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Why is nutrition and eating certain foods an important part of the Chinese lifestyle?

A stone picture showing banquet in Han Dynasty (202BC-220AD)
In China, the concept of 'functional food' (that is food offering therapeutic benefits apart from nutrition) dates back 4000 years. Functional foods usually contain significant levels of biologically active components which boost a person's physical and physiological well being. Yi Yin, a legendary prime minister believed to have lived during the Shang Dynasty (1700 - 1100 BC), emphasized the value of decoctions, especially as medicaments. And early in the Zhou Dynasty (1100 - 221 BC), the court appointed a shiyi (nutritionist) to the palace to examine the relationship between the quality of food and nutritional intake, and its effect on health.

Healthy and active Chinese old men
Over the centuries, Chinese cuisine has developed into a remarkably varied one, using far more vegetables and meats than available in the West. One factor behind this development is the link between diet and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Food is considered more than just sustenance; it contains therapeutic properties and is prescribed by TCM doctors. While acupuncture and massage may be used to treat an ailment, and herbal mixtures infused to make teas, the first line of treatment is usually diet itself. Consider the fact that although China suffers from air, water, and soil pollution, life expectancy in the country has grown to 71 years which rivals that of the West. This is a remarkable achievement given its extremely low per capita income, shortage of medical services, and levels of pollution.

Chinese diet
TCM believes foods boost your entire system with concentrated energy provided by a carefully selected combination of herbs. This is referred to as "medicinal diet" because many of the herbs are given as tasty dishes. It is not uncommon for the Chinese to treat a minor ailment with a specially prepared meal, or by including a particular ingredient in a dish. Such functional foods are especially popular in Chinese households where the knowledge of certain foods as medicine has been passed down through the generations. The understanding of foods to treat certain health conditions is as useful as keeping a fully-stocked medicine cabinet. Even though modern medicine has been available since the beginning of this century, people still prefer to use functional foods, either as supplement to drugs, or as an alternative course of treatment. If a person suffers from a chronic disease or metabolic disorder, and drugs or herbal formulae are not the best options, functional foods become an important method of treatment. The foods not only provide the nutrients that the body needs, but also cure or relieve the problem via their therapeutic actions.

What is the concept of Chinese medicinal diet and the TCM context of food and medicine?

A Chinese medicinal diet is not a simple combination of food and herbs, but a specially prepared dish made from Chinese herbs, food and condiments according to the theoretical guidelines of diet preparation. Such a diet is in response to the different symptoms of a disease and its diagnosis according to TCM, and used to prevent and treat diseases, improve fitness, and/or slow down the aging process.

One of the unique concepts of TCM is that food and medicine come from the same source, they are based on the same theories, and have the same uses. TCM further states that
Chinese herbs are often incorporated into soups for health benefits.
good, free-flowing qi (vital energy) needs to flow within our body and if that qi is corrupted, we become ill. The flow of qi needs to be vigorous to maintain good health; and it can be improved and maintained by changing what we eat.

Although Chinese doctors study for years before prescribing herbal remedies, anyone can take the basic premises of Chinese medicine and apply it to daily life. In fact, there is a long tradition of using herbs at home which are added to salads. More often, these are cooked as fresh soups which are rich in vitamins and minerals.

The characteristics of using Chinese functional foods for health and healing are:

1. Synergy of food and medicine
  Medicine and food function as supplements and complement each other. Functional food is rendered with medicinal properties, and the effects of medicine become stronger with the combination of food.
2. Applied by differentiation of symptoms and signs
  TCM diagnosis and therapy are based on differentiating symptoms and signs, and this is incorporated into the selection of functional foods. Specific groups of signs and symptoms indicate specific treatment protocols. For example in spleen deficiency which is diagnosed by low spirits, weakness of limb, loss of appetite and abdominal distension - functional foods like Chinese date, ginger, Chinese yam and ginseng are added in order to invigorate functioning of the spleen.
3. Unique cooking techniques and procedures
  In order to ensure the desired result of a medicinal diet, herbs and foods should be specially processed such as cutting it into pieces, parching or grinding. Besides, cooking techniques are considered for retaining the effective constituents of food and bringing to bear its full effects on treatment and health care. Proper techniques also help to preserve the original juice and flavor of the ingredients so that it results in attractive colours, aroma, flavor and texture, thus arousing the appetite. Usual cooking methods are steaming, stewing, boiling or making soup while those of deep-fry or roasting are rarely used.
4. For enhancement and treatment
  Chinese functional foods are a milder course of treatment and can be used either to treat disease, or to help healthy people build stamina and prevent disease. This is one of the characteristics in which medicinal diet is different from drugs.


English References:
1. Chinese System of Food Cures Prevention & Remedies by Henry C. Lu.Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. 1986.
2. The Tao of Food, Richard Craze and Ronifjay, 1999 Godsfield Press.
3. Chinese Food: a Holistic Therapy by Tom Neuhaus, www.hopedance.org
4. Medicinal Food in China by Junshi Chen, M.D. http://newcenturynutrition.com
5. Cooling the Summer with Food: An Introduction to Medicinal Foods by Yanfang Wang, M.D., Ph.D. http://newcenturynutrition.com
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Written By:
Dang Yi (黨毅) MD PhD
Professor, Beijing University of Chinese Medicine; Visiting Professor, Middlesex
University, London, UK; Vice Director, Gourmet Food Institute of Health Care and Nutrition of Beijing, PRC.
Raka Dewan, Integrated Chinese Medicine Holdings Ltd.
Rose Tse, Integrated Chinese Medicine Holdings Ltd.