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Nutrition the Daoist Way

by Vicki McKenna(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 230 - May 2016

In Harmony with your Environment

We are constantly bombarded with dietary advice including a vast array of often ‘faddy’ diets that guarantee weight loss, good health, an increase in energy and everlasting happiness. There is nothing ‘faddy’ though, about nutrition the Daoist way; it is an approach to health built on solid, down to earth, common sense principles. Daoism explains that Chi comes to us in large part through the food we eat. In order to build our energy and help it to flourish, we need to ensure that we consume foods that are in harmony with the Five Seasons and with the very fabric of our being - the Five Elements.

One warm summer, I heard someone extolling the benefits of raw food only to hear this same person in the depth of winter complain how tired and cold he felt. It was clear to me that in the summer his body had appreciated his raw food diet, but in the depths of the cold dark Yin of the winter he needed Yang energy through eating hot cooked food. Daoism teaches that when we eat in harmony with the seasons we balance and build Chi.

Five Elements baker

Reproduced from Aromatherapy, Massage and Chinese Medicine by Joanne Baker

Furthermore Daoism suggests that we eat according to our inner nature - we eat to balance the Five Elements that we are composed of - Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water. Let us look at some of the ways in which we can eat according to the seasons and according to our Elements.

Eating in Harmony with the Seasons

Spring is the time of growth and expansion - a time to purify, detox and give the system a spring clean. This is the time when the energy of the Wood Element rises after the torpor of the winter – a great time to clear out and start afresh!  The organs associated with Wood are the Liver and Gall Bladder; this is a perfect time to help these organs continue their work of eliminating wastes from the body and purifying the blood by taking a liver flush drink. Drink it first thing in the morning for a ten day cycle. Mix citrus juices together to make one cup of liquid. Add two cloves of fresh chopped garlic plus a small amount of grated ginger. Mix in one tablespoon of cold pressed olive oil. Blend and drink. Follow the flush with two cups of cleansing herb tea such as fennel or peppermint. Wait an hour before eating.

Summer is the time of Yang, Fire Element energies when everything heats up, ripens and comes to fruition – it is, therefore, a time to enjoy eating cool, calming Yin foods, such as tomato, apple, barley, bean curd, mushrooms, cucumber, lettuce, mango, mung beans, pear, spinach and strawberry. A classic cool meal would comprise crab meat - good to combat heat rashes - served with broad beans tossed in butter with a little mint. Duck is also considered a calming food - serve with cucumber to feel really chilled out! Pork with bean curd tonifies the blood, clears heat and is an excellent Yin dish. Colder foods are bamboo shoot, banana, watercress, watermelon. A hot sunny day is the time to indulge in a cooling banana split with fruit sorbet, knowing you are doing your best to calm down all that fiery Yang! Generally lamb and chicken are avoided in the summer as they are considered warming foods, whilst more fish and vegetables are included in the daily diet. Oily fatty foods are also avoided, as is alcohol which is also considered heating.

At the time of late Summer, the time of the Earth Element, start to leave aside the salads and raw foods of summer and begin to eat more lightly cooked food such as stir fries. Traditionally, foods associated with Earth are millet, apricots and beef. But be reminded, according to Chinese Medicine, the Earth Element is strengthened not simply by the type of foods eaten, but by the way we eat - regular meals eaten in a calm and unhurried manner are just as important as what we eat.

As the weather becomes cooler and more Yin with the arrival of Autumn so we need to start eating hot food again. Now is the time to cut out the Yin fruits - melons, grapefruits and oranges, and introduce more seasonal fruits such as apples and pears. As this is the season of the Metal Element build the Lung energy by eating cooked food and including lots of onions and garlic. Exclude dairy foods - milk and cheese are possible irritants to the lungs as they produce large amounts of mucus. Use this time of year to build the immune system up in preparation for the winter months ahead.

When Winter is here and the deep cold Yin of the Water Element arrives we can maintain warmth by ensuring that we eat only hot, cooked foods. Include soups and stews made with root vegetables and hot meats such as lamb, fish and chicken. Chicken is a warm Yang food which can be stir-fried with onions and a pinch of cayenne at this cold time of year.

McKenna 230 Daoist Nutrition

Eating in Harmony with the Five Elements

As well as eating foods that harmonize with the seasons it is important to use food to correct any disharmony in the cycle of the elements within. If you know which element within you, out of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal or Water is particularly out of balance - in excess or deficient of Chi, this will help you to decide which foods might be best to restore balance and health.  Each element has a corresponding flavour - Wood is Sour, Fire is Bitter, Earth is Sweet, Metal is Pungent and Water is Salty. Use the flavours in a way that will build or calm the element out of balance within you. So for example if your Wood Element is in excess and you need to purify your Liver and Gall Bladder then eat sour foods such as citrus fruits - especially lemons, oranges, grapefruit, vinegar, yogurt, pickles of all kinds, sauerkraut. If you need to calm your Fire Element and reduce heat in your Heart remember the foods of the Summer - cool, calming Yin foods, such as tomato, apple, barley, bean curd, mushrooms, cucumber, lettuce, mango, mung beans, pear, spinach and strawberry. For those who have Earth Element weakness and perhaps have digestive problems then strengthen the Stomach with the sweet favours of millet, apricots or beef as mentioned earlier and include plenty of root vegetables.  Metal Element problems might give rise to a sluggish Colon or Lung related issues and so can benefit from pungent foods such onions and garlic, horseradish, mustard, basil, and nutmeg -these are all considered Metal foods. And if your Water Element is struggling and you feel perhaps fearful and exhausted with low Kidney energy then eat warming, cooked  foods - fish soups and chicken stews and possibly include more salty flavours such as seaweed and sea vegetables,  tamari, miso.

Balance your energy by combining two dietary practices. Firstly eat in harmony with the seasons and secondly eat foods that will heal the element most out of balance within you. For example if its summer and you know that your Wood Element is out of balance - your Liver is sluggish - then raw foods are best. But when winter comes, even though your Liver might be sluggish you would be best to forego salads and, in keeping with the season eat warmer food such as lightly cooked stir fries. In this example you have recognized your Liver’s need for raw food in the summer but have also understood that winter requires you to eat warmer food - in this case light stir fries that will not overburden your sluggish Liver. And in another example -- if you are elderly with circulatory issues you might be best to eat hot cooked foods all year round and forget salads in the summer.  Daoist diet is all about using these ancient principles along with your intuition and common sense to keep your Chi strong and positively healthy!


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About Vicki McKenna

Vicki McKenna BA Lic Ac trained at The College of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture in Leamington Spa with Professor Worsley from 1981 gaining her Lic Ac. in 1984 and has been practising acupuncture in Scotland since then. Her book A Balanced Way Of Living; Practical and Holistic Strategies for Coping with Post Polio Syndrome is available from 


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