Chinese food therapy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Chinese food therapy
Alternative medicine
ClaimsHealth claims relating to Chinese diet
Related fieldsTraditional Chinese medicine

Chinese food therapy (simplified Chinese: 食疗; traditional Chinese: 食療; pinyin: shíliáo; lit. 'food therapy', also called nutrition therapy and dietary therapy) is a mode of dieting rooted in Chinese beliefs concerning the effects of food on the human organism,[1] and centered on concepts such as seasonal eating and in moderation.[2][3][4] Its basic precepts are a mix of Taoist Wuxing and eight principle theory that are concepts drawn from the modern representation of traditional Chinese medicine.

Food therapy has long been a common approach to health among Chinese people both in China and overseas, and was popularized for western readers in the 1990s with the publication of books like The Tao of Healthy Eating (Flaws 1995a) and The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen (Young 1999).[5]


A number of ancient Chinese cookbooks and treatises on food (now lost) display an early Chinese interest in food, but no known focus on its medical value.[6] The literature on "nourishing life" (养生; 養生; yǎngshēng) integrated advice on food within broader advice on how to attain immortality. Such books, however, are only precursors of "dietary therapy", because they did not systematically describe the effect of individual food items.[7] In the volume on "Fermentations and Food Science" of Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, H. T. Huang considers the Recipes for Fifty-Two Ailments (c. 200 BCE) and the Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon as precursors of the "dietary therapy" tradition, the former because it recommends food products as remedies for various illnesses, the latter because it discusses the impact of food on health.[8] The materia medica literature, exemplified by the Shennong Bencao Jing (1st century CE), also discussed food products, but without specializing on them.[9]

The Shiliao Bencao stated that many parts of the wild boar could be used therapeutically. Boar gallstones, powdered and decocted, could cure epidemics. Boar teeth, burnt to ashes and ingested, could alleviate the symptoms of snakebites. And refined boar fat taken with cereal wine could help nursing women produce more milk.[10]

The earliest extant Chinese dietary text is a chapter of Sun Simiao's Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Gold (千金方; qiānjīn fāng), which was completed in the 650s during the Tang dynasty.[11] Sun's work contains the earliest known use of the term "food (or dietary) therapy" (shiliao).[1] Sun stated that he wanted to present current knowledge about food so that people would first turn to food rather than drugs when suffering from an ailment.[12] His chapter contains 154 entries divided into four sections – on fruits, vegetables, cereals, and meat – in which Sun explains the properties of individual foodstuffs with concepts borrowed from the Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon: qi, the viscera, and vital essence (; jīng), as well as correspondences between the Five Phases, the "five flavors" (sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty), and the five grains.[13] He also set a large number of "dietary interdictions" (食禁; shíjìn), some based on calendrical notions (no water chestnuts in the 7th month), others on purported interactions between foods (no clear wine with horse meat) or between different flavors.[14]

Sun Simiao's disciple Meng Shen (孟诜; 孟詵; 621–713) compiled the first work entirely devoted to the therapeutic value of food: the Materia Dietetica (食疗本草; 食療本草; Shíliáo běncǎo; 'food therapy materia medica').[15] This work has not survived, but it was quoted in later texts – like the 10th-century Japanese text Ishinpō – and a fragment of it has been found among the Dunhuang manuscripts.[16] Surviving excerpts show that Meng gave less importance to dietary prohibitions than Sun, and that he provided information on how to prepare foodstuffs rather than just describe their properties.[17] The works of Sun Simiao and Meng Shen established the genre of materia dietetica and shaped its development in the following centuries.[18]

Later history[edit]

An abundant literature developed in China around the medicinal uses of food. A mid-ninth-century work, now lost, called Candid Views of a Nutritionist-Physician (simplified Chinese: 食医心鉴; traditional Chinese: 食醫心鑑) discussed how food could treat various disorders, while several works from the Song dynasty (960–1279) explained how to feed the elderly to extend their life.[19]

In the early 14th century, Hu Sihui, who served as Grand Dietician (simplified Chinese: 饮膳太医; traditional Chinese: 飲膳太醫; pinyin: yǐnshàn tàiyī) at the court of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1260–1368), compiled a treatise called Yinshan zhengyao, or Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor's Food and Drink (Chinese: 饮膳正要; pinyin: yǐnshàn zhèngyào), which is still recognized in China as a classic of both materia medica and materia dietetica.[20] Influenced by the culinary and medical traditions of the Turko-Islamic world and integrating Mongol food stuffs like mutton into its recipes, Hu's treatise interpreted the effects of food according to the scheme of correspondences between the five phases that had recently been systematized by northern Chinese medical writers of the Jin dynasty (1115–1234) and Yuan eras.[21] Before that period, food materials had not yet been comprehensively assigned to the five flavors systematically correlated with specific internal organs and therapeutic effects.[22]

Chinese understandings of the therapeutic effects of food were influential in East Asia. Cited in Japanese works as early as the 10th century, Chinese dietary works shaped Korean literature on food well into the Joseon period (1392–1897).[23] In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the imperial court of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) ordered several works on Chinese food therapy translated into Manchu.[24]

