Chinese medicine philosophy, Food Therapy, Self-care

Healthy Eating Principles of TCM

Our Spleen is the main digestive organ in Chinese medicine.  It separates the pure from the impure from food and extracts Qi, or vital energy, to be used for proper functioning of our body and mind.  The Spleen can become weakened by dietary irregularities such as overeating, skipping meals, eating too much “damp” foods (alcohol, refined sugar, refined flour, dairy, greasy/fried foods) or too many “cold” foods (cold temperature foods like ice water, cold beverages, ice cream as well as cold natured foods like raw veggies).


The vast majority of vegetables should be eaten cooked. Lightly steamed, stir-fried, stewed or baked foods retain the most benefits of the foods and protect the “digestive fire.”  Giving food to the Spleen in an already partly digested manner helps the body assimilate it easily without expending extra energy to warm it up first and “cook” it in the gut.

Portions and Timing

  • Eat a larger meal in the morning, less for lunch, even less for dinner.  Eating the same amount of calories earlier in the day rather than later in the day stimulates the metabolism and protects against weight gain.  Food should not be thought of merely as calories.
  • Eat mindfully and chew slowly so that you can tell when you are feeling satiated.  Stop when 70% full. Research has corroborated that when we eat fast we don’t absorb as many nutrients from the food.
  • Eat regular meals – don’t skip meals. Stop eating at least 2 hours before bed.  This will keep blood sugars and energy levels more stable, not burn out your reserve Kidney energy and allow for your GI tract to rest.

Your Ideal Meal       

Practice listening to your body so that you can identify the foods and meals that make you feel good and satiated for several hours after eating.  Not every diet is right for everyone. There is a lot of scientific information about what is healthy but your body also has wisdom to offer.  Understand what makes you unique. If you understand your tendencies to imbalance then you can understand what foods to choose to keep yourself in balance.  For instance, people who tend to stagnation and damp disorders may do better with more vegetables and a more cleansing diet.  People who are deficient, children, women attempting to conceive, and the elderly may benefit from more nutrient dense foods that strengthen Qi and blood such as animal products. Also your food needs may change according to your life stages, the seasons,  your activity level and whether you are ill.

Moderation is key! It’s about balance, not perfection!

Food Therapy

Yin and Yang on Your Plate

Panko Salmon, Beets, Brussel Sprouts, Carrots
Panko Salmon, Beets, Brussel Sprouts, Carrots

Three Therapeutic Meals to Restore Balance

by Nicole Hohmann, MS, L.Ac, Dipl.OM, FABORM

The Energy of Food

All foods have a type of energy and effect on the body according to Chinese medicine. Some are more nourishing, some are more cleansing and may be attributed qualities such as cooling, warming, damp, dispersing, or nourishing to Yin, Yang, Qi or Blood.  Yinyang theory emphasizes the relationship of food to a person’s individual constitution or imbalances. In this sense, no food is bad per se (except overly processed foods of course), but will have specific effects on the body and may or may not be beneficial for a given individual at a given time.  Chinese medicine also differentiates foods based on their qualities such as Qi and Wei. Wei foods are foods with flavor, have a dense and rich taste and are nourishing: meat, organs, egg, oil, fat, fish and dairy, build up qi and essence.   Qi foods are generally vegetables, spices, and tea. They are lighter, less nourishing, help transportation and circulation in the body. Root veggies are more Wei than green and cruciferous veggies. Grains are more Wei than green veggies but have a balance of Wei and Qi.  Qi foods are more Yang and Wei foods are more Yin. It is important to have the right balance of both.

Wei Foods (Yin): meat, organs, eggs, oil, fat, fish, dairy.

Qi Foods (Yang): vegetables, spices, tea. Green and cruciferous veggies have the most Qi. Grains have both Qi and Wei. Root veggies have more Wei than green and cruciferous veggies.

More information on energetic qualities of specific foods and which to choose for the various patterns of imbalance are found here.


