Like silk, paper, and porcelain, traditional Chinese medicine — better known by the abbreviation “TCM” — is among China’s most influential exports. In brief, it refers to a set of beliefs and practices that are designed to improve or maintain individual health by balancing the life force, or qi, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Since diet can affect this balance, tipping it one way or another like a playground see-saw, many of these beliefs and practices emphasize the importance of eating right. But TCM and Western nutrition are divided on the exact definition of that phrase.
While its early history is murky, TCM originated in ancient China. Legend has it that a “divine farmer” began experimenting on local animals and plants in a bid to differentiate between the harmless and the dangerous, California-based practitioner Victor Cheng, L.Ac, tells TZR. “And then he would pass on that knowledge of, ‘This is edible, this is poisonous, this is medicinal,” Cheng explains.
Thus were food and medicine discovered in tandem. Not that TCM practitioners make such distinctions. Contrary to Western medical doctors, they hold that nutrition and medicine are closely intertwined — 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 tweaks.
In order to achieve their aim, these tweaks must strike a careful balance between the essential properties of different foods. Summed up by the phrase siqiwuwei (四气五味), or “four energies, five flavors,” these properties, which Cheng likens to dimensions rather than categories, are the foundation of TCM food therapy. Foods can be hot, warm, cool, and cold; likewise, they can be sweet, pungent, salty, sour, and bitter, according to 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] trying to combine them.”
Depending on their individual properties, certain foods are recommended or discouraged at different times and life stages. For instance, people are encouraged to consume cooling foods such as oysters in the summer and warming foods such as lamb in the winter to promote health. Following these age-old rules is a literal recipe for longevity; flouting them could result in indigestion or worse. Miami practitioner Hong Chen, Ph.D., A.P., tells TZR, shingles, the notoriously painful viral infection that resembles a red rash, develops in response to excessive body heat, meaning that sufferers can be assumed to have overindulged in warming foods. Once diagnosed, they should course-correct by sticking to cooling ones for a while. “[S]o we would not recommend spicy food,” Hong Chen explains.
Finding the sweet spot between polar opposites is the linchpin of TCM, Cheng says. “The ultimate goal is harmony — internal harmony, external harmony, interpersonal harmony ... [But] the harmony is hard to pin down. It’s like art. When you hear beautiful music, it's very hard for you to pinpoint what makes it beautiful,” Cheng says. “So, in Chinese medicine, we're aiming for this harmonious beauty in our health. You want everything to be balanced.”
In this regard, Cheng says, TCM food therapy is similar to the Western culinary tradition, even if that similarity is rarely acknowledged. In “the summer in America, they sell lemonade, but they don’t drink lemonade in the winter. When the winter’s here, they sell pumpkin spice lattes, but they don’t sell them in the summer. So in a sense, they personally know that lemonade is cooling and pumpkin spice is warming,” he says.
Forbearing to eat foods out of season is one of the ways you can practically incorporate TCM food therapy into your everyday life; another is eating mindfully, Nancy N. Chen, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at the University of California Santa Cruz, tells TZR. She has spent much of her career studying culturally specific theories of health and wellness.
“Chinese medicine, particularly in terms of food therapy, is about paying attention to one's 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 this moment in time — being mindful of not just one’s body, but also what one puts into one’s body,” she says.
There’s no one right answer, Hong Chen says. Unlike Western nutritional theory, which revolves around a set of relatively hard-and-fast rules regarding food groups and calorie breakdowns, TCM food therapy puts a premium on tailoring the treatment to the individual. After all, “[p]eople react differently to different foods,” Hong Chen says.
In addition to eating with your body’s specific needs in mind, you should also be aware of the origins and age of your food. Is it native or foreign — was it marked for sale that morning or shipped from the other side of the world weeks ago? Using local as well as fresh ingredients is considered highly important, Nancy Chen says. As if we needed another reason to cut fast food out of our diets. “Hopefully, by paying attention to landscape, we can also understand that industrialized fast food cannot be created from local sources,” she says. “TCM has always been about local foods, long before being a locavore became fashionable.”
That said, certain ones, including ginger and the subtropical fruit jujube, make particularly frequent appearances in treatment — ginger because it is “warming and spicy” and jujube because it is sweet, Cheng says. The former is often prescribed to people experiencing cold- and flu-like symptoms such as “headache, runny nose, stuffy nose, cough, and mild fever,” Hong Chen says. By contrast, “mint is … very popular to treat hot states because mint is cooling,” she says. “Cold foods, like mung beans, would [also] be ideal to reduce inflammation if this is one of the problems of a patient.”
In addition to temperature, color is taken into consideration. Red foods are thought to “nourish the blood,” Hong Chen says. Women who have recently given birth are advised to eat jujubes, goji berries, and longan berries for this very reason.
There’s no denying the fact that much has changed between the Neolithic and now. While TCM food therapy has stayed more or less the same, food itself has undergone a radical transformation. Nowadays, GMOs, growth hormones, preservatives, and antibiotics pervade our meals like the weevils that infested the hardtack stores of 19th-century sailing ships. Because TCM has historically prized “organic foods that come from nature,” modern foods are considered comparatively low in quality, Hong Chen says. Cheng concurs. “[In] Chinese medicine, we consider the flavor [to be the primary quality metric],” he says. “You can tell certain plants are of a higher quality and have more compounds by tasting and smelling them. Most modern [mass-produced] medicinal plants are much less flavorful, so we know that they are less chemically active.”
Regardless of your personal opinion of TCM food therapy, it has a devoted following. In 2019, the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China projected 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 switching up what you eat seems to hold a special allure for a significant portion of the world’s population. If you’re among this number, remember to take the seasonality, suitability, and locality of your refrigerator contents into consideration when you’re deciding what to have for dinner.
Studies and Sources Referenced:
Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Acupuncture.” https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/acupuncture
Yang, X, et al. (2016) “Information integration research on 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
Hong, G.G. (1998) “Acupuncture: The Historical Basis and Its US Practitioners.” Laboratory Medicine, https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjepJnj07bwAhWLTN8KHZulBKQQFjALegQIHRAD&url=https%3A%2F%2Facademic.oup.com%2Flabmed%2Farticle-pdf%2F29%2F3%2F163%2F24956831%2Flabmed29-0163.pdf&usg=AOvVaw3OGftqT8pdKgd2VLKDy43r
Zheng, Y. (2019) “A healthy way of nursing the world.” China Daily, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201908/12/WS5d50a0b6a310cf3e35565167.html