Chinese medicinal diet

Medicinal diets are different from regular food diets as they have special theory, compatibility, production, and functions. According to statistics, there are about 500 kinds of Chinese medicine herbs that can be applied to a medicinal diet among the commonly used ones.

Chinese medicinal diets are based on theories of traditional Chinese medicine and Chinese food culture.

As a critical part of traditional Chinese medicine, Chinese medicinal diets have been valued by generations of physicians. Zhouli Tianguan records dietary doctors as parallel to physicians and surgeons, who specialized in health care through food and dietary hygiene.

Chinese medicinal diets are built upon the basis of traditional Chinese medicine theory, focusing on the whole and emphasizing pattern or syndrome identification. They are used for treatment or as auxiliary cures for certain diseases and have good curative effects. In its development process, Chinese medicinal diets are not only guided by TCM theory but also inevitably influenced by the food culture involving Chinese cultural arts, food aesthetics, ethnic or national characteristics, and so forth.

In terms of property, Chinese medicinal diets still belong to the scope of food. While emphasizing their medicinal and health-promoting effects, they are also particular about their looks, smells, and tastes. For example, the principle of five-flavor harmony points out that medicinal diets should have distinctive flavors and prefer them to be palatable; that all kinds of cooking methods have been valued as the basis of cookery by generations of chefs; that they distinguish themselves from other food culture by appealing to the mood as well as state of mind; that the diverse regionality characterizes Chinese medicinal diets as having distinct regional flavors and ethnic characteristics. In a word, Chinese medicinal diets bear unique national characteristics and traditions and are the communal treasure of China and the world.

Passed on to this day, Chinese medicinal diets have been influenced by traditional Chinese food culture. There is a myriad of foods and many more ways of cooking. They can be roughly divided into four categories: dishes, medicinal porridge, refreshments, and beverages.

Including methods like sautéing, quick frying, frying, coating, souping, thick souping, stewing, sausaging, etc. Various kinds of plant or animal ingredients may be added to make delectable dishes. For example, in Shouqin Yanglao Xinshu,originally by Chen Zhi in Song Dynasty and continued by Zou Xuan in Yuan Dynasty, the pig’s trotter thick soup is made by the extract of Armand Clematis Stem and pig’s trotters, which can treat postpartum agalactia. The braised soft-shelled turtle in the Shipu (recipe) of the Qing Dynasty has the effect of nourishing yin and cooling blood.

Zan Yin’s Shiyi Xin Jian in Tang Dynasty collected about 200 prescriptions for diet, including 57 medicinal porridge recipes, which laid the foundation of medicinal porridge treatment for later generations. Huang Yunque’s Zhou Pu in Qing Dynasty is a monograph devoted to the discussion of medicinal porridge, which shows how much people valued it.

There is a great variety of refreshments in Chinese food culture, and medicinal refreshments have appeared in diet books of past dynasties. For example, in Shi Xian Hong Mi, there are orange cakes that can regulate qi to smooth the middle, descend qi, relieve cough, and Barbary Wolfberry Fruit cake that can tonify spleen and kidney; in Chuan Ya Wai Bian, there is Jiuxian Wudao Gao, a kind of cake that could strengthen vitality and original qi; in Shanjia Qinggong, there are Lily Bulb noodles that can tonify blood and qi; in Shengji Zonglu, there is Pepper Fruit wonton that could cure dysentery, and Kudzuvine Root rice that could help cure stroke, mania, unstable heart and spirit, and unclear speech; in Yin Shan Zhengyao, there is Tianhua steamed stuffed bun and Poria pastry that could help cure most diseases and prolong life if consumed for long.

Common drinks and beverages in medicinal diets include soup, drink, tea, alcohol, milk, juice, etc. For example, in Yin Shan Zhengyao, there is Masidaji soup that could tonify qi and warm the middle, and barley soup that could warm the middle and lower qi. Medicinal alcohols are mostly made by soaking the medicine herbs in alcohol, such as White Atractylodes Rhizome alcohol, which can help cure diseases and prolong life, and Wujing alcohol. Teas are mostly single teas but can also be added with other medicines. For example, in Yin Kui Pu, there is Gouij Mian tea that could nourish the kidney, moisten the lungs, tonify the liver, and improve vision. Most juices are made from fresh fruits, such as Wuzhi Yin in Wenbing Tiaobian, and Erxian Yin in Yixue Zhongzhong Canxi Lu. Milk or dairy products are also commonly used medicinal foods, such as cow milk, which could treat dry-heat gastric juice according to Wenbing Tiaobian.

Chinese medicinal diets pay close attention to the specific relations between the nature of food flavors and the five zang organs.

Suowen-Zangqi Fashi Lun Pian states that medicines are used to help combat pathogens, the five grains are used to nourish the body, the five fruits/seeds are auxiliary, the five kinds of animal meat are used to tonify, and the five vegetables are used to strengthen and fill; that when the smells and flavors harmonize, consume the dish to tonify essence and qi. This proves that as early as the pre-Qin period, the ancestors of Chinese nations advocated an equal emphasis on food and medicine. As an integral part of TCM, Chinese medicinal diets base their selection, pairing, and proportions of foods on the overall concept of TCM, theories of yin-yang, five elements, syndrome differentiation, therapeutic methods, and properties of medicine herbs.

