Functional Eating According to Traditional Chinese Medicine

In the upcoming series of columns, I want to give you an insight into the workings of the nutritional teachings of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). 

TCM is a huge concept of thought with all sorts of different interpretations and elaborations. 

It will never be fully complete, and it may rub shoulders with your own ideas. It is not a diet; it is about simple adjustments within your diet that can alleviate a complaint or better protect you against illness. 

Chinese nutrition is a Functional Food System. Just as we learn at TFY that postures are for everybody but in a slightly different way between individuals, the same is true in Chinese medicine: no one is the same. My approach is to demonstrate simple adjustments using short practical examples. The goal is to make you curious and playfully discover what works or doesn’t work for you. Just like yoga.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a 3000-year-old healing method based on the holistic principle that everything is energy, and that body and mind are inseparable. Physical complaints often have a mental cause, but physical complaints also cause emotional and energetic blockages.

The principle of life energy (Qi in TCM; for the yogi, Prana) plays a major role here. Qi consists of the movement of the yin and yang forces which ideally work together smoothly. However, this balance is often disturbed by emotions, lifestyle, thoughts, food and environment. 

Through insights and dietary adjustments, patients gain self-control over their health and symptoms can be reduced or avoided

The search for balance is the main idea of TCM. This is the balance between yin and yang. Because we sometimes have too much of one or too little of the other, we get symptoms of imbalance or even illness. The most well-known treatment method of  TCM for this restoration of balance is acupuncture. Less well known are herbs, moxa and cupping. But perhaps most unfamiliar is Chinese nutritional medicine. 

This teaching is based on the idea of independence from doctor and medication. Through insights and dietary adjustments, patients gain self-control over their health and symptoms can be reduced or avoided.

In nutrition, we look at the yin and yang components in food. Is something yin (cold) or is something yang (hot) in nature. Other important aspects of nutrition are the energetics of food, the climate where a product comes from, the method of preparation and the climate/season in which the product is eaten. 

How do you determine the energetic temperature of a food? It’s easier than you think; however, you must look at it in a different way than you might be used to. You can start from a set of rules. 

What takes more time to grow, such as carrots, beets, and parsnips is warmer than fast-growing produce such as lettuce and cucumber.  The more moisture a produce has, the cooler it is. A pumpkin has less moisture than a zucchini. Products from warm climates are cooler, such as bananas and oranges. The closer to the equator, the cooler it tends to be. Cooking techniques also determine temperature. For example, raw food is cooler than cooked food. 

Now that you have a small indication of the qualification of food, you can apply this to your own diet. Too much yin? Then more yang food is good for you and vice versa. But how do you know if you have too much yin or too much yang? This is indeed tricky, but I hope to get you started with some examples. 

each organ has its own season, qualities, tastes, emotions, movement and a yin or yang component

When examining the imbalance, a TCM practitioner looks at which organ is affected. This organ has very specific energetic and emotional properties. 

Also, each organ has its own season, qualities, tastes, emotions, movement and a yin or yang component. Thus, TCM offers a holistic approach to a person’s complaint. We look at the whole story: one’s diet and digestion, daily rhythm, emotions, thoughts, energy pattern and life cycle. 


Let’s practice with a short case study that I frequently encounter in practice: 

Maartje gets off to a somewhat slow start in the morning. She snoozes at least 3 times, and at a snail’s pace, she gets dressed. Because of this, she skips breakfast. At work, after 2 cups of coffee, she is livelier. She looks forward to lunch: with a healthy salad and some crackers, she keeps an eye on her line. But then the same feeling returns. Late afternoon she feels tired, and she is not looking forward to her yoga class. Instead, she wants to go home because her body feels heavy. She yearns for the sun because she is often cold. She is also afraid of having a lot of gas during yoga class. Lately it has been a bit embarrassing, and she is getting more and more worried. Does she have an irritable bowel? Her stool has been loose for a while now.  

Nutrition plays a big role in her energy deficit. Skipping breakfast is not a good idea if you feel tired for long periods of time; we need fuel to function. The diagnosis here is a Qi deficiency (yang). The system is not getting enough nutrition to function properly. 

It will help her to eat breakfast and preferably hot. Hot food is important to help the stomach digest. It takes less energy than, say, a cold yogurt with fruit, which must be warmed in the body first. Not only in terms of temperature, but the fruit has an energetic cold. You can eat your oatmeal with warmed fruit or a little cinnamon. Be careful about adding warm spices if you are menopausal and suffering from hot flashes, for example. If you must eat yogurt, make sure it is plant-based and not straight from the refrigerator. For example, put the yogurt in a container outside the refrigerator the night before.  

Insufficient nutrition can cause a weak spleen/stomach, making you more susceptible to fretting

Maartje’s breakfast is not only cold in nature, so is her lunch. The salad is literally cold, and also leaf lettuce is full of water because of its texture and is therefore cold because of its energy. It cools down. A soup would be much better for her. Even cooled, boiled or fried vegetables through a salad has a warming effect, should a soup not be desired. 

The spleen, the yin counterpart of the stomach, is sensitive to worries and thoughts. It helps with studying and strengthen’s memory. Insufficient nutrition can cause a weak spleen/stomach, making you more susceptible to fretting. Your concentration may decrease, and a feeling of overall heaviness may result from a weakened spleen. Relief also says a lot in this case. There is insufficient strength in the spleen/stomach to shape stools properly and digest everything well, both liquid and food. In the long run, when there is no well-formed stool and a lot of flatulence or bubbling belly, you can speak of a Qi deficiency of the spleen/stomach. 

Next time, I will discuss the Chinese diagnosis dampness in our digestive system. This one also has quite an impact on our thinking and sense of heaviness.