Nutrition: A Traditional Chinese Medicine Viewpoint
As a nutritionist and unrepentant foodie, I am often asked whether a particular food is “good” or “bad.” Frequent queries involve the Pros and Cons of chocolate, coffee, dairy, meat, and carbohydrate-rich foods, such as grains and potatoes. Essentially, anything that people can't imagine a fulfilling culinary experience without.
From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) point of view, there is no such thing as an absolutely definitive "good” food or "bad” food. Since we are all unique individuals, we must ask ourselves these vital questions:
Who is eating the food?
How much are they eating?
How frequently are they consuming it?
Under what conditions are they consuming it (e.g. season, climate, emotional state, etc.)?
TCM theory asserts that foods have particular values, qualities, actions, and energies. Whether or not they are good for us is dependent on the answers to the aforementioned questions. To quote a famous Chinese proverb, "Illnesses may be the same, but the persons suffering from them are different." This is why the individual must always be taken into account when formulating a treatment plan.
TCM places a great deal of importance on the flavour of foods, as it is believed that eating certain flavours can help to balance our health and recover from illness.
One of the most popular theories in Traditional Chinese Medicine is the Five Element Theory, a compendious model that organizes all natural phenomena into five master categories reflecting patterns found in nature. Each of the five categories—corresponding to the Five Elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water—correlate with a season, climate, colour, sound, taste, internal organ, body tissue, emotion, stage of growth & development, and aspect of the soul, to name but a few.
The five Organ systems central to TCM are the Liver, the Heart, the Spleen, the Lungs, and the Kidneys. The Liver belongs to the Wood Element, the Heart to the Fire Element, the Spleen to the Earth Element, the Lungs to the Metal Element, and the Kidneys to the Water Element.
As previously stated, each Organ is paired with its own corresponding flavour, which
can help support its optimal function. According to the Huang Di Nei Jing, an ancient Chinese medical text that is often lauded as the fundamental doctrinal source for TCM, sour flavours go to the Liver first, bitter flavours go to the Heart first, sweet flavours go to the Spleen first, spicy foods go to the Lungs first, and salty flavours go to the Kidneys first.
Since certain flavours are purported to act more on one Organ than others, a craving for foods of a specific flavour may be the body’s way of trying to tell us that there is an imbalance in that Organ system.
The Liver rules the patency and/or free flow of Qi, or vital energy, in the body. TCM considers it to be an important Organ dominating the emotions. What we often refer to as “stress,” TCM habitually calls Liver Qi Stagnation. Eating sour foods, such as lemon, lime, sauerkraut, and vinegar can unblock Liver Qi and aid its circulation.
Bitter foods can help clear heat from the body, particularly from the Heart. Symptoms, such as ulcers in the mouth, heart palpitations, anxiety, and insomnia might be supported with the inclusion of bitter foods, such as dandelion leaf, mustard leaf, arugula, and endive.
TCM purports that the Spleen dominates digestion, including the transformation, transportation, and absorption of nutrients. Common symptoms of an unbalanced Spleen include digestive difficulties, lack of energy, weight gain, and edema. Naturally sweet, nutrient-dense foods, such as dates, figs, squash, and yams can help tonify Spleen Qi and improve energy levels
The Lungs are often considered the body’s first line of defense, playing a key role in fighting External Pathogenic Factors (EPFs) that can impair Lung function and cause symptoms, such as sneezing, blocked nose, cough, headache, body aches, and sore throat. Adding a little bit of spice to our cooking in the form of onions, ginger, garlic, and pepper can help the body eliminate EPFs.
The Kidneys hold a position of central importance in TCM. They store our body’s Essence and are associated with our constitution. Kidney imbalances can show up in the form of low back or knee pain, poor memory, bone & dental disorders, premature greying of hair, and impotence, as well as developmental disorders, such as stunted growth and intellectual disability. Salty foods, such as sea salt, seaweed, shrimp, and oysters, can help to tonify the Kidneys.
While I would never suggest that we discount what has been validated by nutrition science, TCM nutrition theory gives us an interesting new perspective to ruminate on. Our bodies are a phenomenal diagnostic apparatus. The question is whether or not we have the knowledge, insight, and wisdom to read it.
Kristin Jillian Shropshire, MS, ROHP, R.Ac. is a faculty member of The Institute of Holistic Nutrition and works at Glebe Health House as a Registered Nutritionist & Registered Acupuncturist.
This article was published in the February edition of The Glebe Report, pg. 31: