The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Chinese Food Therapy
He that takes medicine and neglects diet, wastes the skills of the physician. — Chinese proverb
I was raised in a culture where food is everything.
To the Chinese people, food is more than just a simple necessity of life. It embodies pleasure, solidifies social and familial ties, tells stories and passes on traditions. And above all else—food is medicine.
I remember as a child, my mother used to feed me bowls of rice porridge whenever I was sick. The gooey, warm liquids from the rice porridge would soothe my stomach when I had no appetite for anything else.
If I came down with a cold, she would steam some Asian pears with rock sugar for me to eat. The recipe worked every time, even against the most stubborn coughs. My mother always seemed to know exactly what food to eat for every type of illness. It was amazing.
As I grew older, I realized my mother was not the only one with this skill—it was common knowledge. Every adult around me seemed to have this understanding that from rice to pears and every kind of food in between—each had its own “personality” and served a specific purpose. People cooked and ate with the intention to use food to balance the body and restore health.
They called this practice “shí liáo”—Chinese food therapy.
This post contains affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Read the full (warning: it’s boring) disclosure here.
- 1. What is Chinese Food Therapy
- 2. How Chinese Food Therapy Helped Me in My Health Journey
- 3. What Are the Basic Principles of Chinese Food Therapy
- 4. How You Can Use Chinese Food Therapy to Achieve Optimum Health
- 5. Easy Chinese Food Therapy Recipes for Total Body Health
Before we go any further, I just want to emphasize that I’m not a professional TCM practitioner. I’m speaking from my own experience. Remember in no way should you take any information in this article as medical advice. Read my full disclaimer here.
Now that’s clear, shall we begin?
What is Chinese Food Therapy?
Chinese food therapy is a healing practice with roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The main idea behind Chinese food therapy is this:
We can use food to heal.
The common foods and spices we find in our gardens and supermarkets all have a role to play in determining the status of our health.
Every natural food we eat (emphasis on natural here) has its own unique properties. The key is to eat the right mix of food with properties that fit our body’s needs. If used correctly, Chinese food therapy can help us correct imbalances and create harmony within our body.
How Chinese Food Therapy Helped Me in My Health Journey
I became fascinated with Chinese food therapy while recovering from cancer in my early twenties. Before then, my knowledge of this practice was limited to whatever information my mother passed down to me.
After seeing positive effects from my mom’s special “cancer recovery recipes”, I began to develop more interest in TCM and Chinese food therapy.
I realized I needed to delve deeper into this ancient wisdom for the good of my own health. It wasn’t enough to be just a passive survivor anymore. I decided to take charge of my own health. It became a hobby of mine to read up whatever Chinese books and watch whatever documentaries I could find on TCM and Chinese food therapy.
My research helped me develop a better understanding of my own body and the impact food has on my overall wellbeing. I created a system that works for me based on my understanding of Chinese food therapy and I believe this is one of the biggest reasons why I’m still alive and kicking 10 years after cancer. And I want to share everything I’ve learned with you so you can benefit from this knowledge too!
What Are the Basic Principles of Chinese Food Therapy?
1. Yin and Yang
A fundamental principle of Chinese food therapy, or TCM in general, is that everything in our universe consists of yin and yang—two opposite and yet complementary forces that create energy and life force.
Yang is associated with light, heat, and positive while yin is linked to dark, cold, and negative. Both are necessary and neither force should exceed the other. It’s a delicate balance.
I like to think of yin and yang as the positive and negative charges on a battery. In order for a battery to work, both terminals must be present. In much the same way, both yin and yang must exist in harmony within our body in order for us to operate at an optimal level.
This is not an easy task, however.
We’re all unique and depending on our body’s constitution type, we’re going to have different balances of yin and yang within us. Other factors in our lives—stress, pollution, a bad diet, or lack of exercise—can also disrupt our balance of yin and yang.
