The idea of dietary therapy is rooted in Chinese understandings of the effects of food on the human organism. From the early ages, traditional Chinese medicine has been seeing food as the basis of good health: food is medicine and medicine is food. There are no “good” foods or “bad” foods, only appropriate or inappropriate foods for each specific individual: the very same herbal tonic or tea would be quite beneficial for one person and may cause irritation and headaches in another.
However, foods have different energetic qualities and all food items are classified as “heating” or “cooling”. Heating food is typically high-calorie, subjected to high heat in cooking, spicy or bitter, or ‘hot’ in color (red, orange)“, and includes red meat, innards, baked and deep-fried goods, and alcohol. They are to be avoided in the summer and can be used to treat “cold” illnesses like excessive pallor, watery feces, fatigue, chills, and low body temperature caused by a number of possible causes, including anemia. Green vegetables are the most typical cooling food, which is “low-calorie, watery, soothing or sour in taste, or ‘cool’ in color (whitish, green)”. They are recommended for “hot” conditions: rashes, dryness or redness of skin, heartburns, and other “symptoms similar to those of a burn”, but also sore throat, swollen gums, and constipation.
Just an example, take a look at what is included into the diet to cool liver heat: mung beans and sprouts, celery, seaweed, lettuce, nettle, rye bread, quinoa, amaranth, millet, cucumber, watercress, tofu, cheese, plums, mushrooms, radish, raw green vegetable juices.
There are four very important postulates in Chinese dietary therapy:
- Food has to be eaten in moderation and with pleasure.
- There is no one dietary guideline which is good for all individuals.
- Raw foods tend to be “cold” and an overconsumption of them will damage the spleen. (The spleen is an organ in our body that acts primarily as a blood filter. It plays important roles in regard to red blood cells and the immune system; it removes old red blood cells and holds a reserve of blood in case of hemorrhagic shock; and it also recycles ) In Chinese medicine the spleen is paired with the stomach and is central in the proper digestion and absorption of food. So, a diet with an overabundance of raw vegetables, juiced vegetables, raw fruits and fruit juices is going to have a negative effect on your health.
- According to the traditional Chinese medicine, a signal that the digestive system is purging more efficiently due to eating raw food is actually the signal that bowel movements became extremely loose, which is a symptom of spleen damage.
Food therapy has long been a common approach to health among Chinese people. It was the prescientific analog of modern medical nutrition therapy; that is, it was a state-of-the-art version of dietary therapy before the sciences of biology and chemistry allowed the discovery of present physiological knowledge.
In Chinese dietary therapy all foods are classified into six categories:
- Foods to promote health in general
- Foods to prevent sickness
- Foods to control disease and early symptoms of health problems
- Foods to combat adverse side effects of harsh drugs during sickness
- Foods to help gain vitality after sickness
- Foods to repair damages suffered during illness
A number of ancient Chinese cookbooks describe the effect of individual food items on human body. The earliest extant Chinese dietary text is a chapter of Sun Simiao’s Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Gold, which was completed in the 650s during the Tang dynasty. Sun’s work contains the earliest known use of the term “food therapy”. Sun stated that he wanted to present current knowledge about food so that people would first turn to food rather than drugs when suffering from a disorder. His chapter contains 154 entries divided into four sections – on fruits, vegetables, cereals, and meat – in which Sun explains the properties of individual foodstuffs.
Chinese food therapy, as well as Chinese cuisine as we now know it, evolved gradually over the centuries as new food sources and techniques were introduced, discovered, or invented.
There are no extremes in Chinese dietary therapy: all real whole foods have a place in our lives if used appropriately and in moderation. A delicious slice of cheesecake should not be included in your daily menu, but once in a while you must feed the spirit. Your body is wise and will absorb and utilize necessary nutrients and dispose the inappropriate substances. And while eating this cheesecake, never tell yourself that it is going to give you a heart attack, because it will surely damage your health. Simply enjoy it and honour the wisdom of your body, it will do you no harm.