Home > China Facts > Chinese Culture and History > Chinese Food > Food and Health

Food and Health

Last updated by fabiowzgogo at 2016/12/16

The therapeutic qualities of food have been extremely important to the Chinese diet since ancient times.The god of agriculture in Chinese legend, Shennong, not only taught people to grow crops, but was also the master of medicine having ‘tasted hundreds of kinds of herbs”. This reflects an important idea in traditional Chinese medicine – “food and medicine share the same roots”.

The Chinese have always paid close attention to the preservation of health and prolonging life. The ancient book Huangdi Neijing (Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon) first introduced a comprehensive view on diet.

Only when the diet is comprehensive can nutrition be complete and balanced. The “five tastes” should be included in the diet so that no particular taste would be excessive enough to hurt the internal organs.


Ginseng is an excellent tonic.

Relying on daily diet to improve physique and health and to fight illness is at the heart of Chinese food culture. Compared with medicine, food is gentler to the body.

Every type of food contains certain “fine extract” that can exert different effects on the body. For the purpose of relieving excess heat in the body, Chinese doctors believe pears work for the lungs, bananas help the rectum, while kiwis do the same for the bladder. 

Different tastes also have different influences on the body. Usually, sourness goes to the liver, pungency goes to the lungs, bitterness into the heart, saltiness into the kidneys and sweetness to the spleen.

Tonic Foods

Depending on the season, there are great differences when taking tonic foods.

Different elements are absorbed by different internal organs, and have different effects on the body. Relying on the different nature and nutritional contents of foods to influence the physical body is a unique feature of Chinese food culture.

Hot and spicy foods can facilitate the flowing of qi (chi) in the five organs. In summer, with high humidity and heat, beverages such as mung bean soup, sweet-sour plum juice, lily bulb soup, chilled tea and so on, are great at protecting people from heat fever.

In the dry autumn air, it would be beneficial to consume foods that moisten the lungs, such as pear, persimmon, olive, turnip and tremella mushrooms. Chinese people often prefer turnip since it is inexpensive and has visible health-improving effects. Turnips with braised ribs or with simmered lamb all have tonic effects. Chinese chestnut and Chinese yam are also great health foods for the fall.

Winter is the best time for “tonic intake”. The Chinese, upon entering the winter season, like to have chicken, pig trotters, beef, lamb, longan, walnuts, sesame and other high fat and high calorie foods.

Pig’s Trotters

Having pig’s trotters regularly can strengthen the body and is helpful to slow down aging, keeping smooth skin.

People of different ages have different needs. Middle-aged people experience a time when the body slowly turns form vigorous to weak. They need high-energy foods with protective properties as well as age-defying foods to slow down the aging process.

With their slow metabolism, middle-aged people should eat four-legged animals less, such as beef and pork. Instead, they should have more “two-legged” animals, referring to poultry, or the “one-legged” fungi and the fish, with “no leg”.

Food therapy among ordinary people in China has long been popular. There is a saying that “medicine falls short when compared to food in providing supplements to the body, and food works just as well as medicine in treating illness”.

The fact that common fruits and vegetables can prevent and cure sickness is known by every family. When a family member comes down with a cold, it is common to take a few ginger slices and add a few pieces of scallion and brown sugar to boil in water and drink while hot.

After drinking, if one sleeps under some thick blankets to induce sweat, the cold is gone. Chicken stewed in clear soup, millet with brown sugar and sesame seeds that have been stir-fried are the first choice for women after labour. It helps them quickly restore bodily energy and functions, relieves excessive heat and revitalizes.

Medicinal diets are made by mixing traditional Chinese medicine with conventional food and cooking them together. The variety and dosage are strictly controlled. It is different from using food in place of medicine, since the purpose of medicinal diets is usually to make unpleasant-tasting medicinal herbs taste like delicious food.

