Chinese System Of Food Cure

By Rebecca Frey


The Chinese system of food cures regards dietary regulation as preventive medicine as well as a corrective measure to be undertaken once someone falls ill. Diet is one of four major treatment modalities in traditional Chinese medicine , the other three being acupuncture/moxibustion, herbal medicine, and massage, plus remedial physical exercise.


The selection of foods in the diet as part of a lifelong program of health maintenance and treatment of illness has been a part of Chinese medicine from its beginnings. The first extensive written Chinese medical treatises (as the West understands the term) date from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), but the use of food as preventive medicine probably goes several thousand years further back. Legends says that tribal shamans and holy men who lived as hermits in the mountains of China as early as 3500 B.C. practiced what was called the "Way of Long Life." This regimen included a diet based on herbs and other plants, qigong exercises, and special breathing techniques that were thought to improve vitality and life expectancy.

After the Han dynasty, the next great age of Chinese medicine was under the Tang emperors, who ruled from A.D. 608 to A.D. 906. The first Tang emperor established China's first medical school in A.D. 629. This period produced China's earliest expert on dietary therapy, Sun Simiao. He specialized in the treatment of diseases caused by malnutrition and wrote several works on diet and health. Sun Simaio's principle of using diet and lifestyle changes as the first line of treatment for illness has governed traditional Chinese practice ever since. According to Sun Simaio, only when dietary treatment is not enough to cure the patient should the doctor turn to acupuncture and herbal medicines.


The benefits of traditional Chinese dietary treatment are many years of vigorous good health. According to theNei Jing, China's oldest medical classic, the metaphor is that human beings are constituted to live for a hundred years, barring accidents or violence. Diet and good digestion are considered the most important ways to maintain physical strength and vitality.


Chinese food cures are based on the philosophical principles of Taoism and its teachers' observations about nature. Some of its concepts are difficult for Westerners to understand because they rely on symbols and images rather than scientific measurements and theories. In general, Chinese medicine regards the human organism as an integrated entity within itself and as linked to the family, society, and the natural order by a pattern of symbolic connections.

The cosmic and natural order

In early Chinese philosophy, the Tao, or universal first principle, generated a duality of opposing principles that underlie all the patterns of nature. These principles, yin and yang, are mutually dependent as well as polar opposites. Yin represents everything that is cold, moist, dim, responsive, slow, heavy, and moving downward or inward; while yang represents heat, dryness, brightness, activity, rapidity, lightness, and upward or outward motion. The dynamic interaction of these two principles is reflected in the cycles of the seasons, the human life cycle, and other natural phenomena.

In addition to yin and yang, Taoist teachers also believed that the Tao produced a third force, primordial energy or chi (also spelledqiorki, the Japanese term). The interplay between yin, yang, and chi gave rise to the Five Elements of water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. These entities are all reflected in the structure and functioning of the human body.

The human being

Traditional Chinese physicians did not learn about the structures of the human body from dissection (although they did perform some animal studies) because they thought that cutting open a body insulted the person's ancestors. Instead they built up an understanding of the location and functions of the major organs over centuries of observation, and then correlated them with the principles of yin, yang, chi, and the Five Elements. Thus wood is related to the liver (yin) and the gall bladder (yang); fire to the heart (yin) and the small intestine (yang); earth to the spleen (yin) and the stomach (yang); metal to the lungs (yin) and the large intestine (yang); and water to the kidneys (yin) and the bladder (yang). The Chinese also believed that the body contains Five Essential Substances, which include blood, spirit, vital essence (a principle of growth and development produced by the body from chi and blood), fluids (all body fluids other than blood, such as saliva, spinal fluid, sweat, etc.), and chi.

A unique feature of traditional Chinese medicine is the meridian system. Chinese doctors viewed the body as regulated by a network of energy pathways called meridians that link and balance the various organs. The meridians have four functions: to connect the internal organs with the exterior of the body, and connect the person to the environment and the universe; to harmonize the yin and yang principles within the body's organs and Five Substances; to distribute chi within the body; and to protect the body against external imbalances related to weather (wind, summer heat, dampness, dryness, cold, and fire).

The composition and use of foods

Chinese food cures operate within this system of cosmic principles, symbolic correlation of internal organs with the five elements, and the meridian system. Food serves several functions in traditional Chinese medicine. It supplies nutritional energy to the body to replenish chi. It is also used by the body to produce vital essence and blood. Lastly, foods can be chosen to regulate the balance of yin and yang and the five elements within the body and to direct the flow of chi to different parts of the body.

