Author: Dr. Maryam Mahanian, DTCM, RAc

The Best Diet suitable for everyone

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the spleen is considered the central and most important organ for digestion and metabolism. According to TCM principles, the spleen is responsible for transforming food into Qi (vital energy) and blood, and distributing these vital substances throughout the body.

When asked what the best diet is according to TCM, we say that the best diet is one that nourishes the spleen organ system. The Spleen Diet. It is also often referred to as the Clear Bland Diet. Food can’t be underestimated and Chinese medicine takes it very seriously. Food is considered a powerful form of medicine that heals the body.

The spleen diet in TCM involves eating foods that support the spleen’s function and avoiding those that may impair its function.

One of the reasons the Chinese medicine perspective of healthy eating is so important is its long history of over 2,000 years and time-tested knowledge. It has also been proven to work for a diverse range of geographical climates and environments, and many different cultures and lifestyles.

TCM provides clear, straightforward, simple, and common-sense guidelines for a healthy diet. But because everyone is unique, there are variations in this diet according to individual needs.

The process of digestion in TCM

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the process of digestion is viewed as a complex and multi-stage process involving several organs and systems in the body. Here is a brief overview of what is involved:

  1. The Spleen, as said above, is the central organ of digestion in TCM. Its main function is to transform food into Qi (vital energy) and Blood. It also helps to transport these substances to different parts of the body.
  2. The Stomach: The stomach is responsible for receiving food and liquids and to decompose and cook these. The stomach is like a pot on a stove. We call it the cooking pot. It needs sufficient fire underneath it to adequately break down the food/liquids.
  3. The Small Intestine: The small intestine is responsible for further breaking down food particles and absorbing nutrients, minerals, and vitamins from food. It separates the clear from the turbid and sends the clear essence to the spleen and the turbid waste to the large intestine.
  4. The Large Intestine: The large intestine is responsible for storing and eliminating waste products from the body. It also absorbs some water and minerals from feces before elimination.
  5. The Kidneys: The kidneys are responsible for transforming fluids and waste products into urine, which is then eliminated from the body.
  6. The Liver and Gallbladder: The liver and gallbladder are responsible for regulating the flow of Qi (energy) and bile. The liver ensures the smooth flow of Qi and the gallbladder stores and secretes bile, which helps to digest fats.

In TCM, the digestive process is viewed as an essential component of overall health and well-being. If any of these organs or systems are not functioning correctly, it can lead to a variety of digestive disorders and health problems.

The Spleen corresponds to Sweet Flavor

The sweet flavor is considered to have nourishing and tonifying properties for the body and is helpful in nourishing the spleen. But be moderate with this, because too sweet can actually damage the spleen.

The sweet flavor in TCM refers not only to the taste of sugar, but also to the natural sweetness found in foods like grains, fruits, and root vegetables. When consumed in moderation and in balance with other flavors, the sweet flavor can nourish and support the spleen’s function.

Here are some ways that the sweet flavor can benefit the spleen:

  1. Provides energy: Sweet foods like grains and fruits are a good source of carbohydrates, which provide energy for the body. The spleen needs energy to transform food into Qi and Blood, so consuming sweet foods can support this process.
  2. Nourishes Blood: In TCM, Blood is considered an important substance for overall health and vitality. The sweet flavor is said to nourish Blood by promoting its production and circulation. The spleen plays a key role in Blood production, so consuming sweet foods can support this function.
  3. Supports digestion: The sweet flavor is said to promote digestion by stimulating the production of digestive enzymes and fluids. This can help the spleen break down food and extract nutrients more efficiently.
  4. Calms the mind: In TCM, the spleen is said to play a role in mental clarity and focus. The sweet flavor is said to have a calming and grounding effect on the mind, which can support the spleen’s function.

Again, it’s important to note that consuming too much sweet food can lead to imbalances and health issues, especially for people with diabetes or other conditions that affect blood sugar levels. TCM emphasizes the importance of consuming sweet foods in moderation and in balance with other flavors.

Here are some general guidelines for a spleen-friendly diet. If you adopt some or all of these suggestions, your digestion, and overall health will thank you.

Eat warm and cooked foods: The spleen in TCM is believed to prefer warm and cooked foods over raw and cold foods, as warm and cooked foods are easier to digest and require less energy to break down.

Avoid excessive cold and raw foods: Consuming excessive amounts of cold and raw foods can weaken the spleen’s digestive function and lead to symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, and fatigue.

Avoid greasy and fatty foods: Greasy and fatty foods can also impair the spleen’s function, leading to indigestion, nausea, and diarrhea.

