One of the things I most like about TCM is the recognition of individuality.
This also extends to dietary considerations. There are no "one size fits
all" herbal regiments or diets in TCM. Everything is tailored to the
individual's needs, and it's recognized that individual needs can differ
The Chinese viewpoint of a balanced diet is very different from that in the
West. In the Chinese system, a balanced diet is one which includes all 5
tastes - spicy, sour, bitter, sweet, and salty. Foods and herbs which have
a particular taste tend to have particular properties. For example, bitter
herbs and foods tend to be drying and Cold. This tends to make them good
for treating Damp Heat conditions, but contraindicated for people who are
too Cold and/or too Dry. Many of them have antibiotic-like properties. On
the other hand, the herbs and foods with a salty taste tend to be warming
and moistening. This tends to make them great for treating people who
suffer from Cold and Dryness, but they should be used cautiously in people
who are Hot and Damp.
In addition to the 5 basic flavors, a bland taste is recognized. These
herbs and foods tend to have the effect of being able to go places in the
body where other tastes cannot go and of draining Dampness. Also, some
authorities differentiate between sour and astringent instead of lumping
both these tastes under sour. Sour-tasting herbs and foods tend to have
heating energy and be moistening. Astringent herbs and foods tend to be
cooling and drying. (These remarks about taste are general because there
A food or herb can have more than one taste. For example, the herb Wu Wei
Zi is prized because it contains all 5 tastes. In fact, its name
translates as Five Flavor Seed. (The pharmaceutical name is Fructus
Schizandrae. AKA schizandra.)
The Chinese idea of a balanced diet is one which includes all 5 tastes.
But, the ratio of those tastes are going to vary according the the
individual's needs and the season of the year. A person who is Yang
Deficient is going to need a higher proportion of foods with Yang energy
than other people do. These Yang energy foods will supply Yang energy s/he
lacks and help the person obtain balance. On the other hand, a person who
is Yin Deficient will need a higher proportion of foods with Yin energy. A
person with Dampness problems needs to go easy on the foods and herbs with
sweet, salty, and/or sour tastes because these tend to be moistening. A
person with Dampness problems does not need an excessive amount of foods and
herbs with moistening qualities adding to the Dampness. On the other hand,
these foods and tastes can be great for some people suffering from Dryness.
(There are exceptions. Everything is carefully tailored for the individual.
You also still have to keep in mind if the person is too Hot or too Cold.
Even though they all three tend to moisten, salty and sour tend to be
heating, but sweet tends to be cooling. Sour tends to be more heating than
salty so one really needs to watch out for sour in cases of Damp Heat. )
On the other hand, the foods with astringent, spicy, and bitter tastes can be
great for people who are too Damp but good for people who are too Dry.
Again, you also consider the thermal energy. The astringent herbs and foods
tend to be cooling, the bitter herbs even more so than the astringent, and
the spicy herbs and foods tend to be very heating.
From the preceding paragraphs, it's obvious that a large part of TCM is
balancing opposites out. Balance Yang Deficiency with herbs and foods rich
in Yang energy. Eat more Yang foods during the winter, the most Yin time of
the year, and eat more Yin foods during the summer, the most Yang time of
the year. But sometimes, it's appropriate to be in tune with the season -
eating Yin foods during the winter and Yang foods during the summer. TCM is
tailored to individual needs.
In general, meats tend to be Yang and veggies tend to be Yin. But the way
food is prepared also affects the amount of Yang or Yin energy it has.
Frying tends to increase Yang, and steaming tends to increase Yin. Thus,
stir-fried veggies are more Yang than steamed veggies. A person who is Yang
Deficient would tend to stir-fry the vegetables s/he eats whereas a person
who is Yin Deficient would tend to benefit from eating more steamed veggies
than stir-fried ones. Food which is served cooked and warm are more warming
than foods which are raw and cold. For example, celery which is cooked in a
stir-fried dish which is served warm is going to be more warming and more
Yang than celery served raw in a cold salad.
In addition, certain tastes have an affinity for certain Organ systems in
the body. For example, the salty taste has an affinity for the Kidneys (and
Bladder). Sometimes dishes are salted in order to get the properties of the
food to the Kidneys. It's also a common practice for a person who has
certain Kidney imbalances to take a little salt along with herbal teas which
are tonic to the Kidneys. Sour tends to have an affinity for the Liver and
Gall Bladder. (Want to really watch this one in cases of gall stones or Damp
Heat affecting the Liver.) Bitter has an affinity for the Heart and Small
Intestine, spicy for the Lungs and Large Intestine, and sweet for the Spleen
(aka Spleen-Pancreas) and Stomach. (Note: These are very, very general
There are no absolutely forbidden foods or "one size fits all" diets in TCM.
