TCM Nutrition: What You Need To Know

Poor nutrition, as well as over-nutrition, in the US has many people looking for other ways and methods of eating healthy.  One option is through Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) style nutrition and dietetics, a highly individualized method of eating to suite the body’s needs and health issues.  In eastern medicine, there is a particular emphasis on how the food is produced, and how the food affects the body once consumed. 

How does TCM Nutrition work?

            As we stated above, both east and west believe in balance when it comes to proper nutrition, and in TCM, it focuses on the properties of the food. This means balancing “cool” and “hot” foods as well as “yin” and “yang” foods which will bring one to optimal health. It is believed that food has the power to energize, strengthen, and heal.

The idea of yin-yang balanced foods allows one to achieve harmony in the body and mind, and are qualities that shape everything in the universe, not least of which is one’s health. These foods help prevent certain conditions while allowing the body to heal.

Properties of Yin and Yang in TCM nutrition:

  • The dark/shaded side of the yin-yang symbol signifying femininity, dampness, coolness, darkness, and softness.

  • Yin foods are cool and will moisten the body.

  • Yin (cool) foods are also normally recommended in hot weather, and are generally high in potassium and low in calories

  • Common yin foods include: meats such as crab or duck, soy products such as soybean sprouts or tofu, vegetables such as watercress, carrots, cabbage, and cucumbers, fruit such as watermelon, cold drinks, and water.
  • The light/unshaded side of the yin-yang symbol signifying masculinity, warmth, light, dryness, and hardness.

  • Yang foods are drying and warm.

  • Yang (hot) foods are normally recommended in cold months of the year to help warm the body, and tend to be higher in sodium and calories.

  • Common yang foods include: warm spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, alcoholic beverages, certain meats such as chicken, pork, and beef, eggs, sesame oil, bamboo, mushrooms, glutinous rice, and most foods are high in fat, protein, sodium, and calories.

TCM providers usually believe meals should be 3 parts yang foods & 2 parts yin foods, and it is vital to restore yin-yang balance through the foods a patient eats to fuel good nutrition. Eating too many of either yin or yang foods can cause adverse effects on one’s health and throw the body out of balance.

TCM Nutrition Tastes & the Elements

            TCM nutrition classifies foods in five basic flavors including bitter, sweet, pungent, salty, and sour. Sometimes there is an additional bland flavor that is added to these five helping the areas that the other five flavors cannot reach. Foods can incorporate all five flavors or have just one. There are also certain tastes of foods that are drawn to certain meridians, therefore truly creating a personalized nutrition plan.

Meridians & their flavor profiles in general:

  • Salty – tends to lean toward the Kidneys and Bladder

  • Sour – tends to lean toward the Liver and Gall Bladder

  • Spicy – tends to lean toward the Lungs and Large Intestine

  • Bitter – tends to lean toward the Heart and Small Intestine

  • Sweet – tends to lean toward the Spleen and Stomach

The five-element theory is also used by many practitioners for diagnosis when there are conflicting signs and symptoms within a patient. When it comes to nutrition, this theory gives a framework for making food choices that will be most beneficial to the patient at any given time.

Five element theory in TCM nutrition flavors:

  • BitterFire element – these foods usually encourage contraction and descension of energy, and they are usually cooling foods (yin). Some foods in this category include corn, red lentils, pistachios, beets, tomatoes, sunflower seeds, amaranth, red bell peppers, and scallions. Foods to use caution with in this element are chocolate and sugar.

  • PungentMetal element – these foods usually encourage energy to move outward and expand, and the foods are usually warming (yang). Some foods in this category include rice, navy beans, soy beans, almonds, radish, asparagus, broccoli, cucumber, onion, banana, pear, and apricot. A food to use caution with in this element are eggs.

  • SourWood element – these foods usually encourage energy to collect and contract, and the foods are usually cooling (yin). Some foods in this category are wheat, rye, green lentils, mung beans, brazil nuts, cashew nuts, lettuce, string beans, zucchini, peas, avocado, grapes, lemon, and lime. Food to use with caution in this category is soft dairy.

  • SweetEarth element – these foods usually encourage energy to expand outward and upward, and the foods are usually strengthening (yang). Some foods in this category include barley, garbanzo beans, peas, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, carrots, rutabaga, spinach, squash, cabbage, figs, orange, pineapples and strawberries. Food to use caution with in this element is meat.

  • SaltyWater element – these foods usually encourage energy to move down and in, and the foods are usually cooling (yin).  Some foods in this category include buckwheat, black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, black sesame seeds, walnuts, kale, mushrooms, seaweed, water chestnuts, pomegranate, raspberries, and watermelon. Food to use caution with in this element would be cheese.

Certain tastes in the traditional TCM nutrition format or in the five elemental diagnosis have particular properties. Example being bitter herbs and foods tend to be drying and cold in nature which means they’re ideal for treating damp heat conditions. Ultimately it is important to have patients use a gradual and comfortable transition to a new nutrition plan as sudden changes tends to shock the body. Help them to purify the body first and foremost by eating liver-cleansing foods such as beets and carrots while working in other healing aspects like herbs and acupuncture.

TCM Nutrition vs. Western Nutrition

            Nutrition based on traditional Chinese medicine relies on constitution, lifestyle, environment, season, and climate which require a unique diet for each person.  A diet based on the individuals unique constitution can help bring balance and healing to the body.

Equal importance is placed on the origin and production of food.  While your ability to digest and assimilate nutrients is important, that is not the only component TCM practitioners evaluate. 

TCM practitioners consider the following when making a diagnosis:

  • How the food is grown

  • When the food is grown

  • Where the food is grown

  • Where the food is raised

  • How the food is prepared

  • When the food is consumed

  • The body’s response to the foods being eaten

Appropriately timing meals, taking the time to enjoy food & not multitasking while eating is essential. The main thing to remember with TCM nutrition is the simple fact that an optimal & universal diet does not exist, but rather each diet must be designed individually based on the aforementioned properties.

Conversely, in western nutrition, their main understanding of nutrition is determined & classified by science.

Western approach to nutrition is based on its chemical composition with things like:

  • Calories

  • Carbohydrates

  • Proteins

  • Fats

  • Vitamins and minerals the food contains.

According to the National Institutes of Health, food components can directly change physiological functions through interactions with the body’s molecular structure, which is different from patient to patient on a genetic level.  Basically, this showed researchers in the west that individualized nutrition is needed.  Traditionally, dietitians are used to help patients with weight loss, diet plans, and to ultimately ensure the patient receives optimal nutrition considering their current health status. 

For patients seeking a traditional Chinese medicine nutritional approach based on their current constitution, finding a licensed acupuncture/TCM provider can help with this goal.

TCM Nutrition in the U.S.

            While it seems both approaches to nutrition desire to establish balance within the patient, TCM was ahead of its time with individualized care.  Currently, emerging nutrigenomics studies begin to address discrepancies between patient responses to certain nutrition plans, and more is discovered every day on how nutrition can impact ones life.

One thing is for certain: following a individualized TCM nutrition guide made just for you may significantly change the way they look, feel, and think about your health.

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