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Chinese Nutrition and Cuisine

Health in Traditional Chinese Medicine

In the traditional Chinese approach to health, good nutrition and living habits are essential to maintaining a balanced flow of qi (pronounced “chee”), the essential life force, through the body. Qi is a Taoist concept of life energy that is present in all of nature. Qi responds to the natural forces of yin and yang and is a part of every activity, every food, every aspect of life. In the Chinese system, health maintenance derives from good unity and balance of the body, mind and energy (qi) through the integration of nutrition and medicine. A balanced diet is defined in this system as one in which Yin—dark, cold and passive—and Yang—light, heat and active—are consumed in a balance that harmonizes with the foods a person needs. These counterparts also regulate two very important oppositions in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and modern Chinese nutrition: hot versus cold.i. (PIC: Yin/Yang)

Photo courtesy of Yvette Kuan

Chinese Concepts of Food

Foods not only give strength and energy, but also have the power to heal and help an individual regain Yin-Yang balance for a healthy body.
The balance achieved through combining TCM and nutrition designates four uses of food: “food as diet, food as tonic, food as medicine, and food abstention” . As diet, nutrition is sustenance and energy; tonic is ease for those people with general weakness (like the elderly) with bland/plain foods. Nutrition as medicine uses special foods and combinations that prevent illnesses and correct imbalances, and abstention is avoiding foods that will increase the likelihood of imbalance.

Food as medicine

TCM philosophy takes an intuitionist route in achieving health and longevity through diet. Because food is used as tonic, it serves to provide a source of balance and equilibrium for the smooth flow of qi, the body’s energy. An imbalance of yin and yang can result in blocked qi that manifests itself in various forms: pain, tumor, bleeding, etc. Food as medicine, then, must be prepared with great care: using diverse and particular herbs prescribed for the ailment by Chinese medicine that are then slow-cooked with traditional foods to preserve all of the essential and beneficial qualities of each ingredient. And food is seen as a much more fortifying and resourceful means to combating illness than medicine.

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Hot and cold foods

Hot and cold are not references to the actual temperature of the food; they are rated by their effect on the body. Lists of classifications of foods along this continuum exist today, but disagreement has caused “frequent modern dismissal of the whole system as sheer superstition”(Anderson 190). Generally speaking, hot foods are used to treat pallor and weakness. Higher in calories, these foods provide more energy for activity, but can be generalized as anything that could “standardly be used in winter to make one feel warm”(Anderson 191). Cold foods are simply the opposite, providing low-energy, and are usually vegetables, raw or lightly cooked. Cold foods help balance the heated foods and provide essential vitamins and minerals found in vegetables and fruit. Neutral foods are classified “as the great mainstays, starch staples and ordinary white-fleshed fish” that should be consumed daily. A healthy person maintains a neutral state, eating the traditional neutral cereal, and balancing his or her intake of hot and cold foods.
Eating too many ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ foods will have adverse effects. A person diagnosed with being too hot (common ailments characterized by /identified as overheating, anxiety, constipation and other binding conditions) may eat too many saturated fats and sugars that are highly caloric. Too cool—from one eating lettuce and cabbage excessively, or over hydrating with water—and one may experience weakness, diarrhea, sloth or depression.