medicine, especially in terms of food therapy, is about paying attention to your body,” she says. But that doesn’t mean succumbing to every passing craving. Rather, it means “really thinking in terms of what your body needs at that exact moment — being aware not only of your body, but also of what you’re putting into your body,” she says.
There is no right answer, says Hong Chen. Unlike Western nutritional theory, which revolves around a relatively strict set of rules regarding food groups and calorie allocation, TCM food therapy prioritizes tailoring treatment to the individual. After all, “[p]People react differently to different foods,” says Hong Chen.
In addition to eating with your body’s specific needs in mind, you also need to be aware of where your food comes from and how old it is. Is he native or foreign? Did it go on sale that morning or shipped halfway around the world a few weeks ago? Using local and fresh ingredients is considered very important, says Nancy Chen. As if we needed another reason to eliminate fast foods from our diets. “Hopefully, by paying attention to the landscape, we can also understand that industrialized fast food cannot be created from local sources,” she says. “TMC has always been about local food, long before being a locavore became fashionable. »
That said, some, including ginger and the subtropical fruit jujube, make particularly frequent appearances in treatments — ginger because it’s “warming and spicy” and jujube because it’s sweet, Cheng says. The former is often prescribed for people suffering from cold and flu symptoms such as “headache, runny nose, stuffy nose, cough and mild fever,” says Hong Chen. In contrast, “mint is…very popular for treating hot states because mint cools,” she says. “Cold foods, such as mung beans, [also] be ideal for reducing inflammation if that is one of a patient’s concerns.
In addition to temperature, color is taken into consideration. Red foods are thought to “nourish the blood,” says Hong Chen. Women who have recently given birth are advised to eat jujubes, goji berries and longan berries for this very reason.
It is undeniable that many things have changed between the Neolithic era and today. While TCM food therapy has remained more or less the same, the food itself has undergone a drastic transformation. These days, GMOs, growth hormones, preservatives and antibiotics invade our meals like the weevils that infested the hardtack stores of 19th century sailing ships. Because TCM has always valued “organic foods from nature,” modern foods are considered relatively low quality, says Hong Chen. Cheng agrees. “[In] Chinese medicine, we consider the flavor [to be the primary quality metric],” he says. “You can tell that certain plants are higher in quality and contain more compounds by tasting and smelling them. The most modern [mass-produced] medicinal plants are much less tasty, so we know they are less chemically active.
Regardless of your personal opinion of TCM Food Therapy, it has a devoted following. In 2019, the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China predicted that the industry would be worth more than $434 billion by 2020, according to China Daily. The idea that feeling sick is a problem that can potentially be solved by changing what you eat seems to have particular appeal for a significant portion of the world’s population. If you’re one of that number, remember to consider the seasonality, relevance, and locality of what’s in your fridge when deciding what to eat for dinner.
Studies and referenced sources:
Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Acupuncture.” https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/acupuncture
Yang, X, et al. (2016) “Research on the integration of information on the cumulative effect of ‘Siqi, Wuwei and Guijing’ in traditional Chinese medicine.” Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0254627216300723?via%3Dihub
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Zheng, Y. (2019) “A Healthy Way to Heal the World.” China Daily, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201908/12/WS5d50a0b6a310cf3e35565167.html