Eat small and frequent meals: Eating smaller and more frequent meals throughout the day can help support the spleen’s digestive function and prevent overtaxing the digestive system.

Some recommendations for an optimal spleen diet:

  1. Grains: Whole grains like rice, oats, barley, and quinoa are considered spleen-friendly in TCM. They are easy to digest, provide energy, and help support the spleen’s function.
  2. Root vegetables: Root vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, and parsnips are very nourishing so they help strengthen the spleen. They are also easy to digest and provide natural sweetness.
  3. Leafy greens: Dark leafy greens like spinach, kale, and chard are rich in nutrients and help support digestion and immunity, and are considered spleen-friendly.
  4. Fruits: Fruits like dates, figs, cherries, and bananas are considered spleen-friendly in TCM as they provide natural sweetness and nourishment. Citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits are also beneficial for the spleen.
  5. Lean proteins: Lean proteins like chicken, turkey, fish, and tofu are easier to digest than red meat and provide essential amino acids for the body. They are also considered spleen-friendly in TCM.
  6. Warm, cooked foods: According to TCM, the spleen prefers warm, cooked foods as they are easier to digest and help support the spleen’s function. Raw, cold foods can weaken the spleen and impair digestion.

How to Eat

Eat according to the seasons
TCM recommends eating seasonal foods to support the body’s natural rhythms and adapt to changing weather conditions. For example, in the summer, cooling foods like watermelon and cucumber are recommended, while in the winter, warming foods like ginger and cinnamon are preferred. Nature is very intelligent, providing foods that are most appropriate for the particular season. Fruits and vegetables that ripen in summertime are typically more cooling while those that ripen in wintertime are more warming in nature.

Avoid processed and refined foods: TCM emphasizes the importance of natural, whole foods, and advises avoiding processed and refined foods that are high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. These foods can weaken the digestive system and lead to imbalances in the body.

Relax and chew food thoroughly to maximize digestion. Digestion begins in the mouth.

Eat moderate amounts and don’t overeat

No late-night eating. Try to have your last meal at least three hours prior to bedtime. This not only helps digestion but also will help your sleep.

Stop eating before feeling full

Preferred ways of cooking are steaming, stir-frying, stewing, or baking. Steaming keeps food in its most natural state. Baking provides more heat so is perfect for those individuals with cold conditions. Try to avoid using too much oil while cooking and if possible just add oil after food is cooked.

Ideal Proportions:

40% of your diet should consist of whole grains: rice, millet, barley, wheat, oats, corn, rye, quinoa, amaranth.

40% of your diet should be fresh vegetables including dark leafy greens, cabbage, broccoli, celery, root vegetables

10% of your diet should be fresh fruits

10% of your diet should be animal products like dairy, meat, poultry, and eggs

Try to include seaweeds in your diet including nori, wakame, dulse, kombu, hiziki, and arame. They are high in minerals and nourish the kidney organ system in TCM.

Legumes, seeds and nuts are also important for your diet, particularly if you are vegetarian.

Warming versus Cooling

In TCM, all foods are categorized as either hot, warm, neutral, cool or cold. This refers to its physiological temperature, even after the food is cooked.

Some foods tend to cool the body down while others warm the body up. So when our body is warmer, like in the summer, we should eat foods that are cool in temperature like radishes, cucumber or tofu. When our body is cool like in the winter, we should try to eat more warm foods like animal products (red meat or lamb) and warming spices like ginger and garlic.

Also, people can constitutionally be more warm or more cold and should eat accroding to their own unique constitution.

Dampness

Different foods tend to generate more body fluids. Because our bodies are damp consisting of up to 70% water, most foods are also somewhat damp and that’s healthy. But there are some foods that are excessively damp and can interfere with the spleen’s function of transforming and transporting. Damp foods are said to injure the spleen.

The sweet flavor creates dampness so the more sweet a food is, the more damp it is. On top of this, when the sweet flavor is combined with sour, it can tend to be even more damp. This is the case with foods like citrus fruits, juices, tomatoes and honey.

Other dampening foods are ones that are highly nutritious like dairy products, meat, eggs, oils, and fats. In small amounts, they are very nourishing. In excessive amounts, they are dampening. The fatter and richer a meat is, the more damp it is.

Cold and raw foods are also damp. Ice cream is extremely damp because not only is it cold, but it is also rich and creamy.

Remember, a spleen-friendly diet is just one aspect of TCM, and a holistic approach to health is recommended for optimal well-being. Consult a qualified TCM practitioner or nutritionist to develop a personalized diet plan that suits your unique needs and health conditions.

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