Practitioners of TCM believe all chronic ailments ranging from mild conditions such as insomnia and acne to more serious diseases like heart disease and cancer—are caused by an imbalance of yin and yang.
This is where Chinese food therapy comes in. All natural foods have characteristics which make them fall under one of the following categories:
- Neutral (neither leaning towards yin or yang)
- Slightly yin or slightly yang,
- Moderately yin or moderately yang
- Extremely yin or extremely yang
The idea is simple:
By selecting foods that are either more yin or more yang, we can help our body restore its balance of yin and yang.
The foods that have a yin quality are cooling and moisturizing while foods with a yang quality are warming and drying. Some typical yin foods include watermelon, turnip, and seaweed, while typical yang foods include red meat, mango, and roasted nuts.
I created a list of 80 yin and yang food items as a free bonus gift for signing up to my newsletter. You can print it and hang on your fridge or save it to your phone so you can pull it up whenever you’re grocery shopping. It’s a great list to keep handy so don’t miss it!
The way we cook our foods will also affect their yin and yang properties. Raw, uncooked foods tend to be on the yin side while foods cooked on high heat—such as grilled, baked, or deep fried—tend to be more yang. You can alter the yin and yang qualities of food to some degree simply by the way you cook it.
2. The 5 Colours
Besides giving the food its characteristic appearance, the colour of the food determines the appropriate application of that particular food. This important concept in TCM and Chinese food therapy is called the “5 colours” principle.
The founder of ancient Chinese culture and the father of TCM—the “Yellow Emperor” first wrote about this concept over 3000 years ago. He believed that each naturally occurring colour in our food—red, yellow, green, white, and black—benefits a different part of our body.
The following chart will show you which colour corresponds with which vital organ. It also lists a few different kinds of food under each colour category.
A balanced, healthy person should strive to eat foods from each of these categories. But for people with a health condition related to a specific organ, they should eat more foods of the colour that’s associated with that organ.
For example, I suffered from severe anemia when I was undergoing treatment for Leukemia. During that period, I ate a lot of red beets. Why? Because red is associated with the heart and blood system. This really helped me with my energy level even though my hemoglobin level was constantly low.
Now I like to eat foods that are white, which according to the principles of “5 colours”, are good for my lungs.
This is because I have a rare condition that affects my lungs. It’s a complication from the bone marrow transplant I received almost 10 years ago.
To help maintain my lung health, I regularly eat a dish made with a type of mushroom called “snow mushroom” and Chinese almonds.
I boil the cauliflower-shaped snow mushroom with the Chinese almonds in my Instapot (or any pressure cooker will do) for an hour, until the mixture has a gelatinous consistency. This is a classic recipe in Chinese food therapy that benefits the lungs. Both ingredients are—you guessed it—white.
I’m happy to report that my condition has remained stable for the last 3 years since the diagnosis and I believe eating more white foods such as the snow mushroom definitely made a difference!
3. The 5 Tastes
The last major principle of Chinese food therapy I want to talk about in this post focuses on the 5 primary tastes found in our foods—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and pungent. Like the “5 colours” concept I mentioned above, each of these 5 tastes benefits a specific organ within our body.
One thing to remember that the tastes are flavours that come from the food itself, not from additives we put into it. So no, high fructose corn syrup doesn’t have any benefit!
Below is a chart that will show you the relationship between each taste and its associated organ.
Again, the idea is that we can enhance organ functions and achieve better overall health by using these flavours in an intentional, mindful way. For example, incorporating more sour foods into your diet will help strengthen and detoxify the liver while eating bitter foods benefits the heart and small intestines and helps with alleviating anxiety and excessive heat within the body.
Remember moderation is key here. Either too much or not enough of a particular flavour can throw the balance off.
How You Can Use Chinese Food Therapy to Achieve Optimum Health
1. Understand Your Constitution and Eat Accordingly
The first and most important thing you can do to for the good of your health is this:
Find out what your specific constitution is and plan your diet accordingly.
