A Discussion on Diet
After nearly thirty years studying and practising T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Taoist principles, it has come to
my attention that one area of study contained within the ‘Eight Strands of the Brocade’ although
crucial to excellent health, has been neglected. This is the area and subject of diet, specifically Ch'ang
Ming Diet. I suspect the reason for this glaring omission of the teaching of Taoist dietary principles
within the art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, (I refer specifically to my own experience as a student of the art as it
is taught in the UK.) is that teachers of the art, are either unaware of the importance of diet, or that
they expect the student to find his or her way regarding ‘supplementary’ related matters on their own.
This in my own opinion is an unacceptable situation. As I consider that if a student spends one hour
correctly practising chi-gung and one hour practising ‘the form’, morning and night, then that student
should rightfully expect some serious rewards from their endeavours. However, if the same student
should spend their eating times consuming foods that are detrimental to their individual well being,
they will all but have wasted their time and effort in training, as their system will remain confused and
out of balance.
This paper then is intended to introduce the importance of the Five Element theory and the Yin and
Yang theory. With particular attention being paid to the dietary value to the individual once understood
and integrated into one’s daily dietary routine. I have made use of various extracts from what I
consider to be excellent writings on the subject and have included a bibliography at the end for further
Health, happiness and peace of mind must be earned through discipline, organisation, perseverance,
positive thinking and appreciation for being alive, i.e. the food we eat, the air we breath and the
people and nature around us.
“Food is the primary postnatal source of the True Energy that fuels corporeal life on earth, providing
the raw material for the essence- to-energy conversion stage of internal alchemy. Nutritional scientists
are fond of reminding us that ‘you are what you eat’ while chi-gung masters teach us that ‘you are
Therefore, whatever you eat should provide the sort of energy that creates a healthy body and
In the Tao of diet, bioenergy rather than biochemistry is the basic barometer of nutritional value in
food. The principles of Yin and Yang and the Five Elemental Energies that govern energy in Chi-gung
and regulate the vital organs and their functions in traditional Chinese medicine apply equally to
establishing harmonious energetics in food and cultivating a ‘balanced diet’. Take for example,
enzymes. Enzymes are involved in each and every metabolic function and biological activity in the
body. In order to produce enzymes, the body must invest not only in valuable proteins, vitamins and
minerals, but also the most precious ‘nutrient’ of all - energy. Therefore, the more enzymes we
assimilate with our food, the less energy we must expend to produce them in our bodies, and the
more energy we save for other purposes. Modern diets are notoriously deficient in enzymes, which
are destroyed when food is over-heated, chemically treated and industrially refined. Moreover,
enzymes are required in great quantities for digestion, and therefore nature, in its universal wisdom,
endowed wholefoods with abundant supplies of precisely the sort of enzymes each type of food
requires to digest properly, after it enters the digestive tract. But when we consume junk food,
convenience food and other kinds of enzyme-dead food, not only do we fail to assimilate sufficient
amounts of this essential nutrient to sustain health, we further tax our systems and drain our energy by
forcing our bodies to produce large quantities of digestive enzymes just to process the nutritionally
empty things we eat.
This sort of ‘negative nutrition’ depletes the body’s reserves of nutritional essence and robs it of
energy. Rather than providing the body with the basic building blocks of life and furnishing the energy
system with the essential ingredients required to generate energy, modern diets strain the internal
organs and drain our reservoirs of energy, impairing rather than protecting health.
As in chi-gung, the great Principle of Yin and Yang is the main gauge of energy balance in food. All
foods may be divided into Yin or Yang categories, depending on the sort of energies they release in
the system when digested. Yang foods tend to warm and stimulate the internal organs, while Yin foods
have a cooling calming effect. This principle may be used to select foods in such a way that they help
to achieve optimum energy balance in the human system. For example, for a person with a slow
metabolism and Yin constitution, a balanced diet would include more warming, stimulating Yang
foods and fewer Yin items. Whereas a person with too much hot Yang energy would balance his or
her diet by favouring cooling Yin foods and cutting down on warming Yang items. In Western nutrition,
a ‘balanced diet’ is regarded as being the same for everyone, based on the biochemical composition
of the food itself. While in traditional Chinese medicine, diets are balanced according to the
constitutional energy traits of each individual. This aspect of Yin and Yang balance in food may also
be used to rebalance the diet throughout the year, according to seasonal changes. In winter, when the
body requires extra heat, more Yang foods are added to the diet, and in summer, consuming more
cooling Yin products counterbalances external heat.
The traditional approach to food energetics, which suggests dietary guidelines that produce effects
on human energy which are synergistic with chi-gung practice, differ significantly from the Western
approach. Take, for example, raw vegetable salads, which Western nutritionists extol as an excellent
choice for everyone every day in every season and which many Western women eat to the exclusion
of al other food, in order to control their weight. According to Yin/Yang energetics, raw vegetable
salads are extremely yin, which means that they generate very cold, Yin energy within the human
system. Excessively cold Yin foods are contraindicated for most women in Chinese medicine, and for
almost everyone during the cold winter weather. If you're practising chi-gung and do not observe
Yin/Yang energy balance in your diet, you may end up creating deviations in your energy system which
conflict directly with you practice and negate some of its benefits.
