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Nutrition in Chinese Medicine: what is food?

“You are what you eat”      (Anthelme Brillat-Savarin)

Chinese food habits and culture is a very deep science. There is no limit to its study. Through this first article, I would like to introduce the very fundamental concept of Chinese nutrition philosophy and give some simple guidelines.


Hopefully this can help to correct the common mistakes and bring an increased interest to the study of "how to eat" in order to be, and stay, healthy.


First of all, it is important to understand that the Chinese vision of nutrition is quite different from the Western one. Chinese do not look at the components of food (proteins, lipids, vitamins, etc.) because that is only part of what a food is.


Rather than breaking down what builds a food, Chinese medicine defines a food as a whole. Therefore, we will talk about the "Nature" of the food, the "Flavor", the "Color", the “Movement”, and the “Organ network”.

The focus of Chinese Medicine nutrition is to help produce, transform, assimilate, store, and maintain the “Five Essential Substances” within our bodies: Flow of Life (Qi 氣), Blood (Xue 血), Body Fluids (Jin Ye 津液), Congenital Essence (Jing 精), and maintain a high Spirit (Shen 神).


In order to manage this, one should grow sufficient knowledge about how to nourish the “Five Essential Substances”.


Let’s break it down to the most simple, but essential, knowledge about nutrition in TCM. In terms of self-care, “Nature” and “Flavor” are the most important factors to know. For a therapist, all notions need to be considered.

The Nature

The thermal nature is defined as: Hot, Warm, Neutral, Cool, and Cold.

What you need to know:

Hot and Warm are Yang

Hot foods will warm, disperse, move upward and outward. 

Tonify the Yang and Qi, gently warm and strengthen the body.

Used to treat “Cold Symptoms”

(ex: common cold, edema, etc.) and to Tonify the Qi and Yang in case of Deficiency (ex: burnout, fatigue, diarrhea, etc.).


Excessive use will create internal Heat, injuring the Yin, and drying out the Body Fluids.

Neutral is balanced

Neutral foods Tonify the Qi and Nourish the Body Fluids.


They will also help to stabilize and harmonize the body (internal balance).


Cold and Cool are Yin

Cool foods will cool down, retract, and decelerate the flow of Qi.

Nourish the Body Fluids and Blood, and cool internal Heat.


Used to treat “Heat Symptoms”

(ex: Summer Heat, fever, etc.) and to Nourish the Body Fluids and Blood in case of Deficiency (ex: dry skin, dizziness, amenorrhea, etc.).


Excessive use will create internal Cold, damaging the Qi and Yang, while decreasing the homeostasis.

The Flavor

The Flavor is defined as: Sweet, Spicy (or pungent), Sour, Bitter, Salty.

What you need to know:


Has the strongest supplementing effect on the body and benefits the Spleen. It also has a warming, strengthening, harmonizing, relaxing, and moistening effect. In excess, sweetness will harm the Qi of the Spleen-Pancreas, disturb the Heart Qi, injure the flesh, cause pain in the bones, hair loss, and induce the production of pathogenic Dampness. 


Activates and Disperses the flow of Qi, invigorates the energetic circulation, lubricates the body, and benefits the Lungs. It also disperses Stagnation and releases the Surface from exogenous disease by opening the pores, and inducing perspiration. In excess, it will damage the Qi, injure the pores and skin, cause spasms, tremors, and poor nails. 


Directs the energy downward and softens hardness, dissolving masses or nodules, dries Dampness, Nourishes the Bones, and benefits the Kidneys. It also cools, moistens, and loosens. In excess, it will damage the Body Fluids, harm the Blood, weaken the Bones, cause contracture and atrophy of the muscles, and stagnate the Heart Qi.


Has an astringent effect on the Qi, directs the energy inwards, Nourishes the tendons, and benefits the Liver. It also increases absorption to hold and preserves Body Fluids. In excess, it will cause overactivity of the Liver and underactivity of the Spleen, thicken the skin, and damage the tendons and sinews.


Has an eliminating, dispersing, purging, and drying effect, benefits the Heart and stimulates the circulation. In excess, it will disrupt the Spleen, muscles and tendons, injure the Heart Qi, dry the skin and hair, damage fluids, and drains the bones.

Home Grown Vegetables

The Color

The colors are defined as: Green, Red, Yellow, White, Black.

What you need to know:

Green food:

Green is the color of spring. It Nourishes the Liver and tendons.

Red food:

Red is the color of summer. It Nourishes the Heart and vessels.

Yellow food:

Yellow is the color of the end of summer. It Nourishes the Spleen and flesh.

White food:

White is the color of autumn. It Nourishes the Lungs and skin.

Black food:

Black is the color of winter. It Nourishes the Kidneys and bone.

The Organ network

The Organ network is defined as:
Liver-Gallbladder, Heart-Small intestine, Spleen-Stomach, Lungs-Large intestine, Kidneys-Bladder.

What you need to know:

Liver - Gallbladder:

Strengthened by sourness. Neutralized by acridity. Nourish the tendons.

Heart - Small intestine:

Strengthened by bitterness. Neutralized by saltiness. Nourish the vessels.

Spleen - Stomach:

Strengthened by sweetness. Neutralized by sourness. Nourish the flesh.

Lungs - Large intestine:

Strengthened by acridity. Neutralized by bitterness. Nourish the skin.

Kidneys - Bladder:

Strengthened by saltiness. Neutralized by sweetness. Nourish the bones.

The Movement

This describes the direction that a food will induce in the body: Lifting, floating, Lowering, sinking.

What you need to know:


To move from the lower region towards the upper region.


To move from the inside towards the outside.


To move from the upper region towards the lower region.


To move from the outside towards the inside.


Remember that if one of these characteristic is consumed excessively, instead of nourishing the related system, it will injure it. If a characteristic is missing, the related system will lose its vitality.

Therefore, moderation and variety within food, is key.


!!! Et surtout, bon appétit !!!

Written by Cedric Mallants / Acupunctuur en Traditionele Chinese Geneeskunde therapist in Eindhoven.



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