Eating in Harmony with Daily Energetics

Although much of modern research and discussion of ways to enhance our experience of Qi revolve around body­mind breathing disciplines such as Qigong and Taijiquan, traditional Chinese medicine recognizes dietary discipline as equally fundamental in this respect. Indeed, in the Spiritual Axis (Ling Shu Jing), it is said that "If no food is eaten for half a day, Qi is weakened, if no food is eaten for a whole day, Qi is depleted." This clearly emphasizes the importance of dietary discipline in a lifestyle that is designed to enhance personal experience of Qi.

Interestingly, traditional Chinese medicine maintains that human Qi originates with gu­Qi, which literally means "Qi of grains." Thus Chinese medicine recognizes grains­­ in particular, rice, but also all other grains­­ as the foundation of human vitality. In fact, according to Chinese herbology, the taste of grains is generally sweet, and this flavor tonifies the Spleen and Stomach, which together are the organs responsible for transforming gu­Qi into zhen­Qi, true human vitality.

The traditional Chinese diet reflects this understanding of the importance of grains, above all other foods, for the maintenance of human well­being. The Chinese have for centuries made grains ­­ in Chinese, fan ­­ the mainstays of their diet, and all other foods, whether vegetable or animal, are used as mere condiments, or sung, to enhance one's enjoyment of grain foods.

China Health Project

The wisdom of this grain­based diet style has recently been corroborated by the massive China Health Project, an ongoing study of current dietary patterns in China by staff from the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, and Oxford and Cornell Universities. The study has found that the health and nutritional status of the people of China is generally superior to that of the people of western industrialized nations. In particular, the incidence of heart disease, cancer, and other degenerative diseases­­ which from the standpoint of Chinese medicine are disorders of Blood and Qi­­ is far lower in China than in the United States. Researchers are concluding that this is largely due to the predominance of grains and minimal consumption of animal foods in the traditional Chinese diet, because the people who live in urban areas of China and eat a non­traditional diet with more animal foods and less grains have degenerative diseases at rates approaching those of western industrialized nations.

According to Cornell researcher T. Colin Campbell, one of the leaders of this study, the evidence is compelling enough that the World Health Organization has asked him to co­author a document addressed to developing nations titled "More Meat Does Not Mean Better Health," and the government of China is putting a hold on its previous plans to develop a large livestock and dairy food industry. Thus, modern nutritional epidemiology lends its support to the view of traditional Chinese medicine that grains are the essential source of humanity's Qi, health, vitality and longevity.

A dietary practice that is composed primarily of whole grains may thus be considered one of the most important aspects of a lifestyle for enhancement of one's experience of Qi. Yet traditional Chinese medicine maintains that there may be more to consider in one's dietary practice than its general contents.

The principles of traditional Chinese medicine also suggest that it is important to eat in harmony with the energetic transformations manifested in the seasonal cycles of Nature.

In his Outline of Materia Medica (1578), the master Chinese herbalist Shi­Chen Li (1518­1593) stated that "in spring, one should eat more pungent and warm foods to stay in harmony with the upward movement of the season; in summer, one should eat more pungent and hot foods to stay in harmony with the outward movement of the season; in autumn, one should eat more sour and warm foods to stay in harmony with the downward movement of the season; in winter, one should eat more bitter and cold foods to stay in harmony with the inward movement of the season."

China Health Project

The movements of Nature that we observe in seasonal changes actually occur­­ albeit on a smaller scale­­ each and every day, and throughout everyone's life cycles. Our morning corresponds to infancy and spring, noon to adulthood and summer, evening to maturity and autumn, and midnight to death and winter. A daily dietary practice which goes with this Natural Flow enhances our personal experience of Qi. Just as struggling against a river's flow merely wastes one's energy, so a diet that is not in harmony with the movement of Nature will sap one's Qi. On the other hand, just as swimming with the river will magnify one's sense of personal power, so a diet that harmonizes with Natural Qi will enhance one's personal experience of Qi.

Further, and perhaps more importantly, a diet in harmony with Natural Qi is truly sustaining, as well as practically and ecologically sustainable. Such a diet provides true sustenance, and is practically sustainable, because it will harmonize, rather than conflict, with our own inner physiological cycles, which reflect those of the environment. And it is ecologically sustainable by virtue of its harmony with Natural cycles of Qi.

Using the principles that underlie Chinese medicine, let us look at how we might create a practical way of eating that harmonizes with daily energetics, and thus enhances our personal experience of Qi.