Taking medicine can then be as easy as having a meal. This pushed Chinese therapy by food to a new level. Popular medicinal diets include porridge, pastry, stews and dishes such as Duck with Chinese Fungus, Whole Chicken Stewed with Gingko Nut, Stir-fried River Snails with Rice Wine, Pig Liver with Lotus Seeds, Lily Bulb Porridge, fuling (and edible fungus) cake, Chinese yam and more.

Today, all China’s cities have specialty medicinal diet restaurants, and the business is prosperous. Chinese medicinal diets are now also being introduced overseas. Chrysanthemum wine, wine made from the bark of slender acanthopanax, ginseng wine, oolong tea, ginger juice candy, sour plum and other Chinese tonic drinks and foods all have a large market in foreign countries.
An ingredient of gin is a Chinese medicinal herb – the seed of oriental arborvitae. It has the ability to calm and relax people.

The adoption of Chinese food therapy in the West represents the unified desire for health and longevity. Although Western medicine can cure many pains and illnesses, its chemical properties can cause rather strong side effects.

Casserole Black Chicken
Casserole Black Chicken stewed with Chinese Herbal medicine.

Chinese medicinal diets, however, are rooted in natural plants and herbs; long-term use at the right dosage is much safer. Even more important is that it can nourish the body and preserve health by strengthening the body’s immune system, achieving the goal of slowing aging and prolonging life.

From a health preservation standpoint, diets heavy in saltiness, sweetness, sourness or pungency are all unfavourable to the body. Consuming too much salt will damage the heart, spleen and kidneys. Too much sour or pungent taste will cause various forms of ulcers.

Therefore, the way to long-lasting health is through harmonious balance of the “five tasted” and going lightly on the seasoning. In the past, the Chinese ate much less meat. The Chinese saw meat as supplements to crops and vegetables, usually having meats and non-meats in combination; whereas Westerners place meat as the main component of their dietary structure. Meat is also the principal part of the Chinese diet for health and nutritional reasons.

The development of vegetarian dishes and the spread of Buddhism are intimately related. When Buddhism was first introduced to China, there were no strict abstentions from meat. Later, in the Southern Dynasties (420-589 AD), the devout Buddhist, Emperor Wu of Liang (r. 502 to 549 AD) believed that eating meat equalled an act of killing and was against the Buddha’s teachings.

As a result, Buddhist temples begin to forbid the taking of wine and meats. The monks ate vegetarian food all year around, and influenced lay Buddhists, those who stayed at home, working to achieve enlightenment.

The increase in the number of vegetarians hastened the development of vegetarian cuisine. Until the Song Dynasty (960-1276), literati and men of great accomplishment promoted vegetarian dishes. Bean curd, gluten and vegetables were the main ingredients, and they gradually became real delicacies in people’s eyes.

The food industry also began to develop and market vegetarian foods to satisfy the needs of the Buddhists, and also influenced the vegetarian food eaten in the monasteries. Because vegetarian dishes are sometimes thought to have little taste, they must be skilful cooked to be on a par with tantalizing traditional delicacies.

Fish Heads

Fish Heads

Since ancient times, the Chinese have had the practice of eating porridge or congee to prolong life. The usual way is to have one bowl of thin porridge on an empty stomach every morning. Porridge prevents illnesses and preserves health.

Chinese people have long since proven through practice that carrot porridge can prevent high-blood pressure. Those who are accustomed to excessive meats and seafood can have some vegetable or wild herb porridge to increase essential vitamins, and benefit the kidneys.

Vegetarian dishes with vegetables, fungi and bean-based ingredients are easy on digestion, and are nutrient-rich. Modern medical science has proved that vegetarian food is the healthy way to eat and deserves to be practiced widely. But eating only a vegan diet can be unbalanced. Therefore, the philosophy of “five tastes in harmony” makes more sense, proven by dietetics and health studies, making people more aware of nutritional health.

People believe that having fish heads regularly can help slow the aging process.