A Balanced Diet from the Chinese Medical Perspective
Part One: Yin Yang Theory
While there are a number of superficial similarities between the Chinese medical concept of a proper diet and the Western, the theories behind them are vastly different. Both emphasize a balanced diet containing small amounts of meat, lots of vegetables and grains, but that’s where the similarity diverges. Yin yang theory and Five Elements Theory tend both to be applied to medicine, diet, and even exercise. They are central to the internal martial arts and consciously or unconsciously shape Asian culture.
The first aspect of the Chinese concept of food combination is that when taken all together the meal should be neutral or only slightly heating or cooling. Many of the things that are eaten in an American diet involve combinations of foods that are all heating or are all cooling. In the long-term this causes an imbalance that leads to ill health. Thus, properly combining your foods can lead to promoting your health or can cause deterioration of your health.
While this concept is radically at variance from the Western viewpoint, it can actually be very easily understood. Certain foods like citrus and spearmint are cooling while other foods like ginger and cayenne peppers are heating. Excesses in any one direction can cause your metabolism to become unbalanced. One generally agreed on classical example of this is the belief that if you consume too much sugar, which is excessively cooling, it will lead to dampness factor such as obesity and in extreme cases the yin yang imbalance can flip causing dryness factor giving you diabetes.
The Chinese believe that you need to carefully balance your foods and that this leads to good tasting dishes which promote health. The problem of course for most Americans is that they have no idea which foods are heating or cooling.
Some are obvious and others are not and some make no real sense at all without the extensive study that their medical system has put into it.
OK, let’s start with some of the basics. Sticky rice is the higher-protein, short grained version of rice eaten as the primary staple by the Chinese. It is considered to be neutral. It is, nonetheless, primarily starch, so it is essentially empty calories. Noodles are considered slightly warming and are therefore preferred in cold weather and Northern China, whereas rice is eaten in the summer and the majority of the time in Southern China. These take the place of foods like potatoes or bread in America, providing the bulk of calories so that you don’t have to eat really large amounts of other foods.
You would think that something like red meat could all be classified together, but that is not actually the case. Pork is classified as cooling, venison is classified as slightly warming, and beef is considered to be heating.
Chicken is considered to be neutral/slightly warming. However, this phrase refers to most domesticated birds, not just chickens. Primarily what they mean is chicken or turkey.
Most fruits are considered to be cooling, with the exception of durian and lychee. While eggplant and tomatoes are fruits, Chinese Medical theory classifies them as vegetables.
Most vegetables are slightly yin and cooling. They are more so if they are raw and less if they are cooked. Tomatoes are warming and eggplant is neutral/slightly warming.
So your basic meal consists of one meat, two or more servings of vegetables, one to three servings of rice or pasta, and spices which complement the flavor and energetic qualities of your food to bring about a mostly neutral result with it more heating in the winter, more cooling in the summer, and somewhat neutral in spring and fall. In addition, you would tend to eat foods that were appropriate to the particular season, but that, once again, is related to Five Elements Theory.
The second aspect is the division of all conditions into either excess or deficiency. There are a number of ways to become obese but one classic manner is to overeat and under exercise. In China this would be viewed as a yin excess with yang deficiency, meaning you need to get off your couch and get some exercise instead of sitting there eating. Alternately, it can be caused by metabolic problem, but that becomes a matter for Five Elements Theory.
So, malnutrition would be a deficiency disease, whereas hyperthyroidism would be an excess disease. While we are not discussing Chinese medical theory, please understand that your diet is considered part of the medical theory, and lifestyle is considered the first preventative measure for disease, so you don’t want to get too much meat or too little meat, and the same goes for vegetables. With this small amount of information, you can start to balance your diet from a Chinese perspective.
Copyright © 2013 Julian Thomas Reid III