A Chinese Medicine Approach to Food: Skip the Cold Salad

by Dr. Eric Karchmer, PhD, MD (China), LAc |

A Chinese Medicine Approach to Food: Skip the Cold Salad

Do you start your day by grabbing a chilled vegetable juice from the fridge, eat a raw salad bowl for lunch, sushi for dinner and maybe treat yourself to a frozen sorbet for an evening snack?  Sounds reasonably healthy right? Maybe not, but not for the reasons you might think. We tend to eat a lot of raw and cold foods in western culture, but according to Chinese medicine theory, this could be a mistake.

Chinese dietary therapy refers to the “middle burner” and how to support your spleen and stomach by keeping one’s stomach warm (preferably around 100 degrees), meaning we should consume less cold and raw foods and consume more foods that are slightly cooked. In addition we should eat moderately and chew well. It's best to avoid chilled cold or frozen drinks that too often accompany a western meal.  To most acupuncturists and doctors of Chinese medicine, the benefits can be quite stark.

middle burner diet dao labs

Keep Your “Middle Burner” Balanced

Food keeps your “middle burner” balanced.  We want to maintain a strong middle burner fire, which warms your center and allows for proper digestion. If the fire becomes weak through lack of proper foods, the middle burner is forced to supplement it’s fire with energy drawn from the lower burner.  When this happens, your kidney fire (which the lower burning fuels) may become depleted. According to Chinese medicine doctors, this in turn can cause restlessness, imbalance or agitation in the mind and spirit. Agitation in the mind and spirit can interfere with proper digestion. Before you know it, you’ve become trapped in a cycle of depletion and disharmony affecting mind body and spirit all because your diet was not balanced and couldn’t support the middle burner fire.

The Triple Burner

In Chinese medicine, the stomach is likened to a pot on a stove with the upper burner containing the heart and lungs, a middle burner containing the spleen and stomach as well as a lower burner containing the kidneys, intestines, liver and reproductive organs.  The stomach is the pot of the middle burner and the spleen is the fire under the pot. The spleen’s function is to distill the purest parts of the food sending pure parts up to the lungs and heart to create Qi within the lungs and blood within the heart. The stomach sends down the impure parts of the food to be further transformed by the large intestine.  

Renowned Chinese Medicine writer Bob Flaws states that “...after more than 30 years of studying, eating and prescribing Chinese foods according to Chinese dietary theory and therapy, I have come to the conclusion that most people do best if they stick to what I have called  a basic middle burner, spleen- benefitting diet…”

chinese medicine diet

While our bodies are able to extract more nutrients from slightly cooked foods rather than raw foods, this also refers to the energetics of food or its post digestion temperature.  Eating too many cooling foods such as lettuce, celery, cucumber, mango, watermelon or tomato can chill or damage the middle burner or spleen-stomach; if these foods are consumed raw or chilled, this further intesifies their cooling effect.  The stomach and spleen are most affected by diet as the stomach receives the food, the spleen transforms food into Qi and blood, improper food means insufficient raw material reaches the spleen causing Qi or blood deficiency. 

What About Fresh Pressed Juices?  

An example of this is enjoying a healthy fresh juice of mostly vegetables.  By adding a warming ingredient like fresh ginger, you can bring the vegetable and fruit juice into balance, with some fresh lemon juice that can stimulate the flow of Qi.  Drinking a warm glass of water with your juice can also help, especially in the morning to help warm the digestive fire. We recommend drinking room temperature water throughout the day as opposed to ice water (routine in the west) and instead of drinking water during your meals try consuming your water between meals as drinking water, especially cold water during meals, can negatively affect digestion.

Most vegetables are cooling or even cold in nature and have a cooling effect on the body.  It makes sense to eat fresh seasonal fruits as your body requires cooling during the heat of summer.  Grains tend to be cool or neutral. Fish can be neutral or cooling. Poultry and red meats tend to be warming or hot.  Wild game tends to be more warm or hotter than domesticated. Dairy varies as Sheep milk is warmer than cow’s and goat’s milk even warmer than sheep.

chinese medicine diet

Changing Food Properties Through Spice & Cooking

You can change foods’ properties by cooking and adding spices.  For example, cooking vegetables can be thought of as a form of pre-digestion that helps break down the food before we eat it so that our bodies can more easily assimilate its nutrients.  Cooking also warms and helps lessen the cooling effects of foods. This is why we recommend cooking vegetables a bit before eating them so the raw cold vegetables do not put out your digestive burner or fire.  Adding spices or fresh ginger (which is considered hot), to cooling or cold ingredients can help neutralize this foods cooling nature. This is how adding a good amount of fresh ginger to the fresh juices helps to neutralize the raw vegetables cooling nature.  Another good example is when eating sushi: Pickled ginger acts as a palate cleanser but also works to neutralize the cooling nature of the raw fish.

“Cook or warm “cold” vegetables by adding spices to keep your middle burner warm (and digestion strong).”

The Chinese medicine diet is not a fixed thing and will usually be adjusted when conditions or symptoms change.  Chinese doctors pay attention to every little detail in life and ways to prepare food or mind state when eating also plays a significant role.  You will be surprised at how quickly your body will respond to the middle burner way of eating and remember that balance is key. You will want to adjust your diet as your body and environment changes, eating more raw and cooling foods on hot summer days will certainly make sense but overall try eating more slightly cooked and warming foods per the middle burner diet.  If we eat foods in a balanced way we keep our yin and yang balanced as well, as Chinese doctors will first treat illness and disease with food and diet and only consider western medicine if treating with food has not worked.

Interested in learning more?  We recently launched The Middle Burner by DAO Labs which connects this beautiful methodology to western ingredients.  While the diet is not meant to substitute the perspective you can gain from working with an acupuncturist for dietary therapy, it's a simple (and delicious) starting off point for learning more about how to maintain stronger digestive health.  

 “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” - Hypocrates

Dr. Eric Karchmer is a practicing Chinese medical doctor, medical anthropologist, and co-founder and Chief Doctor of Chinese Medicine for DAO Labs. From 1995-2000, Eric studied at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine and today is both a licensed acupuncturist and professor at Appalachian State University. Eric can be reached at drkarchmer@mydaolabs.com.

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