Here’s a detailed list of the 9 different constitutions according to TCM and the characteristics linked to each constitution.
My constitution is “yin deficiency”. How do I know this? I have most of its representative traits such as:
- Dry eyes and mouth.
- Reddish tongue with thin or no coating.
- Excessive redness and sensation of heat in the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet.
If you’re not able to figure out your exact constitution on your own, you can always consult a TCM practitioner in your area. They will be able to determine your constitution by conducting a visual exam and taking your pulse.
Once you’ve determined your specific constitution type, try to be more mindful of the yin and yang qualities of your food and how they can impact your body. There might be certain foods you’ll have to avoid and other foods you should eat more of.
Since I have a deficiency in yin, I need to include more yin foods in my diet and avoid eating too much yang foods like red meat and spices such as ginger, chili, and black pepper. But that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world if I have a steak with chili black pepper sauce once in a while (who can say no to that?). If I happen to eat some strong yang foods, I’ll just balance it out by eating some more yin foods.
2. Avoid Cold Foods and Beverages
One thing Chinese people of all ages like to do is drink warm water. I know, it seems odd, doesn’t it? I get puzzled looks from my co-workers all the time when they catch me mixing hot and cold water from the water dispenser.
What I usually tell them—without getting too deep into the whole yin and yang theory—is that cold foods or beverages have a significant cooling effect on the body. When you take in too much of these cooling foods or beverages over time, it can have a negative effect on your energy balance.
Imagine dousing a furnace with icy water all the time, the flames will reignite but eventually, that furnace is going to need some serious repair.
If you have digestive issues such as bloating and gas, or you’re a woman who suffers from painful cramps during your menstrual cycle, I encourage you to avoid cold beverages and foods for at least a couple of months. You’ll really notice an improvement in these symptoms.
3. Everything in Moderation
You’ve probably heard this a thousand times before: everything in moderation.
It might seem like a piece of simple advice but it is so profound that I must include it here.
Unlike many of the latest fad diets out there, Chinese food therapy doesn’t try to limit any type of natural food groups from our diet. Everything from meat and fish to grains and legumes has a health benefit and according to TCM, should be part of our diet. But the key is moderation.
Even if your constitution calls for eating more yin foods, don’t eat too much at once. It can lead to negative effects such as diarrhea and lack of energy. And never limit yourself to only eating foods of a particular colour or taste. If you do that, you’re going to put a strain on your system. Chinese food therapy is all about balance.
And this emphasis on balance and moderation extends to different cooking methods too. Grilling, frying, and baking will drastically increase the level of yang in the food whereas steaming and boiling won’t have the same dramatic effect. Raw, uncooked foods like salads or smoothies will have the highest levels of yin. Instead of grilling, frying or baking your meals every day, or eat nothing but salads and smoothies on the opposite side of the spectrum, aim for the middle by steaming and boiling your meals more often.Want to become healthier, lose weight, and feel better without going on a restrictive diet? Try these simple dietary principles from Traditional Chinese Medicine!
Easy Chinese Food Therapy Recipes for Total Body Health
Now that you know Chinese food therapy and its main concepts, it’s time to learn a few recipes! Here’s a great book containing more than 175 recipes to good health using the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine:
And watch the videos below for 5 simple recipes that incorporate common ingredients in Chinese food therapy.
1. Detox the liver and soothe dry, tired eyes with this chrysanthemum and goji berry tea:
2. Alleviate acne, constipation, or high blood pressure with this savoury mung bean soup recipe:
3. No energy? Try this black rice and shrimp salad:
I love watching Nigella cook!
4. Calm cough and reduce phlegm with this steamed Asian pear recipe:
Instead of rock sugar, I like to use natural honey as a substitute.
Think you’re going to give Chinese food therapy a try?
Let me know if you have any questions by leaving a comment below. And don’t forget to grab your free copy of the “Yin and Yang Food Chart”!