The earliest written record on nutritional theory in traditional Chinese medicine is found in the section on food therapy in Beiji Qian Jin Yao Fang (Essential Formulas Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold), written by Sun Simiao before his death in 682 CE. Known as the King of Medicine for his invaluable contributions to Chinese medicine, Sun Simiao wrote in his book, “Before a doctor treats a disease, he must be sure of the cause and the pathogenesis. Then treat the patient with diet before using any medications.”

Nutrition is at the heart of traditional Chinese medicine and has been fully integrated into the daily eating customs of people in China, Korea, and Japan . The ancient knowledge that’s been passed down in the East Asian countries is now being adopted in the West, with greater discernment of food as nutritional therapy.

In traditional Chinese medicine, food is viewed more for the characteristic properties of energy, flavor, and movement rather than for calories and macronutrients, as they are in the West. Nutrition is considered just as important as other modalities, especially as a preventive medicine. There are five types of food energy: cold, cool, neutral, warm, and hot. The energy found in food does not refer to the physical temperature, but to its ability to convert to heat or cold in the body. For example, green tea has a cool energy, which means even if an individual drinks a scalding cup of green tea, it generates a cooling effect internally, helping to reduce inflammation or systemic heat.

Traditional Chinese medicine considers food tastes as having different functional effects on health. The five main tastes of sour, bitter, sweet, spicy, and salty are thought to have unique characteristics with corresponding organs. One taste isn’t necessarily viewed as better than the other for overall health. While bitter taste is beneficial for the heart and small intestine, sweet taste is essential for spleen, and salty taste can assist the kidneys and the bladder. In traditional Chinese medicine, all tastes are viewed as necessary for the proper functioning of the organs. An adjustment of tastes is necessary, however, when the organs are diseased.

A licensed practitioner, with in-depth understanding of nature and characteristics of foods can help to formulate a nutritional guideline individualized for the patient’s unique health needs. Knowing what foods to include and avoid in the diet can dramatically improve the way a patient looks, feels and thinks about health.

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