Healthy Eating From the Lens of Chinese Medicine

With so many healthy diet theories flying around these days, it can be hard to know what is actually good for our bodies. Here's a completely different view of food, one that's been established for thousands of years.

Living in a world with countless healthy diet theories are flying around, it's sometimes hard to know what is really good for our bodies. Butter is bad, butter is good; diet coke is good, diet coke is bad; raw food is bad, raw food is good.

Our views on healthy food change all the time, often depending on the newest clinical research findings. We know all about fat, carbohydrates, proteins, minerals and vitamins, but no matter how advanced our knowledge on food is, there are always studies that introduce something new and diet theories that get debunked. What do our bodies really need? That's a question to which we could never seem to find an answer.

The Chinese have their own answer to healthy eating, with concepts strongly related to traditional Chinese medicine. They are probably the most hard-core supporters of the saying “You are what you eat,” regardless of whether they really follow that advice.

1. Food is medicine, medicine is food

In contrast with western medicine, the role of food and medicine in traditional Chinese medicine overlap. For example, a water melon is food, but it can also have a medical effect during hot days because of its hydrating properties.

The ancient clans of China, dating back to 2200 BC, started to discover the different medical values of herbs while they were still hunting and gathering. Some foods relieved their illness, some caused death. Over time, and in concourse with the growth of Chinese philosophy, medical theories were developed.

However, there are also some foods that are considered more "medicine" than "food," for example, ginseng. When it comes to this "medicine," a person should consult a practitioner, since eating it could make your body worse. Why? Foods have different natures, and all of us have different bodies that interact differently with different foods.

2. The four natures of food

In traditional Chinese medicine, food is divided into five natures, called "si qi": cold, cool, neutral, warm and hot. The nature of food is not determined by their actual temperature, but rather by what effects they have on a person's body after consumption. When a person continually eats one type of food, it creates an imbalance in their body, and affects their immune system. Thus, one of the keys in Chinese medicine is to keep our body "neutral."

Foods that are warm and hot bring heat to our bodies -- e.g. beef, coffee, ginger, hot chilies and fried foods -- while cold and cool foods cool down our bodies-- think of salad, cheese, green tea, and beer. Neutral foods are foods like oil, rice, pork and most kinds of fishes.

A person who has too much heat in their body usually feels hot, sweats all the time, is grumpy, has a swollen tongue, or could be constipated. People who have too much cold in their bodies appear pale, have cold hands and feet, might feel weak, or have bad blood circulation. When this happens, we are advised to stop eating that kind of food.