Written by Charles Buck
Food plays a critical role for maintaining balance and harmony in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Taste is a signifier of the “energetics” of a food, and therefore what role it will play in the body. In this article, Charles Buck explains the philosophy behind this, and how tastes are used to enhance wellbeing.
Eating lunch in our clinic reception Dr Liu winced.
What’s the matter? we asked.
Oh, my food today is very bitter – it tastes horrible!
Why are you eating that if it tastes so bad? Are we not paying you enough?
No, I need to balance the tastes my diet, and so I sometimes eat bitter things.
Dr Liu had put a massively bitter vegetable in her lunch, and she had done it on purpose!
It’s not just traditional-style doctors that balance their food intake like this, most people brought up in Chinese culture have at least a basic understanding of the ancient principles of a healthy diet. People know that diet is an important key to staying healthy and that this is partly about including all of the five main flavours: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter. Actually, there’s a sixth one – blandness, plus the Japanese have added yet another – umami-savoury – but let’s not get too distracted.
|pungent||onion, garlic, ginger, radish, mint, mustard, chilies|
|sweet||honey, cherry, chestnut, banana, parsnip|
|sour||lemon, grapefruit, vinegar, plum, mango,|
|bitter||bitter gourd, hops, lettuce, andive, coffee, chicory|
|salty||salt, meat, fish, seafood, seaweed|
Bitterness is not found in many foods probably because it the most unpalatable flavour. In the far east the best known vegetable with this taste is bitter gourd – a knobbly cucumber-like vegetable that is so extremely bitter even most Chinese struggle to get it down. Apart from beer, the nearest we get to consuming bitter substances here in the west is chicory – which is only mildly bitter. Dr Liu was eating it to make up for its lack in her routine diet and for its reputation as a de-tox food that helps the body to remove heat and dampness from the body. Most Chinese herbal medicines that have this de-tox effect also taste very bitter.
The roots of China’s traditional view on diet go way back to the dawn of high-civilisation in China at the start of the Han dynasty around 220BC. The qualities of foods were detailed in a key founding textbook of Chinese medicine and acupuncture the Huangdi Neijing (the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine), a textbook that is still considered important reading today in Chinese medicine universities.
Chinese people have always had a strong cultural pressure to take care of themselves, to do everything possible to maintain good health. This is the result of a cultural belief that your ancestors were taking note of your behaviour and any lack of care would bring bad luck. Your body was not entirely yours but was gifted to you from your ancestors and had to be treated respectfully to avoid ill fate raining down on you. With especially bad misbehaviour ill fortune could fall not just on you but on your whole family and, worse still, on your whole town – bad stuff happening would be your fault! To this day many older people raised in the traditional ways ask to keep any body parts removed during surgery so later they can go to their grave whole, with no parts lost in life’s journey and with less risk of ancestor displeasure.
So, for over 2000 years body care – yangsheng – has been an obsession for both the general population and the educated classes. It is not only good for your health but is a good thing for everyone that you take good care of yourself and a crucial way to do this is through good diet.
Here in the west dieticians have emphasised the nutritional properties of foodstuffs; measuring calories, fats, vitamins, trace elements and so on. Sometimes the simplifications can seem absurd; oranges are vitamin C, potatoes are carbohydrates, whole grains are fibre… and so on. The assumption is that there is a universal good diet that supplies the nutritional components we need for health. For sure such insights are valuable in many ways but, from the perspective of Chinese medicine something important is missed out.
How food affects us from a TCM perspective
One thing that is distinctive about the Chinese approach is that their physicians have always taken more interest in understanding the effects that different foods have on our bodies. Like medicines, foods were considered to have a pharmacologic influence our bodies – the only difference is they do this in a milder way than full-blown medicines. However, the fact they are consumed day-in day-out, year-in year-out they can have a big influence accumulated over time. Also, like medicines, foods can influence our inner workings either in ways that are either beneficial or unsuitable for us. Chinese medicine believes that foods should match your body state – which itself can change from time to time. For example some foods are more suitable for us in the winter and others in the summer.
Where nutritional science used words to describe the chemical properties of foods and medicines, Chinese doctors sought terms to described their effects – their energetic properties, the things that happen to you when you consume them. This is one reason the language and thinking style of your professional Chinese medicine physician differs from that used by your doctor. It is not that one way is right and the other wrong or one is better than the other, they just focus on different things. Like having one map that shows roads and another that represents the landscape.
To be in tune with the Dao -the path of nature – included the idea of eating foods that match your body state and that accord with your age, the seasons and your personal constitution. It is as though China’s ancient physicians had heard Hippocrates say “let food be your medicine” and today most Chinese people have a repertoire of simple food remedies – ginger and spring onion soup for the beginnings of a cold, watermelon for heat stroke, radish root to help digestion.