Traditional Chinese medicine believes that both food and drinks could have the properties of warm, heat, cold, cool, or neutral, and have the five flavors of sour, bitter, spicy, salty, and sweet. Medicinal diets should select foods whose properties match those of the human body or the disease.

Generally speaking, cold and cool foods are more often used for heat syndromes or constitution with predominant yang. Warm and hot foods can warm yang and dispel cold, therefore often used for cold syndromes or constitution with predominant yin. Neutral foods are appliable for both heat syndromes and cold syndromes, and they are especially appropriate for those who are too weak to absorb food high in nutritious or medicinal value, and those with excess syndromes who have difficulty discharging any harmful accumulations.

The five flavors of food have certain corresponding relationships with the five zang organs in the body, therefore, the preferences and prohibitions of those organs should be considered when using diets to treat diseases. For example, Lingshu-Wujin Diliushiyi mentions the principles of the five prohibitions, which state: that spices are prohibited for those with liver diseases, salt is prohibited for those with heart diseases, sourness is prohibited for those with spleen diseases, sweetness is prohibited for those with kidney diseases, and bitterness is prohibited for those with lung diseases; that the food should be appropriate for the disease but harmful to the body.

Chinese medicinal diets can help cure diseases, strengthen the body, and resist aging.

Medicinal diets achieve the goal of curing disease and promoting health using natural plants, animals, and a few minerals. For instance, modern research has confirmed that Lingzhi, Dangshen, Milkvetch Root, Snow fungus, etc. can enhance the phagocytic function of white blood cells; Ginseng, Milkvetch Root, Snow fungus, Rehmannia glutinosa, Chinese Magnoliavine Fruit, Dodder Seed, etc. can improve cellular immune function; cinnamon, Common Curculigo, Epimedium Herb, etc. which are yang-tonifying herbs, can promote the formation of antibodies; Turtle Carapace, Figwort Root, Cochinchinese Asparagus Root, etc. which are tonifying-yin herbs, can extend the existence of antibodies and thus enhancing the immune system; White Atractylodes Rhizome, Chinese Angelica, Eucommia Bark, Debark Peony Root, ­etc. can reinforce the inhibition process of the nervous system to achieve sedative effects; Ginseng can shorten nerve reflexes, speed up the conduction of nerve impulses, thereby improving its functions; Ginseng and Barbary Wolfberry Fruit can lower blood sugar and inhibit the formation of cholesterol; Chinese Angelica and Sichuan Lovage Rhizome, etc. which are blood-activating medicine herbs, can improve microcirculation; Dangshen, Malaytea Scurfpea Fruit, etc. can increase the number of white blood cells; ass hide glue, Pilose Antler, etc. can improve hematopoietic function; Dendrobium can promote gastric secretion; Rhizoma Polygonati, Fleeceflower Root can prevent and treat atherosclerosis; Milkvetch Root, Eucommia Bark can help lower blood pressure.

In short, the practice of physicians in the past dynasties has proven that Chinese medicinal diets can prevent and treat diseases, promote and maintain health, and prolong life. They are widely recognized for their effects of improving metabolism, enhancing immunity, and resisting aging.

Chinese medicinal diets take the form of food and the properties of medicine.

Medicinal diets are made with food as the main body and added with medicines that have specific functions, which are carefully cooked. They organically combine medicine herbs and food while maintaining the functions of both. Medicinal diets have the taste of food and the properties of the medicine herbs. Food cures with the addition of medicine, and the medicine helps food strengthen the body. Together, they achieve the goal of preventing and curing diseases, maintaining and promoting health, and nourishing the body.

In his book Shiyi Xinjian,Zan yin introduces related medicinal diet prescriptions after discussing each type of disease, explaining their efficacy at first and then listing required food and medicines as well as the amount needed. Commonly used food in medicinal diets is rice, boiled Coix seeds, Common Yam Rhizome, soybeans, chicken, mutton, carp, pig liver, and cow milk, which are often added with related medicines. For example, the dish that cures postpartum red and white dysentery, carp stew, needs carp, radish, orange skin, dried ginger, Pepper Fruit, Douchi sauce, etc., and Peach Seed porridge that could cure cold pain in the heart and abdomen.

The therapeutic mechanism of medicinal diets is basically the same as those of medicines, which primarily plays a role in reinforcing healthy qi and eliminating pathogens. However, in practical applications, one should be clear that medicinal diets are food with medicinal properties, which is drastically different from medicines. Medicines prioritize disease treatment, and the dosages are usually large, hence the effects can be seen in a short period; medicinal diets are based on food, so the dosage of medicine is small, and the effect is often slow, having few side effects. Therefore, medicinal diets are to be consumed long-term. In his Qianjin Yaofang, Sun Simiao said, “doctors should first study to understand the source of the disease, know the cause, and cure it with food; if the patient cannot recover, then use medicines.” It shows that medicinal diets can be used alone before medication, but they can also be used alone during recovery. From the perspective of clinical disease treatment, medicinal diets cannot replace medicine to a large extent, especially when treating patients with acute diseases, where medicine is most preferred. Even if medicinal diets are included, they can only be auxiliary. Therefore, one must not delay the condition of critically ill patients by only focusing on the advantages of medicinal diets.