Breakfast comes after we arise from our natural death­like slumber. This is the springtime of the day, and at this time we recapitulate our infancy, moving from lying to crawling (out of bed) to standing to walking. Morning has the yang­rising energy of springtime. The cold, moist, material yin­Qi is fading as energetic yang­Qi begins to rise.

In the early morning, our digestive system is as sensitive as that of an infant. Thus, the textures and nutritional values of mother's milk or infant food are most appropriate. Interestingly, whole grains have a protein to carbohydrate ratio and sweet flavor that virtually duplicates human mother's milk. This suggests that soft grain porridge would be a particularly suitable staple food around which to build a Natural breakfast. In fact, traditional Chinese medicine has determined that the Stomach is the organ most active between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m., the time when we commonly consume breakfast. The Stomach likes warm and moist foods, and dislikes dry foods. Thus, to harmonize with the morning energy, it may be best to take the advice of your grandmother and have warm porridge rather than dry toast or cold cereal.

Many Americans are used to having fruit and sugars on their cereal. However, sugary sweet foods, including fruits, generally have a yin, condensing, cold energy, according to Chinese herbalists. This energy is just the opposite of the tendency of morning­Qi and thus there are not particularly appropriate foods for the first meal of the day. The cold and damp nature of sweets or fruit may be temporarily stimulating, but can in fact put a damper on the digestive "fire" of the Spleen entirely, leaving it unable to transform more nourishing foods into Qi. This may lead to the all­too­ common experience of mid­morning, low energy "Blues", and cravings for stimulants, or more sweets, to offset a dietary depletion of Qi.

The principles of traditional Chinese medicine suggest that the attempt to use sugary­sweet or fruit­laden breakfast foods to tonify the Spleen is a poor substitute for regular staple use of grains at all meals. These more substantially sweet foods nourish the Spleen­­ and thus Qi­­ at a much deeper level than the superficial stimulation afforded by sweets. For breakfast, oats, barley, millet, and rice are particularly suitable for porridge.

To harmonize with morning­Qi, it is important to have more yang, ascending, warm energy foods with a mildly pungent taste. These may be fresh or prepared by steaming or fermentation, both of which are techniques which have an en­lighten­ing energy. Steamed greens fit this bill, as do sprouts, salt­pickled (not vinegar pickled) vegetables­­ especially pickled pungent greens, radish, or onions­­ and fresh or dried chives and parsley. Things that sprout or grow upward help us to rise to the challenge of a new day.

No one would think of feeding an infant bacon, sausage, steak or other such foods. According to traditional Chinese medicine, digestion of these sorts of foods is difficult, and they may be best eaten in small quantities at a time when our digestive fire is stronger. If flesh foods are taken in quantity at this time when we are attempting to re­awaken, the result may be that, before we know it, we are digesting ourselves back to sleep!

Example: Soft porridge, garnished with a small amount of sprouts, or fresh or dried parsley or chives. Steamed greens. Salt­pickled vegetables.


The noon meal occurs in the middle, summer­time of the day. At noon, as in the summer, the Sun's energy is felt most strongly on Earth, and the Qi of Nature is expanding strongly outward. This time is characterized by a Natural predominance of yang­Qi in the forms of heat and fire. These quickly consume and transform yin­Qi "i.e. matter" to radiate energy in all directions.

As noted briefly above, Chinese medicine teaches that the Spleen is responsible for transformation of gu­Qi "yin­material food" into refined zhen­Qi­­ or true, functional human­life energy. The Spleen is most active between the hours of 9:00 and 11:00 a.m., readily transforming food into energy. In corroboration of the Chinese view, western science has found that individuals who consume the majority of their calories in the morning have more energy and no difficulty maintaining their weight, whereas those who consume the majority of their calories in the evening tend to be sluggish and gain a disproportionate amount of weight.

Since the noon meal follows the time of day when the Spleen has been move active in transforming food into energy, and is at the time of predominance of yang­Qi, this is the time that our yang digestive fire is strongest. Traditional herbal wisdom maintains that the way to harmonize with yang­predominant noon­ or summer­Qi is to eat more pungent and hot foods. Hot foods such as hot soups and hot whole grains are the ideal basis for a noon meal. This may seem unusual to Americans, who are used to lunching on cold sandwiches, salads, iced soft drinks, fruits and juices, and ice cream and milkshakes.

Hot entrees may be seasoned with hot­energy herbs such as ginger, garlic, red or green pepper, basil, and scallions. Mustard and radish greens are also hot and pungent, and are ideal foods for the noon meal.

