Green smoothie with strawberries in a glass

Ancient Chinese diet secrets

In Diet, Nutrition and Recipes, Health and Nutrition by Dr Matt RadfordLeave a Comment

If everybody living in Australia today were relatively free from disease: living long, happy, healthy lives, there would be no need to look back into history for advice.


However, it seems the opposite is the case. The life expectancy and general health of the population which has steadily increased with each successive generation, has finally peaked. According to research in the USA, for the first time in recorded history, the average life span of the population will be shorter than that of their predecessors. That is, our children will die at a younger age than we will.

Why is this? Among the many reasons, believe that the most significant, and certainly the one we have most influence over, is diet. Not diet as in, “Lose weight? Ask me how”, but simply, what we eat, and how and when we eat it. So here are the secrets, based on Chinese diet.

Ancient Chinese Diet Secret Number One


Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But if you eat a conventional supermarket based diet, then you are ingesting a tremendous range of substances that were simply not in food 50 years ago, let alone 50,000 years ago. And this is nowhere near enough time in evolutionary terms for humans to adapt.

Poisons are sprayed on crops to kill so-called pests. In large doses, these poisons can kill humans, so it would seem logical to try to limit our intake of these chemicals.

  1. Grow your own food.
  2. Buy organic food. It is not only poison free, but is generally much more nutritious, hence, better value for money.
  3. Buy local. Food produced overseas may not be subject to the same controls on use of chemical and pesticides.
  4. Artificial sweeteners are artificial. Enough said.

Ancient Chinese Diet Secret Number Two


In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we consider people to be absolutely inseparable from their environment. Even if we are not living outside in the bush, we are still intimately affected by the natural cycle of the seasons, the moon and the prevailing weather. Melbourne experienced an extremely humid Summer. This dampness in the environment produces an increased in ‘dampness’ in people.

This concept can be difficult to grasp, as there is no equivalent in Western culture. This internal dampness gives rise to symptoms such as excessive phlegm, mucous, and a heavy feeling in the body. It may also affect concentration, making you feel like you have a ‘foggy head’ and generally feeling sluggish. The damp can accumulate in the joints, giving arthritic symptoms. This is why some people can feel their joints ache when the weather is about to change.

This ‘damp’ can remain latent in the body and manifest in the next seasons. This may explain the severe outbreaks of ‘gastro’ this Melbourne Winter.

Then in Spring, when the wind blows in the pollens, it stirs this ‘internal dampness’, and hay-fever season strikes.Many common illnesses such as asthma, eczema and chronic fatigue can also be due to this ‘damp’ accumulation. To prevent this, we must look at the diet very carefully. Traditional Chinese Medicine offers a very useful framework with which to do this.

The most important relationship in your life

This relationship to our environment has seen our bodies adapt physiologically over millions of years. In essence, our bodies are specially designed to work a certain way, and if we deviate from that, there are inevitable consequences for our health and well being.

Seasonal foods generally have particular health giving properties at that time. For example, pears moisten the dryness of Autumn, while melons cool Summer heat. Conversely, foods eaten in excess out of season can be detrimental to your health

In Chinese culture, foods can be classified according to their ‘properties’ and ‘tastes’. For example, bananas are considered cold in property and sweet in taste. They can easily produce phlegm in the body. Great for moisturising and cooling, if you are hot and dry, (on a tropical island), but not so great if your constitution tends to be ‘cold and damp’. Bananas don’t grow in a Melbourne Winter, and should not form a staple part of the diet at this time. So, the current high price of bananas in Melbourne is fantastic, from a TCM perspective!

Ancient Chinese Diet Secret Number Three


In TCM we refer to the digestive functions as the “pi wei” or “spleen and stomach”. We can consider the spleen and stomach as the kitchen of our body. The stomach “receives and ripens” the food, while the Spleen “transforms and transports” food into qi energy and blood.

So how to run a great kitchen?

Keep the kitchen clean, that is, avoid foods that are difficult to digest. Inside the stomach is rather like a soup, where everything is cooking away at 37°C. The closer food is to a 37°C soup, the easier it is to digest.

If too much hot natured food is eaten, for instance spicy food, fried foods and red meats, it can cause hot-natured problems such as acne and skin rashes, irritability, red itchy eyes, and a tendency towards constipation.

