5 Simple Chinese Medicine Based Ways to Improve Your Vegan (or not) Diet

balanced dietAs you may know from my prior post about veganism and Chinese medicine, I have been vegan for several years. In that time, I’ve done a lot of tweaking of my diet trying to maintain balance and healthfulness. In the post referenced above, I list a few ways that a person could alter their diet to conform to general Chinese medicine principles.

I thought I would include a more specific list of things that I do that I believe help me to improve my diet by making it more warming, less damaging to the Spleen/Stomach and more balanced within the five elements.


1. Tempeh not Tofu

Getting protein as a vegan or vegetarian isn’t as difficult as many people seem to believe. I think people are beginning to see beyond the protein hysteria and this is creating a friendlier environment for more folks to make this kind of a dietary change. However, from a Chinese medicine perspective the reliance on tofu as a protein substitute is not necessarily a good thing.

Soybeans in general are a cooling food, and the addition of mineral compounds (it used to be Shi Gao, the notorious super cold herb!) in processing make tofu particularly cooling. In large amounts, this cold can negatively impact digestive fire – causing indigestion and poor absorption of the essence of food.

Most Western sources note that soy as present in fermented products like natto and tempeh is a more healthful choice. I believe that a similar realization can be had through Chinese medicine principles. I don’t have any specific information on whether the fermentation process warms soybeans, but I imagine that it does.

If we think about the process of fermentation, it involves the hard work of microorganisms. I imagine that the energy that these creatures put into the soybean must warm it somewhat. Regardless, I find much less digestive upset when I consume tempeh. That being said, I do still consume tofu and products made out of it – I just use them in moderation.

2. Sauteed greens not cold green salad

Cold foods (including iced drinks, green salads and the like) can be damaging to the Spleen/Stomach and cause digestive problems. While they are fine in moderation, you will get great health benefits as well as amazing taste by lightly sauteeing or steaming greens like chard and kale. Here’s a quick recipe to try – it looks too simple to matter, but TRUST ME.

You will need (use organic, local versions as much as possible):

  • 2 deep green bunches of lacianato/dinosaur kale or rainbow chard
  • about 2 Tbsp high quality extra-virgin olive or toasted sesame oil
  • about 3 Tbsp sesame seeds
  • a sprinkle of salt, and if you desire, garlic powder

What you do

  1. Cut the toughest stems from the greens and wash very thoroughly and chop leaves into manageable pieces, DO NOT drain/pat the water off of them.
  2. Put all the greens either in a steamer basket or in a soup pot. If using a steamer, use as usual. If in a soup pot, simply place the greens in the pot and use medium heat.
  3. Using the steamer method, you should only have to steam for about four or five minutes. Check often – the leaves should be BARELY tender and the green color should have brightened somewhat. When cooked you can shake/strain the greens briefly and gently then place them in a large bowl. Pour the oil and sesame seeds, salt and optional garlic powder and toss well, serve IMMEDIATELY.
  4. Using the soup pot method, simply cook the greens over medium heat stirring constantly. The standards for cooking and tenderness are similar to above. You can add the oil, salt, seeds and optional garlic powder directly to the pot or transfer all to a bowl as above. It’s good stuff.

3. Hemp or nut milk not soy milk

Soybeans are of a cooling thermal nature, contributing to the overly cooling nature of vegan and vegetarian diets. Further, many commercially available soy products are genetically modified and grown in industrial farms far from where you live – violating several Chinese medicine based principles of healthy eating. When you do use soymilk and other mass produced soy products, try to find organic, non-GMO, local varieties.

Rice milk is a common alternative, and while rice is less cooling than soy – I believe that nut and hemp milks are a superior choice. Not only are many of these great sources of Omega fatty acids, but nuts are generally warming in nature. They taste great and are becoming more easily available. Check your local health food store, but if you cannot find these products locally it may be worth it to you to have them shipped.

You can also make your own nut milks – just do a quick Google search for “make your own nut milk” and you will find several resources, including recipes and machines to help you in the process. One I can recommend is the Soyabella Soymilk maker, which works well in making nutmilks as well.I have been drinking Living Harvest hemp milk for a couple of months now, and I think it is the best alternative I’ve come across. I’d like to write a post simply about hemp products, so I’ll leave the details for then.

4. Eat as many colors a day as you can

This is great advice for anyone, regardless of their dietary choices. It is a way to stimulate the imagination, feed the senses and ensure a healthy balance of vitamins and minerals. In a recent article, I took this to the next level – suggesting ways that you can eat according to the five phase elements. In general, eating this way is going to bring the kind of variety on all levels that you really need to maintain health.

5. Drink Pu-Erh tea

I have already talked about the underappreciated benefits of drinking tea. I’ve been wanting to write specifically about pu-erh tea, which is typically fermented and/or aged tea that often has an earthy or even smoky flavor and is becoming wildly popular in the United States and abroad. Heiner Fruehauf, one of my professors, has spoken highly of pu-erh and I’m hoping someday to post an interview with him about this topic. Traditionally, pu-erh tea is praised for reducing dampness in the Spleen and generally boost Spleen Qi. It also appears to have a tonic effect on the Stomach.

Pu-erh, because of its method of production, resonates deeply with the Earth element – accounting for its Spleen/Stomach association. There has been some Western research on the health benefits of this tea. Although the evidence is far from conclusive, preliminary results indicate that it may reduce cholesterol and boost metabolism.

It is not so easy to find excellent pu-ehr. You may think that only tea snobs care about quality, but my personal experience has been that younger and lower quality pu-erh does not carry the same Earth boosting quality discussed above. I encourage you to make an investment in excellent tea. The best resource I know of is Portland based Sacred Tea, located in Portland, OR. The proprietor, Paul Rosenberg, offers a number of affordable options for people looking to explore pu-erh. I have personally consumed many of the teas that Paul offers and every single one has been incredible.

I hope these simple tips can help you, regardless of your diet, to live a balanced and healthy life. And remember, vegan friends, just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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