Main tenets[edit]

Although the precepts of Chinese food therapy are neither systematic nor identical in all times and places, some basic concepts can be isolated.[25] One central tenet is that "medicine and food share a common origin", and that food materials can therefore be used to prevent or treat medical disorders.[26] Like medicinal drugs, food items are classified as "heating" (; ; ) or "cooling" (; ; liáng).[27] In popular understanding, "heating"[28] food is typically "high-calorie, subjected to high heat in cooking, spicy or bitter, or 'hot' in color (red, orange)", and includes red meat, innards, baked and deep-fried goods, and alcohol.[29] They are to be avoided in the summer and can be used to treat "cold" illnesses like excessive pallor, watery feces, fatigue, chills, and low body temperature caused by a number of possible causes, including anemia. Green vegetables are the most typical "cooling" or "cold" food, which is "low-calorie, watery, soothing or sour in taste, or 'cool' in color (whitish, green)". They are recommended for "hot" conditions: rashes, dryness or redness of skin, heartburns, and other "symptoms similar to those of a burn", but also sore throat, swollen gums, and constipation.[25]

In more systematic understandings, each medicine or food item has one of five flavors: sour, sweet, bitter, pungent (or "acrid"), and salty.[30] Besides describing the taste of food, each of these "flavors" purportedly has specific effects on particular viscera. The sour flavor, for instance, has "constriction and emollient effects" and "can emolliate the liver and control diarrhea and perspiration", whereas "bitter" food can "purge the heart 'fire', reduce excessive fluids, induce diarrhea, and reinforce the heart 'Yin'".[31]

Scientific assessments[edit]

There are few studies in English on the scientific validity of these beliefs and practices.[31] A few studies conducted in China suggest that a diet designed according to the precepts of Chinese food therapy may help control blood pressure, but these studies are based on different diagnostic categories than those of evidence-based medicine ("Yin deficiency" instead of hypertension), and on chiefly qualitative and conceptual evidence rather than on modern randomized controlled trials.[3][31] Consequently, the claims of efficacy are weaker in scientific evidence than those based on mixed nutritious foods and demonstrated to have health effects by extensive clinical research, such as the DASH diet or Mediterranean diet.[31][32]

Other examples[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Engelhardt 2001, p. 173.
  2. ^ Whang J (January 1981). "Chinese traditional food therapy". J Am Diet Assoc. 78 (1): 55–7. doi:10.1016/S0002-8223(21)04739-8. PMID 7217561. S2CID 37479374.
  3. ^ a b Shen, CuiZhen; Samantha Mei-Che Pang; Enid Wai-Yung Kwong; ZhiQing Cheng (April 2010). "The effect of Chinese food therapy on community dwelling Chinese hypertensive patients with Yin-deficiency". Journal of Clinical Nursing. 19 (7–8): 1008–1020. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2702.2009.02937.x. hdl:10397/25717. PMID 20492045.
  4. ^ Temelie, Barbara (2002). The five-elements wellness plan: a Chinese system for perfect health. New York: Sterling Pub. Co. ISBN 978-0-8069-5867-5. OCLC 49970502.
  5. ^ Barnes 2013, p. 339–41, which also cites Flaws 1995b, Zhao & Ellis 1998, and Simonds 1999.
  6. ^ Engelhardt 2001, p. 174–175.
  7. ^ Engelhardt 2001, p. 175–176.
  8. ^ Huang 2000, pp. 120–21.
  9. ^ Huang 2000, p. 134.
  10. ^ Tsang 1996, p. 54.
  11. ^ Engelhardt 2001, p. 176.
  12. ^ Engelhardt 2001, p. 177.
  13. ^ Engelhardt 2001, pp. 178–181.
  14. ^ Engelhardt 2001, pp. 181–183.
  15. ^ Engelhardt 2001, p. 184.
  16. ^ Engelhardt 2001, p. 185 (not extant, origin of fragments); Huang 2000, p. 136 ("first bencao compilation devoted to diet therapy").
  17. ^ Engelhardt 2001, pp. 184–187.
  18. ^ Engelhardt 2001, p. 187.
  19. ^ Huang 2000, p. 137.
  20. ^ Buell & Anderson 2010, pp. 3 (date and translation) and 141 (later reception).
  21. ^ Buell & Anderson 2010, pp. 113–46.
  22. ^ Lo 2005, p. 164 ("it wasn't until the late medieval herbals and dietaries that we have good evidence that individual foods and medicines were comprehensively assigned medical properties"); Buell & Anderson 2010, p. 139.
  23. ^ Ro 2016, pp. 133 and 137–38.
  24. ^ Hanson 2003, p. 114–15.
  25. ^ a b Anderson 2013, pp. 259–260.
  26. ^ Huang 2000, p. 571.
  27. ^ Anderson 2013, p. 259.
  28. ^ "Keep cool by avoiding 'heaty' foods". The New Paper. 8 July 2019.
  29. ^ Anderson 2013, pp. 259–260.
  30. ^ Buell & Anderson 2010, p. 139.
  31. ^ a b c d Zou, P (2016). "Traditional Chinese Medicine, Food Therapy, and Hypertension Control: A Narrative Review of Chinese Literature". The American Journal of Chinese Medicine. 44 (8): 1579–1594. doi:10.1142/S0192415X16500889. PMID 27852126.
  32. ^ "DASH or Mediterranean: Which diet is better for you?". Harvard Health Publications, Harvard University. 2017. Retrieved 6 August 2017.
  33. ^ Zhu, Chun-Han (1989). Clinical Handbook of Chinese Prepared Medicines. Paradigm Publications. pp. 90–91. ISBN 978-0-912111-43-8.