Chinese medicine classifies foods according to four sets of categories:

  • Temperature. Foods are classified as cold or cool (yin); or warm or hot (yang).
  • Taste. There are five tastes correlated with the Five Elements: sour (wood); bitter (fire); sweet (earth); pungent (metal); and salty (water).
  • Direction of action. Pungent, salty, and bland foods are thought to have an ascending or floating action that redirects chi upward, while sour, bitter, and sweet foods are thought to have a descending or sinking action that moves the chi downward.
  • The organ or meridian affected by the food.

Chinese medicine uses foods to keep the body in internal harmony and in a state of balance with the external environment. In giving dietary advice, the Chinese physician takes into account the weather, the season, the geography of the area, and the patient's specific imbalances (including emotional upsets) in order to select foods that will counteract excesses or supply deficient elements. Basic preventive dietary care, for example, would recommend eating yin foods in the summer, which is a yang season. In the winter, by contrast, yang foods should be eaten to counteract the yin temperatures. In the case of illness, yin symptom patterns (fatigue, pale complexion, weak voice) would be treated with yang foods, while yang symptoms (flushed face, loud voice, restlessness) would be treated by yin foods. In addition, cravings for specific foods or flavors point to deficiencies to be remedied. Thus someone who wants a lot of hot drinks probably has a "cold" illness, while someone who refuses beverages has a "damp" disease.

Chinese medicine also uses food as therapy in combination with exercise and herbal preparations. One aspect of a balanced diet is maintaining a proper balance of rest and activity as well as selecting the right foods for the time of year and other circumstances. If a person does not get enough exercise, the body cannot transform food into chi and vital essence. If they are hyperactive, the body consumes too much of its own substance. With respect to herbal preparations, the Chinese used tonics taken as part of a meal before they began to use them as medicines. Herbs are used in Chinese cooking to give the food specific medicinal qualities as well as to flavor it. For example, ginger might be added to a fish dish to counteract the cold of the fish. Food and medical treatment are closely interrelated in traditional Chinese medicine. A classical Chinese meal seeks to balance not only flavors, aromas, textures, and colors in the different courses that are served, but also the energies provided for the body by the various ingredients.


A traditional Chinese physician will examine a patient carefully before giving advice about diet. The diagnosis is based on four types of examination: visual observation, which includes examining the shape, color, and coating of the tongue as well as observing the complexion and taking the pulse; listening to the voice and breathing; inquiring about the patient's symptoms, food preferences, emotions, bowel habits, and sleeping patterns; and palpating (feeling) the patient's abdomen and key points along the meridians. The doctor will suggest changes in diet that will return the patient to inner balance and harmony with the environment according to the patterns he detects.


The most important precaution for Westerners who are interested in Chinese food therapy is to consult an experienced practitioner of Chinese medicine. The system is complex and based on principles that differ from Western systems of thought. These factors make self-evaluation quite difficult.

Side effects

There are no known side effects from using the Chinese system of food cures as part of a wellness program under the guidance of an experienced practitioner.

Research & general acceptance

Research in the West has been largely confined to study of the herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine as distinct from food cures. Alternative practitioners in the West, however, have shown considerable interest in incorporating Chinese food cures into other systems, including color therapy and women's folk medicine. One school of color therapy classifies foods as yin or yang according to their color and recommends certain color combinations to correct energy imbalances in the body.

Training & certification

In contemporary China, traditional medicine is practiced alongside Western methods of diagnosis and treatment. Some Chinese medical schools still offer courses in Chinese medicine. Practitioners of traditional medicine must pass rigorous examinations and be licensed by the government. They usually obtain their clinical experience by serving apprenticeships under experienced doctors.

Key Terms

Chi (Qi or Ki)

The universal life-force or energy. The quality, quantity, and balance of a person's chi determines his or her state of health and longevity.

Five Elements

The five basic substances (water, wood, fire, earth, and metal) that symbolize the fundamental qualities of the universe. In Chinese food cures, the five elements are correlated with the internal organs of the body and with the five basic food tastes.

Five Substances

The basic entities in the human body that serve its development and maintenance. They include chi, vital essence, spirit, blood, and fluids.


Pathways of subtle energy that link and regulate the various structures, organs, and substances in the human body.


The system of thought that looked at humans in relation to the whole universe. It had a big influence on Chinese medicine.

Yin and yang

In Chinese thought, the two primordial opposing yet interdependent cosmic forces.

Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. Gale Group, 2001.