Although yang­Qi is predominant at noon, it is not without its yin complement. As in the Taiji diagram, it is the tiny spot of yin in the ocean of yang that holds it all together in the extreme. In the noon meal, it is important to include some small amount of yin, cool, even raw foods to provide dynamic contrast. Ideally, this may come from salty condiments, sea vegetables, or salty marinated salads in the style of Japanese cooking. Salt has a decidedly cool and condensing energy that provides a pleasant anchor for the upward and outward energy of hot­pungent foods; additionally, according to the Nei Ching, the salty flavor can tonify the Heart. Since noon is also the time of day when the Heart is most active, according to traditional Chinese physiology, the salty flavor may be important at the noon meal. Isn't it interesting that common sense refers to a well­seasoned, salty meal as "heart­y"!

In summary, noon is the most appropriate time to have a good sized, dynamic, and hearty meal. This also may seem unusual to Americans, who often eat a small lunch on the run, or no lunch at all. A large noon meal followed by a xiuxi, or afternoon siesta, is in fact a common practice in China and other traditional cultures around the world.

Example: Hot vegetable soup with hot­ pungent and/or salty seasoning and a garnish of scallions. Hot whole grain, pasta, or fresh Chinese­style flat or steamed bread. Stir­fried vegetable with fresh or pickled mustard or radish greens, or salt­marinated salad with pungent vegetables such as onions. Roasted and salted seeds and/or roasted seaweed condiments.


The evening meal occurs at the time of day corresponding to the autumn season, and preceeds the long winter­like night. The natural movement of Qi at this time of day is downward and inward. Qi becomes more yin­material, and less yang­energetic. Naturally, things come to rest, condense their form, and conserve their energies. The Nei Ching refers to these as the times of harvest and storage.

Traditional Chinese medicine maintains that the Kidneys are the most active organs in the time period when many of us partake of dinner, 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. This is when the Kidneys re­store our native vitality­­ that is, during this time they once again store Qi within themselves to enable us to maintain inner life while outwardly we fall into a death­like slumber.

As in autumn, the early evening is a time to celebrate the harvest of the fruits of the day's labors, and to flourish in gracious enjoyment of health and human company. It is also auspicious to nourish in oneself the yin­Qi that characterizes the cool, damp and winter­like night time.

Autumn Foods

According to Chinese medicine, sour, salty, and bitter foods have the condensing, moist, and warm or cold energies that characterize the evening and night. In general, Chinese medicine recommends against large or frequent consumption of chilled or raw foods, as these tend to injure the Spleen and Stomach, dampening their fire. Therefore, since salty, bitter, and some sour foods tend to have intrinsically cold energies, it is recommended that these usually be taken in cooked form. This way, one can reduce their impact on the system, yet derive the yin­enhancing benefits that they offer.

The evening marks the rising to predominance of yin, materialized Qi. To reflect this in our evening meal, the ubiquitous serving of grains may be enhanced by emphasizing foods with more condensing and descending forms, and sour, salty, and bitter tastes. Rounded vegetables­­ such as onions, hard "winter" or soft summer squashes, and cabbages­­ have a condensing form, and root vegetables, small peas and pulses, and beans have a condensing and descending form. All of these foods can help us to condense and root our own energies for a long sedentary night. Kidney­shaped beans in particular enhance the storage function of the Kidneys, especially if taken in the form of a salty soup and/or accompanied by salty sea vegetables.

Fruits and sweets also tend to have a condensing and descending form or energy, and thus the evening meal is the best time to enjoy dessert. But, as we noted above, since these foods also have a very cold and damp nature, it is best not to rely on them to excess, as they may easily weaken the Spleen. Books by western authors on Chinese cooking often lament that dessert is not a common feature of the Chinese diet, but this lack clearly reflects respect for the principles of Chinese medicine. According to the diagnostics of Chinese medicine, a craving for sweets is often indicative of a Spleen disorder. Interestingly, the "Nei Ching" also says that the proper food of the Spleen is salty. It seems that fruit and sweets are attractive mainly to individuals who are not regularly tonifying their Spleens with the substantial sweetness of grains at the core of their diet. The traditional Chinese diet also contains many salty condiments, and this combination of sweet grains and salty seasonings seems to keep the Spleens of the Chinese people very happy, as the dearth of Chinese sweets would seem to suggest.

Reprinted from Qi Journal, Summer 1992