Likewise, too much cold natured food is equally as harmful. Raw vegetables, salads, many fruits and dairy products can be too cooling. TCM practitioners are often warning patients against cold or icy drinks, as this effectively ‘turns the digestion off’. In traditional cuisines, there is always a mix of tastes and properties. Indian hot curries served with a cooling cucumber and yogurt raita, oily and warming Chinese-style fried rice with a light clear soup, and cool natural Japanese nori rolls with hot pungent wasabi and warming ginger.

The aim of healthy eating is to find the correct balance. For people whose digestion is compromised either through illness or prolonged poor dietary habits, the journey to recovery is fuelled with warm, neutral natured food.

Last year I saw a classic example of this in my clinic. A concerned father brought in his two and half year old son, reporting that he had been basically unwell since his immunisations at six months old. The child suffered from a never-ending barrage of colds, runny and blocked nose, coughs and middle ear infections. This had essentially rendered him unable to hear properly and so his speech was not developing as quickly as others of his age. Questions pertaining to his diet revealed a predictable set of answers. This young fellow had a typical diet with an overabundance of cold and sweet natured foods. Namely: dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt (and I include soy milk in this category), refined wheat like wheat-bix, bread and biscuits, sugar in all its forms and foods such as bananas and peanut butter. Like most parents, they were completely unaware that all these foods produce excess phlegm.

However, after modifying the diet appropriately and doing simple massage on their son to stimulate the digestion, within weeks they had a healthy mucous free child again.

Ancient Chinese Diet Secret Number Four


Even though we may like eating odd things at odd times, our digestion does not appreciate it. We are designed to wake up at dawn, eat in the daylight and rest when it gets dark. Even in modern Chinese culture, meal times are adhered to ardently. In China, while Western tourists are wandering around at 5pm, wondering where everyone has gone, Chinese people are faithfully preparing for their evening meal.

Food produces energy. So if we eat after 9pm we often find that it is difficult to sleep as we have excess available energy. Thus we sleep poorly, wake up unrefreshed with no appetite, need a coffee to kick-start, so we skip breakfast and wonder why we feel tired and desperate for a mid-morning sugar hit. Lunch is eaten on the run, often while trying to do many things at once. Afternoon drowsiness, so more sugar, temporary high followed by mild depression, then late heavy dinner again.

Ancient Chinese Diet Secret Number Five


Ironically, I often find that many people that consider themselves overweight do not eat enough. First, they put their metabolism into starvation mode by not providing themselves with enough nutrition. The digestion becomes sluggish and subconsciously the body starts to slow down and avoid using more energy than it has needs to. Exercise becomes increasingly less appealing, and eventually, despite a small calorie intake, they continue to gain weight.

Moreover, because the body is deprived of fuel, it wants to store whatever is put into it, resulting in a build up of fat. Stored fat around the buttocks and thighs is normal and healthy, whereas fat accumulating around the midriff is not.

In most cases, eating small amounts of high quality protein mixed in with a generous serve of fresh vegetables, will cut down sugar cravings within three days.

Ancient Chinese Diet Secret Number Six


The ‘spleen-stomach’ does its job best when you are focusing on eating.

Digestion starts with seeing, then smelling, then finally tasting the meal. This sets up the digestive processes long before the food actually hits the stomach. As Ghandi was reported to have said, “Drink your food and eat your drinks”.

You must chew your food to liquid. This chewing process is vital to digestion. In the mouth, food is broken down mechanically by the chewing and mixed with saliva. The more liquid the food, the more it can be digested. If we are gulping down big chunks of meat, there is no surprise that it can pass into the intestines and remain there undigested, apparently in some cases for over year!

Chewing also develops the facial muscles and helps smooth wrinkles (a natural alternative to injecting your head with deadly botulinum toxin).

Children copy their parents, so demonstrate the correct techniques! Healthy eating habits are one of the best gifts that you can give them.

Finally, and this is no secret.


Put love into your food, and it will love you back.


“Food for the Seasons”, by Professor Lun Wong & Kath Knapsey. Black Dog Books 2002. This guide-book to healthy eating outlines the reasons for varying your diet according to the seasons and to your individual constitution. Also includes delicious recipes.

“Higher and Higher” by Jost Sauer. Kijo Publications 2005 (now published by Allen & Unwin – ed). This contains an excellent TCM description of the optimal types of foods and times for eating.

“Obesity & the end of civilization as we know it”. Seminar by Dr. Daniel Weber. Hilton on the Park. Melbourne 2005.

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