Sometimes even sugar is included in an herbal formula because the person
needs it. (This almost never happens in the U.S., but in other countries
sugar can be a medicine for some individuals. It's so excessive in the U.S.
that here it often is a "poison".)
Even in the West there aren't really any "one size fits all" diets, just
people the mistaken belief that we're all the same - like interchangeable
parts on a factory line. For example, salt is harmful for many people and
will raise blood pressure in many individuals. These people will benefit
from a low salt diet. But a low salt diet can have a devastating effect on
people with adrenal insufficiency or Neurally Mediated Hypotension. Most
people need to drink more water, but some people - like those with epilepsy
- can be harmed by this practice (if they aren't very careful to eat
something at the same time, even if it's just a cracker). Some people
require more fat in the diet than others. Children in particular can
develop health and growth problems when overzealous parents limit fat intake
too much in their diets. Some people have greater than normal needs for
certain vitamins or minerals because of genetics or because of an assault to
their systems. A shortage of iodine can cause goiter, but too much can
trigger some cases of hyperthyroidism. Etc.
But you can eat the wrong things at the wrong time and
aggravate an existing condition.
Author, Giovanni Maciocia writes in "The Foundations of Chinese Medicine" (p. 33)
"Certain precautions should be used when choosing foods as these are
consumed regularly over a long period of time and have therefore a deep and
long-lasting effect on the body's functions. The same precautions apply if
a certain herbal treatment is applied over a long period of time." (In
other words, there's wisdom in following a varied diet not only from a
Western standpoint of allergies and/or a range of nutrients but from a TCM
"The sour taste goes to the nerves and can upset the Liver, so it should be
used sparingly if a person suffers from chronic pain.
"The bitter taste goes to the bones, and an excess of it should be avoided
in bone diseases.
"The sweet taste goes to the muscles and an excess of it can cause weakness
of the muscles.
"The pungent taste scatters Qi and should be avoided in Qi deficiency.
"The salty taste can dry the Blood, and should be avoided in Blood
"The 'Spiritual Axis' in chapter 56 deals with the effect of the five
tastes. It says: 'The sour taste goes to the Liver, the bitter taste goes
to the Heart, the sweet taste goes to the Spleen, the pungent taste goes to
the Lungs, the salty taste goes to the Kidneys ... if the Liver is diseased
one should not eat pungent foods, if the Heart is diseased one should not eat
salty foods, if the Spleen is diseased one should not eat sour foods, if the
Kidney is diseased one should not eat sweet foods, if the Lung is diseased
one should not eat bitter foods'."
Some readers may be wondering about the restriction on spicy food in cases
of Liver disease when spicy has an affinity for the Lungs, the restriction
on salty foods in cases of Heart disease when salty has an affinity for the
Kidneys, the restriction on sour for Spleen diseases when its the Liver that
has an affinity with the sour taste, etc. These restrictions have to do
with the Victor-Vanquished rule of the 5 Elements. What is the Victor-Vanquished rule?
Basically, it has to do
with Organ systems having an inverse relationship with each other. When one
gets stronger, the other gets weakened in Victor-Vanquished relationships.
For example, if too much energy accumulates in the Liver, it can attack the
Spleen. The term for this is Liver Invading the Spleen (because the Liver
is too strong - the Liver also can Invade the Spleen because the Spleen is
too weak). In any event, Liver Invading the Spleen wrecks havoc with the
digestion and can be painful. If a person with a weak Spleen eats something
sour (which has an affinity with the Liver) it's energizing the Liver and
weakening the Spleen still more because of this inverse, Victor-Vanquished
relationship between the Liver and the Spleen. (Note: Sometimes the Element
which normally is the Vanquished will turn the tables on the Element which
normally is the Victor in these relationships. When this happens it's
referred to as "Insulting". In this case Earth (Spleen) Insulting Wood
Note: In TCM diet is considered the first line of defense in health matters.
In some cases the person will have to straighten out the diet before the
herbs can work properly or before the medicinal herbs are even given.