Another important aspect of Yin/Yang balance in food is alkaline and acid, or pH balance. People
today consume far too much acid-forming, (Yang) foods, resulting in chronic acidosis of the blood and
intercellular fluids. This is one of the primary contributing factors to many common degenerative
conditions, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, immune deficiency, cancer and many
others. The major culinary culprit in this dietary folly is refined sugar, one of the most acidifying items
in the world. The worst offender of all being carbonated soft drinks. One 12-ounce (360ml) glass of
the world’s most popular cola contains about 9 teaspoonfuls of refined sugar, and it’s so acidifying to
the human bloodstream that it would require thirty-two glasses of alkaline water to neutralise it.
Obviously no one chugs down thirty-two glasses of alkaline water every time they guzzle a can of cola.
On the other hand, if the body did not take immediate measures to rebalance the pH of the blood after
ingesting such an acid bomb, death would occur in less than a minute. So what the body does is
leach calcium from the bones and teeth and draw it into the bloodstream to counteract the acidity
caused by the sugar, especially in the form of carbonated soft drinks, as well as other acid-forming
foods such as meat and dairy products. These constantly drain calcium form the teeth and bones.
This is why so many Western people lose their teeth and suffer from osteoporosis by the time they
reach middle age.
Consequently, calcium has become one of the most essential nutrients that require supplemental
sources in modern diets. Not only is calcium the most important building block in bones and teeth and
the bodies’ most effective alkalising agent to counteract acidosis. It is also an absolutely essential
element for nerve transmission and hormone secretion and therefore plays a vital role in PNI healing *
(psychoneuroimmunology) response that is triggered by chi-gung. Without sufficient calcium in the
diet, many of chi-gung’s immunity-enhancing benefits are compromised. Besides consuming foods
rich in calcium and avoiding foods that drain calcium due to their acidifying properties, it’s a good
idea to take calcium supplements and drink water rich in ionised calcium. Remember, however, that
the body cannot assimilate calcium without sufficient supplies of vitamin D, which the body produces
in response to exposure of the skin to sunlight. pH balance in the blood and other bodily fluids is
closely connected with energy balance and energy circulation. Which is why it is so important to
regulate pH balance through diet. Proper pH is maintained mainly by alkaline minerals, particularly
calcium, and the diet is the sole source of these minerals. These minerals also serve as electrolytes*
to store and transmit energy in the body’s various vital fluids. Energy does not flow freely through an
acid medium, and therefore acidosis of the blood and other fluids counteracts the benefits of chi-gung
practice. Chi-gung practitioners should pay close attention to the pH aspect of Yin/Yang balance in
their diets, favouring foods that produce an alkalising effect and avoiding excess consumption of
acid-forming foods. The chart below, which lists a variety of acid and alkaline foods in order of
strength, may be used as a general guideline for selecting a pH balanced diet.
Acid-Forming FoodsAlkaline-forming Foods
Egg yoke Mushrooms
Beef Bamboo shoots
Barley Egg white
Shrimp Pears, grapes (Red)
Butter Tofu (bean curd)
The Five Elemental Energies also manifest their activity in foods, in the form of the five flavours. Each
of which has a ‘natural affinity’ for a particular organ-energy system in the body. Sour Wood foods,
may thus be consumed to tonify the liver and gall bladder. Sweet Earth foods for the spleen and
stomach, salty Water products for the kidneys and bladder and so forth. When using chi-gung to heal
or boost a particular organ or vital function, this aspect of food energetics may be applied to
supplement the therapeutic benefits of the chi-gung. There are many ways that the precepts of chi-
gung practice may be applied to cultivate dietary habits, which produce nutritional energy effects that
are synergistic with the benefits of chi-gung. A simple example is the principle of slowness, Which
governs both breathing and bodily movements in chi-gung. Applied to eating, this implies eating
slowly, which means chewing food very well before swallowing it. This measure alone greatly
improves digestion and assimilation, for it allows food to be pre-digested by salivary enzymes in the
mouth. This saves a lot of enzyme power and other forms of digestive energy in the stomach and
increases the amount of nutrients released for assimilation. The bottom line here is that you obtain
more nutritional essence per unit of food consumed, while also conserving a lot of vital enzyme
essence and energy, when you eat food slowly and chew your food as deliberately at the table as you
breath and move your body in chi-gung practice.
