East Asian Medicine and Diet

There are Eight Limbs of East Asian Medicine. One of them is Diet. Western culture is known for being analytical and media driven so it’s not surprising that when we think of a healthy diet our minds go right to what foods provide what nutrients. East Asian Medicine suggests a more holistic approach.

East Asian Medicine is tailored directly for you, addressing your personal imbalances and patterns. Your diet should reflect you as an individual because your needs are different from those of anyone else. These patterns change depending on many variables and circumstances, no matter what your blood type or ancestry. Consult an Oriental Medicine Practitioner to clarify what your current patterns would best benefit from.Your East Asian Medicine practitioner or acupuncturist will use asking, touching, listening/smelling and observation to determine what patterns are currently most active for you.

Variety in the diet is important. That’s not changing it up from Taco Bell to McDonalds, but incorporating the five flavors: sour/astringent, bitter, sweet/bland, pungent, and salty; the five colors: green, red, yellow, white and black; and the five natures: cold, hot, warm, cool and neutral temperatures of the food.


“In (East Asian) Medicine we don’t think so much about vitamins - we think about nature.”

-Dr Christine Chang


Temperature is both about the physical/mechanical temperature of the food - is it cooked and warm? And also about the nature of the substance - that affects us in predictable ways.  Foods have been catalogued for centuries according to their nature but over time propagation, preservation and preparation techniques have changed and that affects the nature too. We can account for that. For instance root vegetables may be cool but chopping them very fine warms them. Fermentation is warming.

The flavors, colors and natures all have corresponding properties which impact on our health. The flavors and colors also nourish corresponding organ systems and can be emphasized to bring the systems into balance.

Whatever we take in, whether food or ideas, might be either toxic or medicinal - our senses are meant to differentiate this. The eyes are easily fooled but the nose is much more discerning. Taste is primarily smell.  Texture is a vital indicator of source and freshness. Sometimes it’s more attractive than taste, and processed-food-product producers know that. “Food” that comes from a lab instead of a kitchen, from a chemist instead of a gardener, is not the same even if it looks and smells like it is. We have to question authority and use our critical thinking and all our senses to be safe.

Maybe not surprisingly, the Spleen which is the name given the digestive system, is also the house of the intellect, the “Yi” and the source of memory. Each organ system corresponds to an aspect of the mind. The Yi of the Spleen is the sixth sense which perceives and synthesizes experience with knowledge. The function of differentiating beneficial substances from toxic belongs to the Spleen. That goes for both food and ideas.  We ruminate ideas like a cow ferments and chews its cud with the same system that digests our food. So it can really be true that over-thinking can give us a stomachache.

Optimal hydration is also essential to good health and digestion. Drinking hot tea at least half an hour before or after meals is a good way to hydrate. There are plenty of scary stories surrounding the infrastructure and the safety of tap water today. It is still among the safest in the world and far better than recent generations had it. If you are concerned, it is possible to purchase or even make a filtration system that works. Bottled water has less oversight than tap water.

What may be news to you is that ice cold drinks are toxic - the body has to warm up whatever comes into it and that drains the resources from every system. Cold causes slowing, stiffening, storing, so it leads to less flexibility and fat accumulation. Female fertility is particularly susceptible to cold, so keep your middle covered and drink hot tea if you want to start a family. But cold food and drink cannot be counted on for contraception, that would bring a host of other problems with it. Food that is cold has to be warmed for enzymatic processing. Pungent spices like cinnamon and ginger warm the food chemically so it is easier to digest. Fermentation is a warm process that improves digestion. Cooked food has already started breaking down and is easier to digest. It is also safer because cooking eliminates potentially harmful microorganisms. Warm food does not take energy to bring up to temp so enzymes can work on it immediately. The energy saved can instead be used for repair and maintenance. When we take energy away from body systems to digest food we are interrupting those processes.

Beside the actual substance there is the method of eating to consider. Digestion begins with the sense of smell stimulating anticipation and salivation. Chewing initiates the digestive process, masticating the material to mix it with the enzymes in saliva. This signals the stomach further down the gut to prepare for receiving and ripening the bolus of chewed food. All this is crucial for nutrients to be sorted and assimilated. That means over time smoothies can do a lot of damage.

Too much of one flavor can lead to imbalance. Craving a certain flavor can be a sign of imbalance. A food bolus that is cold, solid, greasy, harsh or dry or just too much too fast sits in the stomach causing discomfort and robbing the body of its resources. This leads to bloating, gas, distention and pain, even illness over time as it taxes the Spleen. So it is best to:

“eat home cooked warm meals that incorporate a variety of fresh foods and take time to enjoy them with friends and family.”

That sounds ideal, right? For many of us it’s uncommon. It can take a conscious effort to change our lifestyle to actually eat real food quietly with family and friends. But it starts with just one meal. Baby steps - remember the journey is the reward, not the destination.

That’s the ideal. It’s the guideline, the place we want to be, but life can get in the way. It’s important to not  beat ourselves up for past choices and understand that this is normal and OK. It makes more sense to just start again in every moment and each time try to make a healthier choice. It’s also important to keep this facet of life in balance with others, like activity and community and creativity and learning.

When we think of returning to a more primal diet it is not so helpful in the long run to go back in time to before we used fire. Instead we should consider collecting locally grown fresh organic foods, fermenting foods, and eating warm cooked foods like soups and stews that include spices and herbs. These are plants that have evolved with us and exist in community with us, as opposed to plants that have been genetically engineered to provide a better shelf life.

Fad diets often do provide short term relief of some symptoms but over time can lead to problems. If we look at them as aesthetic practices that are only for short term use, no more than six weeks, and maintain a baseline of relatively primitive healthy eating, that might be most helpful. We can learn from fads and new information and incorporate change or adjust our routines to benefit. Just be careful to stop before causing harm or imbalance.

A great reference on using food for health is The Tao of Nutrition by Maoshing Ni and Cathy McNease. Daverick Leggett has great articles on the East Asian Medicine perspective on diet at http://www.meridianpress.net/articles.html