TCM Nutrition 101

“Without the knowledge of proper diet, it is hardly possible to enjoy good health.”

— Sun Si Miao, Tang Dyansty Dietitian

 70% of our postnatal Qi (life force) comes from Gu Qi (Food Qi), which explains how important diet is for our health. TCM nutrition is a fascinating subject that teaches us how to achieve our unique balance through eating and drinking (everyone is different)! It’s fundamental principles are based on a beautiful marriage of the following:

  • TCM Food Energetics

  • TCM Herbalism

  • Seasonality

  • Individual body constitution & conditions

  • Enjoyment and flexibility

Now, let me guide you through each of them very, very briefly. I hope you will look at food and diet in a more holistic, personalized way after reading this page. If you'd like to learn more, please check our 90-minute online course narrated by our founder Zoey Gong.

1. Four TCM Food Energetics 食物特性

When I look at a cup of watermelon cubes, as a western dietitian, I think about numbers:46 calories, 0.9g protein, 11g carbohydrate, 0.6g fiber, 9g sugar, 0.2g fat, 170mg potassium, 20% DV vitamin A, etc. 

As a TCM nutritionist, I think about descriptive words: cold, a summer or late summer fruit, sweet, heart/stomach/bladder meridian, down-bearing in nature.  Here are the four major energetic characteristics in TCM:

  • 5 Thermal Natures: All foods are assigned to a thermal nature in TCM:coldcool neutralwarm, hot. Note that it is not related to the physical temperature of the food, but to the sensation our body feels after consumption of certain food. For example, watermelon is cold, cucumber is cool, potato is neutral, beef is warm, and chili is hot.

  • 5 Flavors: This concept is closely related to Five Element Theory. Each food is associated with a flavor, which implies certain functions. Sweet: tonify (similar to strengthening), moisten, calm; Acrid: disperse, invigorate, warm; Salty: cool, soften, loosen; Sour: astringe, gather, preserve; Bitter: dry, harden, cool

  • 4 Food Qi Movements: Food can influence how Qi moves throughout our body! And the movement of Qi will then influence how we feel and how our organs function. Qi can move Upwards: hot/warm, yang-replenishing foods, usually spicy or sweet; Downwards: cool/cold, yin-nourishing foods, usually salty or bitter; Inwards: sour foods, usually sour (think about a baby’s “sour” face after tasting a lemon); Outwards: acrid yang foods, usually warming spices

  • Meridian Affiliation: This is a more complicated concept that is mostly used in the clinical setting. Each food can be associated with several meridians. Here is a very general and not- always-accurate categorization. Spleen/Stomach: sweet flavor, late summer foods; Lung/Large Intestine: acrid or spicy flavor, autumn foodsKidney/Bladder: salty flavor, winter foods; Liver/Gallbladder: sour, flavor spring foods; Heart/Small Intestine: bitter flavor, summer foods.

2. TCM Herbalism 中草药

First of all, I want to make the distinction that TCM Food Therapy is NOT entirely the same as TCM herbalism. The latter focuses on potent herbal decoctions rather than a long-term, diet-based approach that food therapy adopts. You can think of herbal decoctions as “pharmaceutical drug” and food therapy as “superfoods,” if this makes sense. These two practices, however, do share similarities:

  • The use of some herbs (111 to be exact, which are called 药食同源 food-medicine herbs)

  • Basic principles of combination and prep method

  • Therapeutic functions

For example, in the left side image, chrysanthemum, ginger, and Dan Dou Chi (prepared Soybean) are all food-medicinal herbs that are used in both herbal decoction and food therapy. At Five Seasons TCM, we only use food-medicine herbs that are safe, tasty, and suitable for long-term consumption in our daily diet. 

3. Seasonality 应季而食

TCM draws endless wisdom from Nature and it’s natural laws. Therefore, seasonal eating plays a huge role in TCM nutrition. Seasonal eating is more than just eating in-season fresh produce. There are dried foods, specific cooking methods, and herbs that can be exceptionally suitable for a certain climate or season. There are 24 seasonal points in a traditional Chinese calendar, each carrying specific eating wisdom and charming cultural traditions. Please refer to our Seasonal Eating page for more!

For example, watermelon is cold, sweet, and belongs to the Earth element (late-summer). It’s cold thermal nature makes it a less-than-ideal choice to be eaten during winter. On the other hand, ginger is hot and acrid (spicy) in nature. You might want to reduce the frequency of your turmeric ginger shot on hot summer days.

4. Individual Body Constitution and Conditions 因人而异

One important thing that makes TCM nutrition stand apart and above from the diet trends is how personalized it is. It encourages you to eat according to your own body constitution and health conditions, rather than blindly following the recommended daily value of protein and calories, and fat. There are nine body constitutions in TCM, and each deserves a slightly different approach to diet and lifestyle. You can test yours by clicking the button on the left side!

For example, winter melon is great for a person with Yin Deficiency because of its cooling and hydrating properties, but ginger is not ideal for that person because it can easily create too much heat in their body. On the other hand, temporary health conditions like catching a cold after a freezing rainy day may allow and ask a Yin-deficient person to consume a ginger shot to expel the cold and dampness invasion. Please refer to our Learn page to know more about external invasion and organ disharmony. 

5. Enjoyment and Flexibility 美观美味

Whenever I consult the OG nutrition literature or recipe books from ancient China, there is always mentioning about how a medicinal dish should taste and look appetizing. TCM nutrition is not about restriction like a Ketogenic diet, elimination like a raw vegan diet, or a difficult-to-sustain juicing regimen. It is a very flexible system that allows you to consume most of the things with moderation, but encourages you to consume more of certain foods during certain seasons to address where your imbalances lie, and to limit certain foods that likely contribute to your disharmonies.

Note that you do not have to just eat Chinese food to start TCM food therapy! The principles and herbs are very easily applicable for cuisines all over the world. I encourage you to explore our recipes, while experimenting with your own cultural or local foods.

Small, sustainable changes can make huge differences. Implementing TCM nutrition in your life is also an enjoyable process of learning about your body and being aware of your feelings. 

Explore our Youtube recipe videos: