We are all familiar with the phrase “you are what you eat”. In all cultures, we recognise that the food we take in can have a profound effect on our body and health. In mainstream western anatomy, doctors often advise us to take in a balance of carbohydrates, meats, vegetables and fruits. Likewise, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physicians also advise us to take in a balance of foods. However, their classification is very different from that of western food classification.
The Overlapping Nature of Food & Medicine
In western medicine, the term “medicine” refers to drugs or other prescriptions from doctors as a means to alleviate or eliminate an illness’s symptoms.
The western view of medicine contrasts with TCM which sees food and medicine as the same thing. All food have particular medicinal properties that can be use to strategically keep your body in a healthy state. This belief stems from the origins of Chinese medicine, where herbs were gathered and used to relieve illnesses. In this way, these herbs were both food and medicine for the human body. An example would be that of the ever popular watermelon, which in addition to be a yummy fruit, also has hydrating properties.
Additionally, TCM has not just one, but rather multiple principles or concepts for food. In this article, we will be exploring the different TCM food concepts and how you can achieve good health through food consumption.
Nutrition for your Organs
When determining the effect that food might have on your body’s organs, TCM categorises food by the taste. 5 primary groups exist – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and spicy, their individual effects are as follows:
- Sweet food enters the stomach and spleen, helping to lubricate the body.
- Sour food enters the liver while easing sweating and coughing
- Salty food enters the kidney, helping to drain and purge masses
- Bitter food enters the heart and small intestine, assisting to cool the body and dry dampness
- Spicy food enters the lunges and large intestine, it is an excellent for stimulating your appetite
As demonstrated here, food helps to nourish your body and aid many of its internal functions. When any of them are lacking, you can expect the associated body’s functions to struggle.
In TCM, food can be segmented into 3 different types – cool, warm and neutral. Interestingly, food is not categorised into these 3 types according to their actual temperature or their actual form. Rather, TCM determines the nature of food by the effect that it has on our human body after consuming them.
As covered earlier, when you consume warm food, your body heats up in response. Hence, if you take in too much warm food, your body typically feels hot all day and sweats easily. Furthermore, you might also have symptoms such as a swollen tongue or constipation.
Yet warm food does provide plenty of benefits to the human body. For starters, it nourishes the Qi of our organs and improves circulation within the body. In essence, your body’s organs will be receiving the life energy it needs in order to function optimally.
Examples of warm food sources include:
- Fruits – lychee, mango and peach
- Vegetables – onions, chives and pumpkins
- Meat & Seafood – chicken, venison prawns and mussels
- Spices – black pepper, sugar, garlic, vinegar and ginger
In contrast, cold food lower the temperature of your body. Signs of over consumption of cold food would include pale skin and cold hands or feet. Furthermore, symptoms would include feeling lethargic and having poor blood circulation.
Cold food also brings benefits to your body, including calming the blood’s circulation, clearing toxins and removing heat. As such, it lowers your body’s activity when it is in overdrive.
Examples of cold food sources include:
- Fruits – apple, watermelon and banana
- Vegetables – Lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and spinach
- Grains & seeds – barley, millet, wheat and tofu
- Dairy – cheese, egg whites and yoghurt
- Spices – Salt, sesame oil and soya sauce
Finally, neutral food don’t have any particular effect on your body’s temperature. Here are examples of neutral food:
- Fruits – grapes, olives, berries and plums
- Vegetables – potatoes, turnip and black fungus mushroom
- Grains & seeds – almonds, black sesame, peanut and rice
- Meat & seafood – beef, pork, fish, duck and scallop
- Spices – honey, peanut oil and saffron
Getting the Right Balance
In TCM, the concepts of balance and harmony are critical to keeping your body healthy. However, that is not to say that you should eat equal amounts of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy warm and cold food. Instead, your diet composition should be dependent on the inherent condition of your body as well as the environment that you are in. Essentially, your food intake should help to balance the body and thus some types of food are needed more than others.
Other than your body’s inherent conditions, the time of the year also affects your body’s constitution. This is especially evident in countries with 4 seasons or even tropical climates that have periods of rain or dryness. Examples of how climates affect the type of food we should consume include:
- For hot and dry climates, hydrating food such as watermelon and cucumber is recommended.
- For wet climates, drying food such as corn and onions should be consumed.
- For dry and cool climates, honey is great.
- For cold climates, warm food such as beef and shrimps are excellent for heating our body up.
Oftentimes, the local cuisine of the area reflects many of these beliefs. For example, in Sichuan, China, the climate tends to be both wet and cold. As a result, the local cuisine is spicy and sweet, helping tow arm up the body and remove dampness.
TCM recognises that everyone is inherently different, with each body type requiring a different intake of food. 2 examples are provided as follows:
- A person who has excess damp and phlegm, your body will likely be overweight combined with a sweaty and oily complexion.
- A person with dampness and heat usually suffer from having a short temper and are plagued by oily and acned facial skin.
In both cases, we would recommend that you consume food that removes dampness. As such, to maintain harmony in your body, you would have a disproportional diet. In this case, consuming more ginger to dry your body would be one way to go about it.
Trust Tong Jum Chew For All Your TCM Needs
Tong Jum Chew was founded in 1965 as a medical hall. Since then, it has grown into a manufacturer and distributor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and health supplements. We boast a modern manufacturing facility in Singapore that includes a clean room environment. All products are produced using modern machinery and undergo stringent checks to ensure that they are safe for consumption or usage.