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Outlined below is some basic Chinese dietary wisdom that has been around for millennia. Literally millennia…

Dietary therapy London

In order to get the most out of acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, any type of treatment and from life in general, it is very important to support your treatment with proper diet and lifestyle. In Chinese medicine, there is a saying, “Seven parts nursing, three parts treatment.” ‘Nursing’ in this context means diet and lifestyle modifications.

According to Chinese medicine, every food has both a ‘nature’ and a ‘flavour’. A food’s nature is its effect on the temperature of the body. For example, if someone suffers from a cold disease, they should avoid cold-inducing foods and eat more warming foods. The opposite conditions also apply. Likewise, each food has one or more of the six flavours: sour, bitter, sweet, acrid (spicy), salty or bland. Each flavour is associated with one of the main internal organs and has its most powerful effect on that organ. This means that whether a food is good or bad for an individual is entirely dependent upon that person’s Chinese medical pattern diagnosis and the nature and flavour of that food.

The suggestions below are given as general guidelines and should be adjusted for each individual by a qualified, licensed practitioner of Acupuncture and Chinese Dietary Therapy, based on Chinese disease and pattern diagnosis.

For Liver Qi Stagnation – stress, anger, irritability, nausea, acid reflux, irregular or painful periods  

  • Add: Some acrid spices (ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, basil, chives and garlic)
  • Chamomile or mint tea
  • Dandelion greens
  • Avoid: Coffee (decaf and caffeinated)
  • Excess sour food and drink
  • Sugars, sweets and artificial sweeteners
  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine

For Digestive Weakness (Spleen Qi or Yang deficiency) – bloating, tired after eating, poor appetite, overthinking, loose stools

  • Add: Warm, cooked foods, cooked vegetable
  • Basmati or jasmine rice, soups and stews
  • Drink a cup of warm water, broth, soup or tea with meals
  • Incorporate moderate amounts of warm-hot spices, including black and white pepper, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg or fennel
  • Coconut milk is a good substitute for milk.
  • Choose sprouted wheat breads over processed wheat breads.
  • Avoid: Cold, frozen or chilled foods and drinks
  • Raw fruits, raw vegetables, raw salads, lettuce
  • Tropical fruits, like banana, mango, kiwi, etc.
  • Large doses of Vitamin C
  • Dairy: milk, cream, yogurt, cheese and ice cream
  • Greasy, fatty, and fried foods
  • Sugars, sweets and artificial sweeteners
  • Alcohol, nicotine and other stimulants such as energy drinks

For Excessive Phlegm and Dampness – congested sinuses, phlegm in throat, feeling of heaviness

  • Add: Warm, cooked foods, cooked vegetable
  • Basmati or jasmine rice, soups and stews
  • Drink a cup of warm water, broth, Soup or tea with meals
  • Incorporate moderate amounts of warm-hot spices, including black and white pepper, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg or fennel
    Coconut milk is a good substitute for milk
  • Avoid: Overeating in general
  • Greasy, fatty, and fried foods
  • Raw fruits, raw vegetable, raw salads
  • Dairy: milk, cream, yogurt, cheese and ice cream
  • Sugars, sweets and artificial sweeteners
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Wheat products
  • Alcohol
  • Oats

For Damp Heat (Liver/Gallbladder, Large Intestine or Lower Burner Damp Heat) – abdominal pain, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting

  • Add: Warm, cooked foods, cooked vegetables
  • Basmati or jasmine rice, soups and stews
  • Drink a cup of warm water, broth, soup or tea with meals
  • Mung bean soup
  • Avoid: Hot spices, spicy foods, especially hot peppers
  • Oranges and other acidic high sugar fruits
  • Greasy, fatty, and fried foods
  • Dairy: milk, cream, yogurt, cheese and ice cream
  • Sugars, sweets and artificial sweeteners
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Tomatoes
  • Alcohol

For Blood Deficiency – dizzy standing up, chronic tiredness, insomnia, eye complaints, scanty periods, pale complexion, cramps, poor memory

  • Add: Red meat: beef or lamb
  • Animal protein: chicken, fish or eggs
  • Soups, broths, stew and warm foods in general
  • Yellow, orange or red root vegetables: carrots, beets, squash, yams, and sweet potatoes
  • Cooked leafy greens: kale, collard, bok choy, watercress, spinach, and broccoli
  • Best fruits: cherries, red grapes, and raspberries: preferably cooked or dried
  • Black beans
  • Black sesame seeds
  • Avoid: Total vegetarianism, raw, uncooked salads and vegetables
  • Raw fruits can be eaten if at room temperature and followed by a cup of tea or warm water

For Blood Stasis – chronic pain, painful periods, chest constriction, deep vein thrombosis

  • Add: Moderate amounts of alcohol, preferably red wine
  • Moderate use of warm spices, like cinnamon, cloves, fennels, black, and white pepper and cardamom
  • Avoid: Greasy, fatty or fried foods
  • Dairy: milk, cream, yogurt, cheese and ice cream
  • Overeating in general

For Intestinal Dryness – constipation, dry mouth and throat, thin body

  • Add: Prunes, pears, figs, almonds, sesame seeds, walnuts and aloe vera juice
  • Avoid: Use of warm, drying, hot spices

For Liver Stasis transforming into heat, upward flaming of Liver Fire, ascendant Liver Yang, Hyperactivity, Heart Fire, Stomach Heat or Fire Patterns – outbursts of anger, tinnitus, headaches and migraines, red faced, dream-disturbed sleep

  • Add: A Moderate intake of cooling foods, including celery, melon, cucumber, zucchini, plus same general dietary suggestions for spleen deficiency, bur exclude warm-hot spices
  • Drink chamomile or mint tea
  • Dandelion greens
  • Avoid: Greasy, fatty or fried foods
  • Warm, hot spices and spicy foods
  • Alcohol
  • In the Tang Dynasty, the famous doctor Sun Si-Miao said that, when a person is sick, the doctor should first regulate the patient’s diet and lifestyle.

Cooked vs Raw Foods

First of all, TCM suggests that most people, most of the time, should eat mostly cooked food. Cooking is pre-digestion on the outside of the body to make food more easily digestible on the inside. By cooking foods in a pot, one can initiate and facilitate the stomach’s rotting and ripening functions. Cold and raw foods require that much more energy to transform them into warm soup within the pot of the stomach. They can impede the stomach’s digestion process.

The idea that eating cooked food is more nutritious than raw food flies in the face of much modern Western nutritional belief because enzymes and vitamins are destroyed by cooking. Many people think it is healthier to eat mostly raw, uncooked foods. This makes sense only as long as one confuses gross income with net profit. When laboratory scientists measure the relative amounts of cooked and raw foods, they are not taking into account these nutrients’ post-digestive absorption.

Let’s say that a raw carrot has 100 units of a certain vitamin or nutrient and that a cooked carrot of the same size has only 80 units of that same nutrient. At first glance, it appears that eating the raw carrot is healthier since one would, theoretically, get more of the nutrient that way. However, no one absorbs 100% of any available nutrient in any given food. Because the vitamins and enzymes of a carrot are largely locked in hard-to-digest cellulose packets, when one eats this raw carrot, they may actually only absorb 50% of the available nutrient. The rest is excreted in the faeces. But when one eats the cooked carrot, because the cooking has already begun the breakdown of the cellulose walls, one may absorb 65% of the available nutrient. In this case, even though the cooked carrot had less of this nutrient to begin with, net absorption is greater. The body’s economy runs on net, not gross. It is as simple as that. Of course, we are talking about light cooking, and not reducing everything to an overcooked, lifeless mush.

This is why soups and stews are so nourishing. These are the foods we feed infants and those who are recuperating from illness. The more a food is like a warm 37°C soup, the easier it is for the body to digest and absorb its nutrients. The stomach, spleen and pancreas expend less energy (digestive function), therefore, the net gain in energy is greater. This is also why chewing food thoroughly before swallowing is so important. The more one chews, the more the food is macerated and mixed with liquids, in other words, the more it begins to look like soup or a stew.

Cold Foods and Liquids

So it follows that if we drink or eat chilled, cold, or frozen foods or drink iced liquids with our meals, we are only impeding the warm transformation of digestion. Cold obviously negates heat, and water puts out fire. This does not mean that such foods and liquids are never digested, but it does mean that often they are not digested well. In Chinese medicine, if the stomach/spleen fail to adequately transport and transform foods and liquids, a sludge tends to accumulate just as it might in an incompletely combustion automobile engine. This sludge is called stagnant food and dampness in Chinese medicine.

