Does Chinese Medicine Believe in Superfoods?
By Madalina Hubert
In the book “People Who Shaped China,” there is a story about the legendary ancient Chinese medical doctor Hua Tuo. One day, two patients came to him, both of them complaining of fever and headache. Hua Tuo examined each of them and gave a laxative to one and a sweat-inducing drug to the other. The two men looked at the doctor curiously. They came with the same symptoms, why are they are getting different treatments? Hua Tuo explained that the first man needed a laxative to address an internal injury affecting his spleen. The second man needed to sweat because he had a cold.
This story is a good reminder that although people may present the same symptoms on the surface, they may, in fact, have different illnesses, and thus need different treatments.
The same is the case for food. In traditional Chinese medicine, food plays an important part in both treatment and prevention. Diet is prescribed not only according to a particular illness, but also according to the person’s personality, body type, and environmental factors.
Chinese medicine’s dietary prescriptions may include regular food dishes and/or medicinal dishes, which can be a mixture of herbs, food and condiments.
The Superfood Debate
In recent years, there has been more and more talk of superfoods, ingredients that are so powerful that their properties can alleviate multiple illnesses and promote a healthy life. These superfoods may include both local foods such as blueberries and spinach, or imported ingredients such as goji berries and green tea.
Many nutritionists, however, have condemned the label of superfoods as a marketing gimmick. They believe that no matter how nutritious a food is, it cannot replace a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables. If one eats too much of one ingredient, regardless of its benefits, it may cause an imbalance and therefore harm the body.
At the same time, where do we draw the line as to what constitutes a superfood? For example, we know the popular saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” and apples have indeed been found to have many health benefits, including anti-cancer and antioxidant capabilities. However, how often do we consider the apple as a superfood, especially when comparing it to more exotic fruit, such as goji berries or acai berries?
We can also find that lists of superfoods today can range from 10 to 100 different items. It seems that every fruit and vegetable, grain, meat, seafood, or dairy has a kind of superfood quality associated with it. On the other hand, this is not so surprising, considering that much of this food has been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, different foods have different properties that can help the body at various times. There is no one-size-fits-all label since Chinese medicine studies not only the flavour of a particular food (salty, sour, sweet, bitter, or pungent) but also the temperature changes it causes in the body (warming or cooling). Different foods also have effects on different illnesses. In the section below we will look at some examples.
Cold and Flu Remedies
Here are a few ingredients that can be beneficial for cold and flu. Interestingly, many of these have been part of home remedies passed down in other traditional cultures as well.
- Honey – A neutral energy ingredient, honey helps soothe the lungs, improve the immune system, and provide relief for cough and sore throat;
- Garlic – A warming herb that promotes circulation and sweating, garlic also has strong anti-bacterial and anti-viral capabilities;
- Warm soup or broth (i.e. congee, miso soup, bone broth) – In addition to warming the body and encouraging sweating, these foods are light and easy to digest. One can also easily mix in other disease fighting-ingredients, such as spring onions or ginger;
- Ginger – A warming herb with a pungent flavour, ginger stimulates blood circulation and reduces fever and cough, among other benefits;
- Honeysuckle, chrysanthemum flowers, mint, licorice – These are cooling herbs that can treat fever and strengthen the lungs. They can be purchased as herbs from a herbalist and drunk together with hot water as a tea.
Note that some types of colds and flu symptoms require cooling the body (i.e. high fever), while others warming the body (i.e. severe chills). That is why it is important to look at the temperature properties (cooling, warming or neutral) of the ingredients, in addition to the actual temperature of the meal (i.e. raw or heated), an aspect that traditional Chinese medicine discusses extensively.
Here are some recommended articles that look at these ingredients and principles in greater depth:
There are different types of cough, so each type requires different treatments and foods to avoid.
The most common types are:
- Cold cough (with thin white phlegm) – It’s good to eat warming pungent foods, such as ginger, onion, coriander, as well as to avoid cooling foods, such as bananas, melons and peppermint. Staying away from frozen or raw food as much as possible is also a recommendation.
- Heat cough (with thick yellow phlegm) – Food with cooling properties are beneficial, including fresh radishes, wheat, pear, strawberries. Warming foods such as ginseng, ginger and mutton should be avoided. One should also stay away from hot food.
- Dry cough – This indicates dryness in the lungs, so it is good to eat food that is nourishing for the lungs, such as honey, almonds, pears and tomatoes. At the same time, it is best to avoid spicy, frozen or hot food.
For all types of cough, it is also recommended to keep away from greasy foods.
For more information on cough treatments, visit:
Popular Chinese Superfoods
Here is also a list of some of the best known Chinese so-called superfoods that have been popularized in North America. While they are not necessarily the cure-all, they have many beneficial properties.
- Goji Berries – These are certainly one of the most popular superfoods and are believed to promote good digestion, improve eyesight, and boost the immune system. They are neutral foods and can benefit different body types. Enjoy goji berries as tea, a snack or an ingredient in a soup or porridge.
- Green Tea – This is a popular cooling food (even if it is drunk hot) and it is a good anti-oxidant. It can also boost energy since it has caffeine, although less than coffee. Additionally, green tea can lower blood pressure and relieve stress.
- Jujubes (or red dates) – This is a warming sweet fruit that has many healing benefits. It can calm the mind and improve mood and energy, alleviate gastrointestinal problems, and boost the immune system. It also has anti-inflammatory properties among other benefits. Enjoy jujubes as tea, a snack or an ingredient in soup.
- Ginseng – This is a warming herb that can alleviate a variety of ailments, including diabetes, fatigue, inflammation, and digestive conditions. Ginseng comes in different forms, including dried, powdered, in capsules or tablets. A popular way to consume it is as a tea.
Certainly, these are just general guidelines on the healing properties of different ingredients. For personalized treating methods, it is best to consult a Chinese medical doctor. It is also important to remember, for many ailments, factors such as emotional state and exercise make a difference. Recommendations for a holistic impact on the body are slow-moving exercises like qigong.
Madalina Hubert is a Toronto-based writer specializing in art, culture, travel, and culinary explorations.