Therapeutic Diet

A woman holding a basket of vegetables

Generally, we know certain foods are healthy, whereas other ones are unhealthy. But, have you ever thought that the way you prepare food and the combinations you make change their therapeutic properties?

Chinese medicine offers a perspective on diet that can enrich your understanding of what healthy and unhealthy food means.

Factors like how food is prepared and eating time are considered important aspects of healthy eating habits in TCM.

This is a simple and easy-to-understand diet guide from classical Chinese medicine that anyone can adopt, in any part of the world.

A Nature-inspired System

The original traditional medical systems of the world, including the Tibetan, the Chinese, the Indian, and Greek, have one thing in common, they share the knowledge of the hot, cold, and neutral natures of foods and medicines. People from the old world have instinctively associated these natures with these same qualities within the body.

The Tibetan, the Indian, the Chinese, and the Greek traditions have developed their independent systems along with history. There existed some exchange between them going on, however, each one has remained original and unique in their traditions.

The fact that all those cultures used the same system based on the same definition of food and medicine’s nature points to a possible common source that may have been lost in time.

Heat and the Seasons

When we think about the natural cycling of the seasons, the underlying logic behind traditional Chinese medicine starts to reveal itself. Our body is constantly working to maintain its homeostatic equilibrium.

Normally when it is cold outside, we prefer to be warm and eat warm foods, and the opposite is also true. During the summer, when there is excessive heat coming from outside, we need to avoid overheating, so we sweat more.

In winter there’s a lack of heat, our body is working hard to keep the core body temperature constant, and the skin and muscles contract.

Heat is an essential element in our body, in the Chinese esoteric tradition heat is regarded as an essential element that is inseparable from life-force. Heat is also associated with metabolism in TCM. No matter the temperature of what we ingest, whether we eat ice cream or a banana, it must match our core body temperature for an appropriate digestion.

Heat relaxes the muscles in the outer stomach and promotes movement in the gastrointestinal tract. When we ingest colder foods digestion is harder. The metabolic function of the stomach is referred to as the “digestive fire” in the Chinese system.

Traditional Diet

The qualities of heat and cold play an central role in the Chinese system of medicine. Together they are the two energies that keep the homeostatic equilibrium in our bodies.

When we are healthy it might not look like a big deal if our diet goes against the seasons, not matching our core body temperature. As the best case scenario is to not get sick at all, we must always adopt a diet that is in accordance with our physical constitution as well as the seasons of the year.

It’s safe to say that traditional medicine is based on the wisdom of many generations of doctors whose knowledge is the distillation of lifetimes of hands-on experience.

The theory, however, should not be taken for its literal denotation but as a connotation that points to a more organic viewpoint on medicine and health.

Many of the associations found in the theoretical body of TCM exist for the mere sake of memorization. When we talk about hot, cold, and neutral qualities we are not referring to temperature, but rather to a designated nature or potentiality of the different substances.

Nature Knows

We are allowed to eat cooler foods during the daytime when it’s warm. During the night, we should avoid cold and raw food at all costs. Unless it is a specially hot day, this will be the general rule. As for the seasons, the best thing you can do according to the traditional system is to eat the food that grows in each season.

During the springtime, we will find many leafy vegetables which are an important basis for stews.


With the increasingly hot days come salads and an explosion of colorful and juicy veggies.

During the autumn we have more flashy vegetables.

In winter predominates the fibrous foods which are the basis for hot dishes.

The Five Flavors

Another important aspect to be observed is that our diet should contain foods of the five flavors in equal parts. The flavors are sweet, salty, bitter, spicy, and acid. Each one of them exerts a specific energetic, as well as therapeutic function in our organism.

It’s very important that we don’t base our diet solely on our favorite flavors, but try and eat a bit of everything. Of course, the five flavors refer to the natural flavors of foods in natura, not artificially added ones.

The Energetic and Physiological Functions of Each of The Five Flavors

When we talk about energy, it leaves a lot of room for different interpretations.

According to the English dictionary, energy is a “strength or vitality” in humans and a “power” in things. Nonetheless, there exist more elaborate definitions of energy in other languages that do not completely fit this definition.

The Chinese qi and the Indian Prana, for example, are slackly translated as life-force, which doesn’t completely convey the full meaning of the original terms.

In the same way that Western nutrition is all about different nutrients and vitamins that have specific functions, the Chinese therapeutic diet is all about flavors and their energetic as well as physiological functions.

The flavors in TCM do not correspond to how food tastes, but it is a classification system based on their therapeutic properties.

  • Acid flavor has both astringent and absorbent functions. It contracts and gathers the energy inwards. Has tropism for the Liver.
  • Bitter flavor favors detox, elimination downwards, and evacuation. It’s diuretic. Has tropism for the Heart.
  • Sweet flavor helps to ascend the energy. Has tropism for the Spleen.
  • Spicy flavor helps to ascend the energy upwards and outwards. It’s warming and activating. Has tropism for the Lungs.
  • Salty flavor moves the energy inwards and down. Has tropism for the Kidneys.

Each flavor has a tropism for a specific organ. This means that each one favors the function of the organ to which it has tropism. The excessive or insufficient consumption of one flavor can affect negatively its correspondent organ, causing unbalance.

Applying the Theory to Practice

The cooking process should become an alchemical process, aimed at enhancing or neutralizing the natural potentialities of food. There are important aspects to be considered:

  • The essential nature of the food (cold, hot, or neutral)
  • The method of elaboration
  • The temperature at the moment of consumption

Short cooking times with little heat and lots of water preserve Cold nature. Long cooking time, pressure, and heat enhance Hot nature.

From a nutritional point of view, most fresh foods when cooked over long periods end up losing nutrients. For this reason, it’s also important to observe characteristics such as texture when it comes to cooking.

In our daily lives, we must have a balanced diet according to our needs. The best way to start incorporating the Chinese therapeutic diet into our day-to-day routine is to balance Hot and Cold natures, eat the foods of the season, and make sure to eat all the flavors.

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