Dampness and Phlegm

If the solid portions of food are jam-packed into the stomach or their digestion is impaired by cold, chilled foods and liquids or if too many hard-to-digest foods are eaten, stagnant food may accumulate in the stomach. The stomach tries all the harder to burn these off and resembles a car stuck in overdrive. It becomes hotter in an attempt to burn off accumulation. This often results in the stomach becoming chronically overheated. This, in turn, causes the stomach to register hunger, which, in Chinese medicine, is a sensation of the stomach’s heat. This hunger then results in eating more and more and a vicious cycle is created. Overeating invites stagnation of food, which creates stomach heat which in turn reinforces overeating. Further, persistent stomach heat may eventually waste stomach fluids (yin), causing a chronic thirst and preference for cold drinks and chilled foods.

If the liquid portions of food and drink jam the transporting and transforming functions of the spleen, these may accumulate as dampness. This plethora of water inhibits the spleen’s warm transforming function in the same way that water inhibits or douses fire. Over time, this accumulated dampness may mix with stagnant food and congeal into phlegm, which further blocks the entire system and retards the blood circulation throughout the whole body.

Different people’s digestion burns hotter than others. Those with a robust constitution and strong ming men, or fire of life, tend to have a strong digestion. These people can often eat more in general and more chilled, frozen, hard to digest foods without problems. Likewise, everyone’s metabolism runs at different temperatures throughout the year. During the summer when it is hot outside, we generally can eat cooler foods and should drink more liquids. However, even then, we should remember that everything that goes down our gullet must be turned into 100° soup before it can be digested and assimilated.

Post-Digestive Temperature

In Chinese medicine, there is an important distinction made between the cold physical temperature of a food or drink their post-digestive temperature. Post-digestive temperature refers to a particular food or drink’s net effect on the body’s thermostat. Some foods, even when cooked, are physiologically cold and tend to lower the body’s temperature either systemically or in a certain organ. In Chinese medicine, every food is categorised as either cold, cool, neutral, warm or hot. Most foods are cool, neutral or warm and in general, we should mostly eat neutral and warm foods since our body itself is warm. During the winter or in colder climates, it is important to eat warmer foods, but during the summer we can and should eat cooler foods. However, this mostly refers to the post-digestive temperature of a food.

If you eats ice cream in the summer, the body at first is cooled by the ingestion of such a frozen food. However, its response is to increase the heat of digestion in order to deal with this cold insult. Inversely, it is a common custom in tropical countries to eat hot foods since the body is provoked then to sweat as an attempt to cool itself down. In China, mung bean soup and tofu are eaten in the summer because both these food tend to cool a person down post-digestively. If we are going to eat cold and frozen foods and drink iced, chilled liquids, it is best that these be taken between meals when they will not impede and retard the digestion of other foods.

Many Westerners are shocked to think that cold and frozen foods are inherently unhealthy since they have become such a ubiquitous part of our contemporary diet. However, chilled, cold and frozen foods and liquids are a relatively recent phenomenon. They are dependent upon refrigeration in the marketplace, during transportation and in the home. Such mass access to refrigeration is largely a post World War II occurrence. That means, in temperate zones, people have only had widespread access to such cold temperature foods and drinks for less than 50 years. 50 years is not even a blink on the human evolutionary scale.

Dampening Foods

Not only do foods have an inherent post-digestive temperature but different foods also tend to generate more or less body fluids. Therefore, in Chinese medicine, all foods can be described according to how damp they are, meaning dampening to the human system. We need a certain amount of dampness to stay alive. Dampness in food is yin in that dampness nourishes substance, which is mostly wet and gushy. However, some foods are excessively dampening, and since it is the spleen, which avers dampness, excessive damp foods tend to interfere with digestion.

According to Chinese Five-element theory, dampness is associated with earth. Fertile earth is damp. The flavour of earth according to Chinese Five-element theory is sweet. The sweet flavour in inherently damp and also is nutritive. In Chinese medical terms, the sweet flavour supplements Qi (the function of an organ) and the blood. When one looks at a Chinese medical description of various foods, one is struck by the fact that almost all foods are somewhat sweet. On reflection, this is obvious. We eat to replenish our body function and blood; therefore most foods are sweet and fulfil the replenishing function. All grains, most vegetables, and most foods eaten by humans are sweet, no matter what other of the five flavours they may also be. However, excessive intake of sweet foods, instead of energising the spleen, overwhelms and weakens it. This is based on the Chinese idea that yang, when extreme, transforms into yin and vice versa. When the spleen becomes weak, it craves even more sweetness since sweet is the flavour, which strengthens it when consumed in moderate amounts. Thus, another pathological cycle is forged in many people.

Going back to dampness, the sweet flavour engenders dampness and the sweeter a food is, the more dampening it is. According to Chinese medicine, this tendency is worsened when the sweet flavour is combined with sour. Therefore Chinese medicine identifies a number of especially dampening foods. These include sweet and sour foods such as citrus fruits and juices, and tomatoes; concentrated sweets such as sugar, molasses and honey; as well as wheat, dairy products, nuts, oils and fats.

Highly nutritious foods such as dairy products, meats, nuts, eggs, oils and fats are strongly capable of supplementing the body’s yin fluids and substance. However, in excess, they generate a superabundance of body fluids, which become pathologic dampness. Although to some this may appear a paradox, it has to do with healthy yin in excess becoming evil or pathological yin or dampness, phlegm and turbidity.

It is also easy to see that certain combinations are even worse than their individual constituents. Ice cream is a dietary disaster. It is too sweet, too creamy, and too cold. Ice cream is a very dampening food. Pizza is a combination of tomato sauce, cheese, and wheat. All of these foods tend to be dampening and this effect is made even worse if greasy addition, such as pepperoni, and sausage are added. In the same way, drinking fruit juices can be very dampening. Fruit and vegetable juices are another relative modern addition to the human diet. Prior to the advent of refrigeration as discussed above, juices would turn into wine or vinegar within days. Therefore when they were available in traditional societies, they were an infrequent treat. Now, we have access to tropical fruits and juices thanks to refrigeration and interstate and intercontinental transportation. However, we should bear in mind that we would not eat 4–6 oranges in a single sitting nor every day. When we drink a glass of orange juice, tomato juice, apple juice or carrot juice that is exactly what we are doing. We are drinking the nutritive essence of not one but a number of fruits or vegetables. This over-nutrition typically results in the formation of the pathogenic dampness and phlegm.

Meats are so nutritious and very much supplement body function and blood. They also tend to be damp in the same way. The fatter and richer meat is, the more it tends to generate dampness within the body. Amongst the common domestic mammalian meats, pork is the dampest with beef coming in second. Therefore, it is important not to eat too much meat and especially not greasy, fatty meats. Most people do fine on 2 ounces of meat, 3–4 times per week.  On the other hand, eating only poultry and fish is not such a good idea either. Everything is this world has its good and bad points. Poultry and fish tend to be less dampening and phlegmatic, it is true, but chicken, turkey and shellfish tend to be warmer. If one eats only these meats, they run the risk of becoming overheated. I have seen this happen in clinical practice. From a Western scientific point of view, we can also say that eating too much fish may result in mercury accumulation and toxicity and overeating commercial chicken may result in too much estrogen and exposure to salmonella food-poisoning. Chinese medicine sees human beings as omnivores, and suggests that a person should eat widely and diversely on the food chain.

The Basic Healthy Diet

To sum up the traditional wisdom of Chinese dietary theory, humans should mostly eat vegetables and grains with small amounts of everything else. We should mostly eat cooked and warm food which is not too sweet, not too greasy or oily, and not too damp. In addition, we should eat moderately and chew well. It is healthy to drink a cup of warm water or a warm beverage with meals. This facilitates the formation of that body temperature (37°C) soup. But it is unhealthy to drink or eat chilled, cold and frozen drinks and foods with meals.

In general, I would emphasise that many people do not eat enough vegetables. Grains, like meat and dairy products, are highly nutritious but heavy and more difficult to digest. If overeaten they can cause accumulation of dampness and phlegm. In Asia, Daoists and Buddhists interested in longevity emphasised vegetables over grains and even modern Chinese books on geriatrics recommend that more vegetables should be consumed.

Amongst the grains, rice holds an especially healthy place. Because it promotes diuresis, it tends to leech off excess dampness. Basmati, brown or jasmine rice are recommended. Other grains, in comparison, tend to produce dampness, as a by-product of their being so nutritious. This ability of rice to help eliminate dampness through diuresis becomes more important the more other dampening foods one eats.

Eating mostly cooked grains and vegetables with only a small amount of animal protein and fats and oils is referred to as a Qing Dan diet, which literally means pure and bland diet.


Coffee has a debilitating effect on both the middle and lower burners. Spleen yang is chilled and kidney yin and yang are exhausted by the consumption of coffee. Using coffee as an energy boost is like continually dipping into one’s savings or capital. Eventually such profligate deficit spending leaves one’s internal economy bankrupt.

For further reading on this subject, see The Tao of Healthy Eating: a Guide to Healthy Eating According to Chinese Medicine by Bob Flaws. This book also contains more information about the following common patterns and appropriate Chinese therapeutic diets.

Also Helping Ourselves: A Guide to Traditional Chinese Food Energetics and Recipes for Self Healing by Daverick Leggett.