If you’re looking for a diet that boosts your energy levels, smooths digestion and harmonizes you with the seasons, consider turning to the wisdom of Taoist sages. These ancient Chinese philosophers used a wide array of different techniques to cultivate qi, or energy, including diet. Alongside exercise, meditation and healing techniques like acupressure, a qi-enhancing diet can promote excellent health and extend your longevity.
Taoist sages long ago noted that humans live in a constant state of change. From the turning of the seasons to the daily fluctuations of emotions, thoughts and the sleep-wake cycle, an individual is never the same from moment to moment. A qi diet uses food to correct imbalances that arise from change. In harmonizing you with shifting conditions, your diet can minimize the impact on your health, notes Livia Kohn, associate professor of religion at Boston University and author of “The Taoist Experience.”
In addition to metabolic fuel and vital nutrients, your body derives the majority of its qi--about 70 percent--from food, notes Joerg Kastner, M.D., licensed acupuncturist and author of “Chinese Nutrition Therapy.” In general, the more pure your food, the better your energy. Emphasize fresh, locally grown and seasonal foods, since the qi they contain is most suited to where you live. Gentle heating and steaming are two cooking techniques that preserve the qi in food. Limit processed foods, and avoid using a microwave, which can reduce the qi in food, according to the website Food Energetics.
Traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM, classifies foods according to the energy they carry, Kastner notes. The most important criteria are the thermal quality of food and its flavor. Food can be hot, warm, neutral, cool or cold. These categories don’t correspond to physical temperature, but rather the energetic quality of the food. Chinese cuisine identifies five different flavors: sweet, pungent--more commonly called “spicy”--sour, bitter and salty. Each flavor resonates with a different organ system in the body: the pungent flavor, for example, enhances the fiery energy of the heart.
TCM views food as medicine: just as your prescription medication might not work for someone else, and could be harmful, your ideal food combination would not work for everyone. People with yang qi deficiency, for example, might have a pale face, breathlessness and cold limbs. They would benefit from eating warming foods, like ginger, sweet brown rice, pumpkin and chicken, according to John Connor, practitioner at Compassionate Acupuncture & Healing Arts. People with yin qi deficiency, on the other hand, might feel warm in the afternoons and suffer night sweats. They should consume tofu, mushrooms, lemons, raspberries or duck.
While food is a major part of qi cultivation, there are other ways to enhance qi. Chinese herbal medicine can fine tune your energy in ways that diet alone cannot. Consult a Chinese herbalist for the best results. Taoist exercises, like tai chi and qigong meditation, allow you to draw qi more abundantly from your environment and the food you eat. The conscious intention that you put into such exercises is a major part of cultivating qi and achieving better health, notes Roger Jahnke, director of the Institute of Integral Qigong and Tai Chi in Santa Barbara, California, and author of “The Healing Promise of Qi.”