Another way of regulating the diet and balancing the entire digestive system in Taoist tradition is to
abstain entirely from all
food from time to time. This regimen, known as bi-gu (‘abstention from grains). Periodic fasting is
one of the best ways on earth to cleanse the digestive tract, purify and balance the blood, and detoxify
the entire body. When practised in conjunction with chi-gung, it greatly enhances the efficiency of the
internal alchemy of digestion and metabolism, training the system to extract more energy from the
body’s available reserves of essence. And just as food may be used to cure specific ailments, so
abstention from food may be used to cure the whole body by triggering a full-scale internal house-
cleaning operation that sweeps out all toxic residues and rejuvenates the entire system.” (1)
Guidelines for a Balanced Diet
As every body is unique, there will always be variations according to individual needs. A few basic
guidelines, however, are appropriate as we seek a way of eating that creates balance and harmony.
Frame of mind is of utmost importance at mealtime; relax and slowly chew your food for optimal
digestion and assimilation. The dinner table is not the place to discuss the day’s problems.
Remember that your stomach does not have teeth. Digestion, particularly of the starches, begins in
the mouth. Foods that are difficult to thoroughly masticate, such as sesame seeds, should be ground
before eating. Fruits digest quickly, while meats and proteins will take more time to digest.
The best ways of preparing foods are steaming, stir-frying in water, stewing (boiling, as in soups) or
baking. Steaming leaves the food in its most natural state, while baking creates more heat and would
be the best method for cold conditions. Even the best quality oils become hard to digest when
heated. So, if oil is desired, put it on after the food is cooked.
Foods should be eaten in their wholeness, when possible. Only peel fruits and vegetables if the peel
is hard to digest or contaminated with chemical sprays. Search out organically grown foods to avoid
the toxic residues of commercial growing processes. To clean foods, thoroughly, one must wash them
in salt water. Also avoid irradiated foods and microwave ovens. The best utensils for cooking in are
glass, earthenware, or stainless steel.
One should avoid cooking in aluminium or copper; these metals can easily leach into the food.
One’s diet should follow the seasons, eating what grows locally. Nature has the perfect plan in
providing the appropriate foods for the given season. The fruits and vegetables that ripen in the
summertime tend to be on the cooling side. In wintertime we tend more toward a more warming diet.
Also, one should eat a wide variety of foods for good balance.
Most vegetables should be at least lightly cooked, as raw vegetables tend to be difficult to digest.
Foods should never be eaten cold because cold foods put out the digestive fire, so to say. This is
particularly upsetting to the female menstrual cycle as the stomach sits right beside the liver, which is
responsible for storing blood. Cooling off the stomach can lead to a stagnant blood condition and a
difficult menstrual period. Frozen foods, such as ice cream, are a very unhealthy item, as well as iced
drinks. Neither should we consume foods that are so hot that they burn the mouth or stomach.
It is best to stop eating before the full point. Also, eating just before retiring is not a good idea. One
should take the last meal at least 3 hours before going to bed. This will not only result in better
digestion, but also a more restful sleep. Late eating also tends to easily be stored as unwanted
pounds. One should wake up with a good appetite for breakfast. This is the meal that provides us with
the fuel or energy for much of the day, so make this a very nutritious meal.
Nuts and seeds contain a large proportion of oil and should be eaten fresh as possible and kept
refrigerated. Because most people do not chew nuts well, grinding them into powder makes them
easier to digest.
Dried beans should be soaked prior to cooking for at least a few hours; always discard the soak
water and cook them in fresh water. The small beans like lentils and peas tend to be easier to digest
than the large beans like limas or kidney beans. For a person with particularly weak digestion it is
best to cook grains soupy, with additional water and cooking time. You may use up to 10 parts water
per 1 part grain.
Always avoid highly processed foods and keep meals as simple as possible. A balanced diet would
consist of the following on a regular basis:
WHOLE GRAINS including rice, millet, barley, wheat, oats, corn, rye, quinoa, amaranth, etc. This
group of foods will account for about 40% of the diet.
FRESHLY PREPARED VEGETABLES including dark leafy greens, cabbage, broccoli, celery, root
vegetables, etc. This group of foods will account for about 40% of the diet.
FRESH FRUITS will be consumed when in season, and generally no more than 10% of the diet>
Fruits can be a great snack or sweet treat.
LEGUMES/SEEDS/NUTS including peas, beans, tofu, peanuts, lentils, sunflower seeds, almonds,
walnuts, etc. This will account for about 10 - 20% of the vegetarian diet and a lesser portion of
the meat inclusive diet.
ANIMAL PRODUCTS including dairy foods, meat, fish, poultry, and eggs. If one chooses to include
these foods in the diet, they should occupy no more than 10% of the diet. Attempt to locate
growers that do not use drugs or inhuman practices on the animals.
SEAWEEDS including nori, wakame, dulse, kombu, hiziki, and arame. This is a valuable mineral
source, consumed in small amounts (a small handful dry), and of particular value to those
vegetarians who refrain from eating dairy foods.
Avoid as strictly as possible the following: chemical preservatives, additives, colourings,
and flavourings, fried or greasy foods, coffee, ice cream and excessive sugar consumption.