Food therapy is the foundation of Chinese medicine. For thousands of years, Chinese medicine has focused on food cures.
One of the major differences between Chinese medicine and Western medicine with regard to food therapy is that the former uses diet to prevent and cure illness, while the latter seldom uses foods for symptomatic treatment of disease, other than using diet exclusively for treating obesity problems.
Another major difference is that Chinese medicine takes into consideration not just the nutrients of foods, but also the flavours, the energies, and the movements of foods in relation to different body organs. In Chinese medicine, foods have five flavours: bitter, pungent, salty, sour, and sweet. Flavours in foods don’t just give you the taste; they have an impact on your internal organs.
Foods with bitter taste, such as bitter melon (Chinese vegetable), lettuce, and radish, affect your heart and small intestine. Such foods reduce your body heat and dry your body fluids. This explains why herbs used to treat fever and diarrhoea always taste bitter because of their “drying” effect.
Foods, such as chive, clove, coriander, ginger, parsley and peppermint, have a pungent flavour, which acts on your lungs and large intestine. Foods with pungent flavour induce perspiration and promote energy circulation.
Foods with salty flavour, affect your kidneys and bladder. Salty foods can soften hardness, and therefore they are ideal for treating symptoms involving the hardening of muscles.
Foods, which are sour in taste, affect your liver and gall bladder. These foods obstruct movements, and are therefore ideal for treating diarrhoea and controlling excessive sweating.
Foods with a sweet flavour affect your stomach and spleen. These foods slow down acute symptoms and neutralize the toxic effects from other foods. In Western medicine, sweet foods make you gain weight because they are often loaded with “empty calories.”
According to Chinese medicine, foods are also considered for their energies because they generate heat or cold; that is to say, they give sensation of heat or cold to the human body. For example, if you drink a glass of cold water, your body feels cold; but that sensation is only temporary, while the sensations from foods are more lasting.
The foods, whether hot or cold, have a more lasting sensation on your body. Foods have five energies: hot, cold, warm, cool, and neutral. Tea, for example, gives cold energy, even if it is hot tea. Pepper provides hot energy, even if it is chilled. Chicken gives warm energy, and corn has neutral energy, that is, neither hot nor cold. Accordingly, if your arthritis pain is more acute and severe in cold winter days, you should take more foods that provide hot or warm energy to reduce the cold in your joints.
Furthermore, foods have four movements: the outward movement that induces perspiration and reduces pain; the inward movement that eases bowel movements and abdominal pain; the upward movement that relieves diarrhoea; and the downward movement that stops vomiting or asthma.