The notion of balance is at the heart of this and this includes the idea, as Dr Liu said, of not constantly eating the same few things but including all the variety of tastes in one’s diet. The Neijing text (written around 200BC) describes the effects of eating too much of specific flavours, saying things such as; excess sweetness makes the flesh go flabby, too much pungent food weakens your qi and yin, salty foods will dry your tendons out. So foods were described less in terms of nutritional content and more in terms of what effect substances have on the body – harmful or therapeutic depending on the interaction between the food and your body state.
The effects of each taste on our bodies
pungent flavours disperse,
sour flavours pucker up
sweet flavours harmonise,
the bitter flavour hardens
the salty flavour softens
Neijing SuWen Chapter 22
Pungent-acrid foods, such as garlic, chillies and Szechuan peppers, tend to affect those aspects of our bodies associated with the lungs – the nose and sinus’s and the sweat glands of the skin and have an invigorating and outward and upward moving effect. And, sure enough, onions and chillies make your nose run!
Bitter foods were found to have drying, detoxifying and downward moving effects on body functions and were often found to have a cooling effect.
To our modern minds some of this can seem a bit odd because in our culture we are accustomed to different perspectives. Recently though, science is beginning to find support for many of Chinese medicine’s teachings such as the idea that flavours can be linked to effects. Most antibiotic drugs are extremely bitter taste that Chinese medicine would say suggests they can be used to remove heat and fire toxins. Interestingly, receptors for tastes, that were believed to be confined to the tongue are now being discovered in our internal organs – bitterness can be ‘tasted’ by the heart!
The more closely we investigate China’s ancient medical wisdom the more remarkable it gets. When we move up a level up from looking at responses to individual flavours we find new subtlety in the way that the tastes coordinate together. Sweetness is a said to calm and mollify, to take the edge off pain, to soften urgency and slow things down – something that has also been noticed by science. Pungency is the opposite – it moves, stimulates and enlivens. That sweet chilli sauce on the Chinese supermarket shelves is revealed as a balanced medicinal food substance! The sweetness balances and softens the chilli’s harsh pungency which itself counters the cloying-stagnating effects of sweetness. Combining sweet and sour also has a rationale. Digestion requires good coordination of stomach and liver functions – sweetness is said to strengthen the digestive organs and sourness helps the liver function properly. In this view food flavours can be combined not just to taste good but strategically for health benefit.
Besides studying the effects of flavours China’s traditional approach to medical science considered other attributes of things we might consume. Substances could be classified by their temperature energetic as hot, warm, neutral, cool and cold and these qualities interact with our physiology in positive or negative ways. It seems self-evident that a person with a high fever would do well to avoid foods and other substances with a heating effect but a person with a chilly constitution might do well to include warming substances in their diet such as ginger, cinnamon or cloves.
Early thinkers also had a sense of direction. Some types of melon stalk can make you vomit so the effect on your stomach is to make it’s qi go the wrong way – upwards instead of downwards. Although toxic in high doses, bitter almond kernels were found to ease coughs – a sign that the movement of your lungs is going upwards instead of down, so this medicinal substance can be said to have a descending effect on the qi of the lungs. Sweating happens when your fluids move outwards so substances that make you sweat, foods such as ginger and chillies and medicines such as ephedra, by definition, have an outward pushing effect on your body. What we consume should be appropriate to our needs and there are many ways we can look at this.
How this wisdom is used
Looking into Chinese medicine we find an appealing yin-yang outlook in which the infinite complexity of the body and nature as a whole is approached using simple binary choices. In terms of body function we can ask; is this hot or is it cold? are things moving or getting stuck, are they moving in the proper direction? Is there a lack of something that needs to be supplied or is there an excess of something that should not be there and that needs to be removed? Where is the problem happening? Is it on the exterior of the body or on the interior? Where on the interior?…..
This binary approach to analysis is interesting because it is plainly rational and because it emphasises an understanding of function. It uses a consistent and time-tested way of labelling physiology and pathology and of matching dysfunction to suitable medical interventions – be they diet, medicinal substances or physical interventions such as acupuncture.
China’s medicine is a search for appropriateness – finding out ways to interpret the readout from our bodies to know when things are starting to go wrong, labelling that dysfunction so that you can know what is most suitable for that person at that time. Knowing a little of this system helps us do a good job of managing our own health. However sometimes we slip into actual illness and this is a time when should seek the expertise of a degree-trained TCM professional.
Keep Your Ancestors Happy – Look after yourself!
In the UK the leading professional practitioner registers that recognise degree-qualified clinicians are:
- The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM) https://rchm.co.uk/
- The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) https://acupuncture.org.uk/
- The Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ATCM) http://www.atcm.co.uk/
You can find a practitioner suitable for you, and places to study on our resources page here