A balanced diet plays a huge role in your health, and that applies as much to Traditional Chinese Medicine as it does to every other form of medicine. As the saying goes, “You are what you eat”, only with TCM, it’s a little more complicated than that. With a balanced diet, you can greatly improve your wellbeing, and with TCM, the word “balanced” applies not just to the fats, fibers, proteins and carbohydrates that you eat, but also to the Yin and Yang of the food. The energy, flavor and movement of the food you eat is also essential to maintaining good health.
Yin and Yang
The opposing but interconnected forces of Yin and Yang are important in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and when it comes to diet, foods are labelled either Yin, Yang or a balance of the two. These foods also have an energy to them, which is very important when balancing the heat in your body.
There are five energies:
- Yin — Cold: Foods with a cold energy can help with severe heat problems. These include hot flashes, irritable skin, burning pain and fever. Foods in this category include tomato, lettuce, snail, watercress, banana, water chestnut and lotus root.
- Yin — Cool: As with the cold energy, this can assist with heat problems such as redness, rashes and itchiness. The foods found in this category include barley, wheat, mango, mushrooms, apple, Chinese cabbage and cauliflower.
- Balanced — Neutral: This category includes foods such as corn, taro, pork, duck, sea shrimps and cashew nuts. Neutral foods have a balance of Yin and Yang and can help to maintain the balance of these two forces in your body.
- Yang — Warm: If you are always feeling cold, if you have shivers, a pale face or stiffness, then you may have an excess of Yin, which means that Yang foods with warm and hot energies can help. Warm foods include coriander, leeks, spearmint, apricot, peach and cherry.
- Yang — Hot: These foods can help with the more extreme cold conditions and includes foods that have a fiery taste to them, including black pepper, cinnamon, and dried ginger.
Of course, it wouldn’t be practical to consult a list every time you eat just to discover if the food is cold, cool, neutral, warm or hot. There are ways you can figure it out for yourself though, which will make it much easier. Essentially, if it grows in the sunshine and air, then it is Yang; if it grows in the dirt and in complete darkness, then it is Yin. Also, if it is hot, dry, spicy and hard then it could be Yang, whereas if the opposite is true then it could be Yin.
The Five Flavors
Flavors are obviously very important to enjoying a meal, but they can also help with the balance of Yin and Yang and with the flow of Qi through your meridians. There are five main flavors in total, and these affect different organs in your body. They also have different effects, and can therefore be used to assist with a number of illnesses and complaints.
The five main flavors are:
- Pungent: Affecting the lungs and large intestine, pungent flavors can help to stimulate the appetite, to help with circulation and to promote distribution of nutrients through your body. Pungent is pretty self-explanatory as it covers foods with a strong taste such as fresh ginger, spearmint and chili pepper. However, there are also less than obvious inclusions, such as sweet peppers, wine and turnips.
- Sweet: Affecting the stomach and spleen, sweet foods include honey, sweet potato, sugar, peas and many sweet fruits and vegetables. As well as nourishing the body, these foods can also diminish or eradicate the effects of toxic food and substances.
- Sour: This group is connected to the liver and gall bladder and can stop the discharge of bodily fluids. This means that this food group is very helpful when you are suffering from heavy sweats, diarrhea and other discharges. This category includes lemons, tomatoes, pineapples and other foods that have a strong citrus or acidic flavor.
- Bitter: Affecting the heart and the small intestine, bitter foods can help with digestion and can also help with urination and bowel problems. They include foods like bergamot, vinegar and bitter gourd.
- Salty: Affecting the kidney and the bladder, salty foods can help to eradicate accumulations, which includes conditions such as constipation. It can also nourish the blood and the intestines. It includes meats such as duck, pig organs and sea clams, as well as kelp, millet and barley.
Not all foods have a single group, and some foods can be grouped into more than one category. Wine, for instance, is both bitter and pungent. Although the above list covers the five main flavors, there are other flavors as well. These include “Bland” (such as cucumber, which is also “Sweet”) and “Aromatic” (which includes many herbs and spices that are also categorized into other groups). Bland foods can be used as diuretics, assisting with urination and ridding the body of toxic substances, whilst Aromatic foods can promote the flow of Qi and awaken the senses.
Food moves around the body and drive Qi as they do so. These movements are therefore very important to your overall wellbeing. Food movements can also be used to treat a number of ailments. The way certain foods move, the directions they move in and the food examples, have been discussed below:
- Lifting Movements: These foods move upwards throughout the body, starting low and pushing towards the top. It can help with diarrhea and these movements can also help to firm and stabilize organs. Warm foods, such as sweet foods and pungent foods, are included in this section, and wine is a good example of a lifting food.
- Floating Movements: This foods move from the inside out, helping the body to sweat out heat and toxic substances. Pungent foods and other warming foods are included in this group, with onions, green onions and ginger being a good example.
- Lowering Movements: Opposite to the lifting movements, these move up to down, and can suppress things such as coughing and vomiting. Cool and cold foods are included in this category, with means that sour, bitter and salty foods such as vinegar and coffee are good examples.
- Sinking Movements: Opposite to the floating movement, this works from outside to in, and can help with bowel movements, relieving constipation and other conditions. Cool and cold foods are good examples of the foods that providing sinking movements, which means that gingko, grapes and peaches are prime examples.
There are other movements as well, although these are not as common. They include “Sliding” foods, a category that includes milk, banana and honey. These act as a lubricant and are therefore very good for ridding the body of build-ups such as in constipation. Foods can also change their movements through processing, cooking and preparation. For example, coating something in oil and frying it is likely to have an effect on its movement and maybe even on its energy. This is why it is better to enjoy foods in their most natural form, particularly when you are treating these foods as medicines.