Works cited[edit]

  • Anderson, Eugene N. (2013), "Folk Nutritional Therapy in Modern China", in T.J. Hinrichs; Linda L. Barnes (eds.), Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pp. 259–260, ISBN 978-0-674-04737-2.
  • Barnes, Linda L. (2013), "A World of Chinese Medicine and Healing: Part Two", in T.J. Hinrichs; Linda L. Barnes (eds.), Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pp. 334–378, ISBN 978-0-674-04737-2.
  • Buell, Paul D.; Anderson, Eugene N. (2010), A Soup for the Qan, Second Revised and Expanded Edition, Leiden and Boston: Brill, ISBN 978-90-04-18020-8
  • Engelhardt, Ute (2001), "Dietetics in Tang China and the first extant works of materia dietetica", in Elisabeth Hsü (ed.), Innovation in Chinese Medicine, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 173–191, ISBN 0-521-80068-4.
  • Flaws, Bob (1995a), The Tao of Healthy Eating: Dietary Wisdom According to the Traditional Chinese Medicine, Boulder, Colorado: Blue Poppy Press.
  • Flaws, Bob (1995b), The Book of Jook: Chinese Medicinal Porridges—A Healthy Alternative to the Typical Western Breakfast, Boulder, Colorado: Blue Poppy Press.
  • Hanson, Marta (2003), "The Golden Mirror in the Imperial Court of the Qianlong Emperor, 1739-1742", Early Science and Medicine, 8 (2): 108–47, doi:10.1163/157338203X00035, JSTOR 4130134, PMID 15043047
  • Huang, H. T. (2000), Science and Civilization in China, Volume VI, Part 5, Fermentations and Food Science, Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press
  • Lo, Vivienne (2005), "Pleasure, Prohibition, and Pain: Food and Medicine in Traditional China", in Roel Sterckx (ed.), Of Tripod and Palate: Food, Politics, and Religion in Traditional China, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 163–85, doi:10.1057/9781403979278_9, ISBN 978-1-349-52746-5
  • Ro, Sang-ho (2016), "Cookbooks and Female Writers in Late Chosŏn Korea", Seoul Journal of Korean Studies, 29 (1): 133–57, doi:10.1353/seo.2016.0000, S2CID 147809513  – via MUSE (subscription required)
  • Simonds, Nina (1999), A Spoonful of Ginger: Irresistible Health-Giving Recipes from Asian Kitchens, New York: Knopf.
  • Tsang, Ka Bo (1996), "Chinese Pig Tales", Archaeology, 49 (2): 52–57, JSTOR 41770593
  • Young, Grace (1999), The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Classic Family Recipes for Celebration and Healing, New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Zhao, Zhuo; Ellis, George (1998), The Healing Cuisine of China: 300 Recipes for Vibrant Health and Longevity, Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press.

Further reading[edit]

  • Cai, Jinfeng (1988), Eating Your Way to Health: Dietotherapy in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Peking: Foreign Language Press.
  • Farquhar, Judith (1994), "Eating Chinese Medicine", Cultural Anthropology, 9 (4): 471–97, doi:10.1525/can.1994.9.4.02a00020, JSTOR 656385
  • Flaws, Bob; Wolfe, Honora L. (1983), Prince Wen Hui's Cook: Chinese Dietary Therapy, Brookline, MA: Paradigm Publications.
  • Kastner, Joerg (2008), Chinese Nutrition Therapy: Dietetics in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Thieme Medical Publishers, ISBN 978-3131309624.
  • Liu, Jilin; et al., eds. (1995), Chinese Dietary Therapy, Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.
  • Lu, Henry C. (1986), Chinese System of Food Cures, Prevention and Remedies, New York: Sterling Publ. Co., ISBN 9789679782530.
  • Lu, Gwei-djen; Needham, Joseph (1951), "A Contribution to the History of Chinese Dietetics", Isis, 42 (1): 13–20, doi:10.1086/349229, JSTOR 226660, PMID 14831972, S2CID 10054102
  • Topley, Marjorie (1970), "Chinese Traditional Ideas and the Treatment of Disease: Two Examples from Hong Kong", Man, New Series, 5 (3): 421–37, doi:10.2307/2798950, JSTOR 2798950