The traditional Chinese diet, featuring low or moderate amounts of animal-based protein and plenty of plant-based foods, is one among many traditional diet styles that has received praise for its disease-fighting abilities. More than just a delicious way of preparing food, traditional Chinese cooking uses food as therapy to harmonize the body with the seasons. Strategic blends of spices and flavors contribute to the healthful and delicious qualities of this diet.
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The traditional Chinese diet features vegetables that have been lightly steamed or stir fried, accompanied by starches like rice, noodles or dumplings. Meat and fish are part of the traditional diet, but are served in much smaller amounts than is typical in the Western diet. While American cooking styles tend to associate spices with flavor enhancement, in Chinese cooking, garlic and ginger tend to be included as aids to digestion, according to the website Chinese Holistic Health Exercises. Green tea, known for its antioxidant qualities, also features prominently in the Chinese diet.
The Five Flavors
Traditional Chinese medicine, TCM, posits that everything is made up of five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Each element has a corresponding flavor: sour, bitter, sweet, hot and salty. Balancing the elements by eating strategically from the different flavor groups is an important component of Chinese medicine, and can help you and even your pet achieve better health, according to the University of Florida’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s article on TCM and food. If you have diarrhea, sour foods like lemon or food pickled in vinegar can help. The sweet taste, exemplified in honey and many fruits, offers mood-elevating effects.
The landmark study into the benefits of the traditional Chinese diet was the 20-year China-Oxford-Cornell Diet and Health Project, the results of which were published by lead researcher T. Colin Campbell in his 2005 book “The China Study.” Campbell’s overarching conclusion from the study was that lower animal protein consumption among rural Chinese is the primary factor in their lower rates of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. The traditional Chinese diet’s emphasis on vegetables, light cooking techniques, and certain spices are also likely factors in its health-promoting qualities.
One of the more sophisticated concepts in Chinese cooking is the idea that anything you eat can influence your overall condition and well being. Choose what to eat based on your personal physical tendencies, Lizette Montgomery advises in her 1996 article on healing foods in “Yoga Journal.” Chinese medicine divides foods into the categories of “heating” and “cooling.” If you tend to be cold, eating warming foods like cooked grains and chilies might help. If you’re overheated and nervous, you might try raw vegetables and raw fruits, which are cooling.
You don’t have to be a professional Chinese chef to benefit from traditional Chinese cooking methods. Misha Ruth Cohen, practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and author of “The Chinese Way to Healing,” notes on the website Acupuncture.com that a traditional Chinese diet works because it relies on locally grown whole fruits and vegetables that are in season. Cohen advises using meat as an accent to meals, not a centerpiece. When you first try to shift to a Chinese style of eating, consuming beets, carrots and burdock is thought to help your body cleanse itself of any toxins it might need to purge.