When I ask my clients about their diet, they tell me they eat healthy – “Alex, you don’t have to worry about my diet as I eat lots of fruit and vegetables”. However, when I examine the details of their diet, they eat a lot of fruit and salad and relatively few cooked vegetables, and often only with dinner.

Warm Feet, Cool Head

But then, they tend to have cool feet and warm heads – the opposite of a healthy person, who has warm feet and a cool head. Think about traditional sayings in our own culture, “hot headed” or “cold feet”. This is a sign in Chinese medicine that the Spleen/Stomach is not in harmony. The Spleen (and Kidneys) becomes too cold and the upper body, in particular Liver and Heart, begin to heat up stirring up all sorts of chaos in the body. This creates an environment with a much greater chance of imbalance, i.e unwanted health conditions and disease.

The body is seen as a reflection of nature. Just as a healthy natural environment has snow on the mountain and warmth in the valley. This allows moisture to rise, clouds to form and the rain then naturally falls to nourish the earth.

Imagine the mountaintop been warmer than the valley! 

The Five Energies

In Chinese medicine, we see everything on the earth as a manifestation of the cosmos and its energy. There are five energies that influence all phenomena including food and herbal medicine. The cosmos gifted us the all important senses: where the Kidney’s Qi produces hearing; the Liver sight; the Lung smell; and the finest Qi of the Spleen-stomach’s gives us our sense of taste. Reflect on the purpose of these senses. How important they are for us to interact with the environment we live in. Qi is not only energy, it’s also information and a type of consciousness. The shape, the color and flavor of food provide us information.

Use the flavor of food to gain information about it! 

What information can we gain from the flavor of food? 

In Chinese medicine the five key tastes are salty, sour, bitter, sweet and pungent (spicy). Each flavor gives us information and clues as they impact our body differently.

For example, salty foods lead the Qi inward and downward and soften hardness, counteracting the hardening of muscles and glands. Saltiness regulates moisture balance in the body, stimulates digestion and improves concentration. However, too much of the salty flavor slows the flow of the blood and the circulation.

Chinese medicine states that all five flavors benefit humans. The environment you live, your age, and the season all affect flavor needs. Northern (cold) people prefer salty, coastals prefer sweet, inlanders prefer sour (vinegar) flavors and southerners (hot & humid) prefer spicy. Food and flavors balance us in the climate we live in. Why do people eat spicy food near the equator? Spices grow abundantly there. Spices helps move ‘dampness’ and raises your energy despite the sluggish humidity.

Thus in Chinese medicine it is an erroneous notion that there is one ideal diet, for example the Mediterranean Diet

The Trick of Sweet Food

Beyond this however, there is certainly a dominant flavor that humans know is good for them and nourishes them at the deepest level – Sweet! Chinese medicine says that sweet ‘nourishes’ and builds Qi & Blood. Our diet is dominated by sweet foods. Now here comes the tricky bit, as Chinese medicine divides sweet into two categories:

Full Sweet – Subtle sweet flavors are the real nourishes, warming and Qi/Blood builders – think about the flavor of plain rice, bread, oats, or cooked cabbage or carrots or even a steak. No sugar added, these foods are sweet (even more sweet with cooking). This is what we are designed to find in nature and eat. Full sweet flavors consist of cooked grains/legumes, cooked vegetables and cooked meat/seafood.

Hollow Sweet – Strong sweet flavors of fruits, honey and sugar enhanced products etc. Now, they also are sweet but a very different kind of sweet. These strong sweet flavors are seen as ‘hollow’, they tend to be more cooling, cleansing and can easily stress the Spleen/Stomach. Stressed out Spleen/Stomach means disharmony and ‘dampness’ in the body. Think about high humidity and ‘sluggishness’ in the body – referred to from our own cultural roots as the ‘phlegmatic’ person.

Sweet fruits tend to be ‘hollow sweet’ and eaten as snacks in the right environment in the right season feel cooling and cleansing. Like watermelon on a hot day. However, too much fruit and not enough cooked grains and cooked vegetables with meals creates an environment where there is over-cooling of organs that prefer to be warm leading to a lack of Qi & Blood, setting you up for imbalance.

Now, fruit is still good to eat at the right times, as it can be refreshing, hydrating, cooling, cleansing and provide nourishment of a different type to the body. Think between real meals as a snack and select seasonal and regional, more in summer/fall and less in winter/spring.

But, fruit is not the same as vegetables. I recommend three cooked meals a day, on time. Most of the people, most of the time should eat meals consisting of cooked grains, cooked seasonal vegetables plus small amount of protein. With that foundation, in Chinese medicine it is referred to as a healthy digestive-fire, seasonal fruit is an ideal addition as a snack. First, focus on building a healthy foundation of Qi & Blood through proper meals.

Think about the fruit that is considered most healthy in Asia, the round pear – it really has very little sweet flavor and tends to be cooling and cleansing without distressing the Spleen/Stomach too much.

Additional Thoughts From Straight Bamboo


Alexander K Tan is a licensed Acupuncturist.  After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China.  A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex’s bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives.  He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. For more about Alex click here

Alex runs a clinic in Flagstaff, Northern Arizona. Alex welcomes comments and questions to his articles. To schedule an appointment in person or telco-appointment click here