Three models of food proportion to balance Yin and Yang:

Much of the this article is a summary of Peter Torssell’s “How to Regulate Yin and Yang through Diet” (Journal of Chinese Medicine, No. 94, Oct, 2010), an in-depth analysis of individualized food proportions. Not every diet is right for everyone, nor is the same diet necessarily right for you throughout all of your life or even day to day. For instance, if one develops a dampheat condition, one can eat a more clearing vegetarian diet such as Meal 2. If one is trying to concieve, or post-partum, one can eat a more nutrient dense diet such as Meal 3. If one overeats mostly Wei fatty rich foods one day, one may balance this by eating mostly Qi foods or vegetables the next day. This is why so many people feel improved after a period of detoxification with a vegetarian diet – it counters the build up of heavy Wei foods in the standard American diet. Most of the time, however, we should aim for eating a balanced plate during each meal.

Meal 1:  

More than half of plate = variety of vegetables and grains.  

Remainder = Wei foods

This is the Chinese standard diet and the Mediterranean diet. It is warming, nourishing and enriching, requires a lot of physical activity/regular exercise and is relatively balanced in Yin and Yang.  The typical body type suitable for this ratio is thin, muscular, energetic. Also the thin, weaker, paler, somewhat nervous person- those with Yin deficiency, Blood deficiency, and some Qi deficiency patterns.

Meal 2:

Vegetables leafy and cruciferous 40%, Grains and root veggies 60% of plate.

This is the balanced vegetarian diet.

 It is the most yin of the three meals, cooling, dispersing and cleansing especially when the amount of sugars and carbs are reduced.  Warming spices counter the cooling effects such as chili, curry, ginger, garlic as well as eating food cooked versus raw.

A risk with this model is falling into trap of overeating carbs and sugar.  It may be damp forming for those with spleen Qi deficiency (too many cold foods can injure the spleen and make it susceptible to dampness) and too dispersing for those with Blood deficiency.  One may need to supplement with Vit B12 or add Wei foods such as nuts/seeds, tofu, black beans, goji berries, eggs, cheese, fish or chicken or meat broths to diet if signs of deficiency develop. Animal Wei foods are more nourishing than vegetable Wei foods from a Chinese medicine perspective.

This meal is most suitable for excess Yang body types with a heavy strong build and signs of heat and excess such as a red face, thirst, restlessness, rashes, hypertension. Used for tumors (but not once one has become deficient from chemotherapy), heat type arthritis such as rheumatoid.

Meal 3:

One part varied vegetables to one part animal Wei foods.

Many diets are based on this ratio such as traditional diets studied by Weston Price which consisted of less grains and were rich in animal fats, the paleolithic diet (though it eliminates milk, grains, reduces beans and root veggies), the Atkins diet, which does allow milk products, the Candida diet for reducing yeast overgrowth, and the Okinowan diet. Fats and Wei are satiating and cravings for carbs are reduced.  Even though the fat ratio is higher, people may actually eat less total calories because of feeling full longer.This model can be used for those with damp-phlegm, yang or yin deficiency and blood deficiency. It reduces damp-phlegm but can be warming. If one has damp heat symptoms, hot spices, fried foods, sugar and alcohol should also be avoided and the vegetarian part of the plate can be enlarged. More cooling or neutral Wei foods can be chosen also: white fish, pork, rabbit, eggs, tofu, aduki beans and mung beans. Red meat and lamb are more warming. It is balanced in terms of Qi and Wei foods and can be beneficial for many health issues especially if choosing warming and cooling foods appropriately. Its tendency to increase yang can be countered by the addition of spices which move qi (most aromatic culinary herbs) and can help the veggie portion nourish Yin.

Meal 3 can also increase the Yin by increasing the amount of quality fat (a Yin type food) as found in grass fed livestock and raw milk.  Traditional cultures instinctively knew this way of eating was important in preparation for and during pregnancy. Such a ratio is good for PCOS, diabetes, metabolic syndrome. It is also good for children whose developing brains need fat.