By John Voigt

One should be mindful of what one consumes to ensure proper growth, reproduction, and development of bones, tendons, ligaments and channels and collaterals [i.e., meridians] This will help generate the smooth flow of qi [life energy] and blood, enabling one to live to a ripe old age. 

From The Yellow Emperor’s Classic on Medicine.

The Yellow Emperor’s Classic On Medicine (Huang Di Nei Jing), circa second century BCE, is the most important ancient text on Chinese medicine. In it are the concepts of a balanced and complete diet, and probably the world’s first dietary guidelines.

The Thermal Nature of Foods – Warming, Cooling & Neutral

Basic concerns are about Han (“cold”) and Re (“hot”) foods. Han foods such as kelp, wheat, vegetables, and pork possibly may cause diarrhea. Re foods such as ginger, pepper, mutton, and unripened guava possibly may cause heartburn or constipation. Wen (“neutral”) foods such as rice, beans, fish, and beef can help to repair the body’s tissues.  Bu (strengthening) foods such as ginseng, deer velvet, and dates may be healing.

Food Relationships in Chinese Medicine – A Holistic Approach

But this is not about one food by itself being good or bad, it’s about the relationships of food.  Chinese dietetics—as most past and present Chinese thought—is based on holistic concepts, not singularity concerns. For example, with the above foods, vegetables (a Han or so-called “cold” food) is usually cooked with some Re (a so-called “hot”) food such as ginger or pepper. That neutralizes or balances out the “cold” [yin] and “hot” [yang] aspects of each food, and helps create something good for you and delicious as well.

Along the same idea of a food gaining its meaning by its relationships to other foods, in classic Chinese cuisine we most often find the “neutral” food (the rice or noodles) along with the main meal (meat or fish), accompanied by various other dishes usually vegetables. For example, The yang of rare beef is balanced by yin of tofu or cool slices of fruit.

The Healing Nature of Foods

The foods need to be prepared in the proper way, vegetables not overcooked, but not raw either; small portions of meat or fish not fried. In The Yellow Emperor’s Classic we find, “Heavy and greasy food causes a change that may result in serious illness.”

Also from that book, from Chapter 81, section 22 we find: Five cereals (such as rice, sesame seeds, soya beans, wheat, millet) provide our basic nourishment. Five fruits (such as dates, plum, chestnut, apricot, peach) add what the cereals lack. Five animals (such as beef, dog meat, pork, mutton, chicken) give certain advantages that animals possess. Five vegetables (such as marrow, chive, bean sprouts, shallot, onion)  provide a wide range of needed substances. If the food tastes and smells good, then eat it to replenish the body’s needs.

These guidelines are approximately two thousand years old, yet amazingly from that time to today most Chinese people followed them whenever they were able to do so. This article will close on how the tradition is being automatically preserved today without the restaurant or their customers knowing what is happening.

Now to make all this simple for the health (and food loving) reader. After all, the many millions of Chinese who go to their favorite restaurants aren’t bring along any of the ancient treatises on dietetics. Nevertheless, the traditional way of ordering and serving food seems to be right on the mark on what the ancient seers taught about food and good health. All over the world you will see this standard pattern in middle and smaller sized Chinese restaurants—(the more larger ones are becoming more geared to tourists and the new Chinese upper classes who eat like their western counterparts).  Not surprisingly such non-traditional diets have been accompanied with an increase in western styled diseases.

Eating – The Chinese Way

Here’s how the “natives” eat, and how you can do the same.

Begin with those tiny bowls of free sweet and sour pickles, or pickled cabbage, or cooked peanuts, etc. that many restaurants just bring you without you asking for them. Something like an appetizer, but not quite; they prime the digestion. Then order several different vegetable dishes. And some rice. Then some fish (usually with the bones included—be careful don’t swallow any); or some meat. And finish it all off with a soup. That will help your digestion. Traditionally the final close is making a big burp to show your appreciation to the cooks and servers, and remove any bad qi—but you might because of western propriety leave out that final gesture—(or is it better described as a bodily function noise?).

That’s it. Now go enjoy such a standard traditional and healthy meal.  Best done in a large group of friends and family with chopsticks.

Postscript: For more about the proper kinds of food for health from both an eastern and western point of view, see my “Color Dietetics – With a Poster to Hang on the Wall.

Sources and Further Information

Ho Zhi-chien. “Principles of Diet Therapy in Ancient Chinese Medicine: ‘Huang Di Nei Jing.”

Sun Simiao on Dietetics in the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine Journal (Autumn 2013, vol. 10, no. 2).

“Chinese food therapy.” Wikipedia.

Some Other Interesting Info (Nerd Facts)…

Sun Simiao (581-682) who was known as “The King of Medicine” – (one of is greatest credentials is that he lived to be 101 years old) – taught that the prevention of disease should come before any medical treatment. However, if treatment was required, he believed that dietary concerns should never be neglected. He wrote, “Proper food is able to expel evil and secure the zang and fu organs [the viscera] to please the spirit and clear the will, by supplying blood and qi. If you are able to use food to stabilize chronic disease, release emotions, and chase away disease, you can call yourself an outstanding artisan. This is the special method of lengthening the years and “eating for old age,” and the utmost art of nurturing life. Sun Simiao,  known as the “King of Medicine,” (581-682).

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Image Credits

The featured image photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Vegetable photo by David Vázquez on Unsplash

Bok Choy photo by Jodie Morgan on Unsplash

Soup photo by Elli O. on Unsplash

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