Characteristics of the Chinese Medicated Diet

Dr.Wu Boping


The use of medicinal foods to treat and prevent disease is gaining acceptance and popularity around the world. In China, the use of Medicated Diets (a.k.a. medicinal food) has been an integral part of medicine for thousands of years. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the distinction between food and medicine is blurred. Scientists, health care practitioners and individuals in other parts of the world are coming to better understand the important impact food has on health, and in so doing, are looking to better understand the characteristics of the Chinese Medicated Diet.

The strengths of the Chinese Medicated Diet come from three major characteristics:

Stressing the Whole / Selecting Medicinal Foods on the Basis of a Differential Diagnosis

Stressing the whole means that when prescribing a medicated diet, a health care practitioner should first make an overall analysis of the whole group of factors contributing to the patient's condition such as the patient's physical and health status including the nature of his illness, the season in which he got ill, the geographical location, etc. Then, based on an understanding of the whole situation, we can form a judgement on the type of syndrome based on a differential diagnosis and then decide on corresponding principles for dietetic therapy and select suitable medicinal foods.
Take a patient with chronic gastritis as an example. He should take Galangal and Cyperus Gruel (Liangfu Zhou) if he suffers from chronic gastritis of stomach-cold type (characterized by feeling cold, pale tongue and diarrhea), but he would be better off to take a drink of Fragrant Solomonseal Rhizome, Dendrobium, Black Plum and Hawthorn Fruit (Yu Shi Mei Zha Yin) if he suffers from chronic gastritis due to a deficiency of the stomach-yin (characterized by feeling hot, dry mouth, red tongue and constipation).

Suitable for both Prevention and Treatment / Outstanding in Effect

Medicated diet can be used either to treat disease or for healthy people to build up their health and prevent diseases. This is one of ways in which medicated diet is different from treatment by medicine. Medicines are almost exclusively used to treat a disease, condition or symptom of disease. Although medicated diet is considered comparatively mild, it has a notable effect on the prevention and cure of disease, both in building-up health and preserving health.

Here are some specific examples of the achievements in scientific research of the Shandong Traditional Chinese Medicine College highlighting the effectiveness of medicated diet:

Eight-Ingredient Food:

Eight dietetic Chinese herbs including Chinese yam (Rhizoma Dioscorreae), lotus seed (Semen Nelumbinis), and hawthorn fruit (Fructus Crataegi) were prepared according to the methods described by the ancient dietetic treatment and health care of the imperial court in the Qing Dynasty. When a group of children took this preparation for 30 days, 97% of them showed improvements in appetite and growth.

Nourishing Extract of Laiyang Pear and Mushroom:

When this extract made from the juice of Laiyang Pear (Malum Piri) and extract of mushrooms (Lentinus Edodes) and tremella (Tremella) was given to middle-aged and senile patients suffering from chronic diseases, the symptoms of their illness were alleviated. In addition, their immune function improved and blood-fat levels (total cholesterol and triglycerides) were reduced in those individuals suffering from hyperlipemia.

Good in Taste / Convenient for Taking

A common saying amongst Chinese people states "Good medicine tastes bitter," because most decoctions of herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine are bitter. Some people, especially children, are adverse to the bitterness of Chinese herbs and refuse to take them. Most of the herbs used in medicated diet are both edible and medicinal, and retain the properties of food‹pleasant flavor and color, sweet smelling, and so on. Even if some of the ingredients in a medicinal food are bitter tasting Chinese herbs, their nature and flavor are taken in to consideration and made into a tasty medicinal food by mixing them with food and carefully cooking them. Therefore, it can be said that a medicated diet tastes good and is convenient to take. It's just like eating food!

Medicated diets for dietetic therapy are made from salutary herbs, food and condiments. Concretely speaking, medicated diet can be prepared either from edible Chinese drugs (herbs) alone, or from Chinese crude drugs and food according to certain prescriptions, by processing and cooking. The term "Chinese herbs" is used to mean herbs/foods with medicinal value (drugs) that are used according to traditional Chinese medical philosophy. They must be processed (steamed, fried, etc.) to reduce the side effects. They are used for a specific diagnosis in an individual person based on his or her current physical state. "Crude herbs," herbs/foods with medicinal value, are used less specifically and without processing much like over the counter medicines here (i.e. aspirin).

Based on form and process, medicated diets can be divided into ten categories.

Fresh juice.

It is the juice extracted from edible Chinese foods alone, such as fresh fruits, or together with some fresh, clean-washed Chinese crude herbs. An example is Five-Juice Drink made from the juices of: 

water chestnut Bulbus Heleocheris Tuberosae
fresh reed rhizome Rhizoma Phragmitis
fresh lotus root Rhizoma Nelumbinis
pear Malum Piri
fresh lilyturf root Radix Ophiopogonis

Five-Juice Drink is used to replace lost body fluids for symptoms of dry mouth, thirsty-dry skin, and restlessness as might be seen after pneumonia or sunstroke.

Medicated tea.

Medicated tea, or "Daichayin," an infusion drunk instead of tea, is the coarsely mixed powder of herbs with or with out tea. Sometimes small pieces of soft, prepared herbal substances are used for decoction without being pounded to a powder. Edible Chinese herbal medicines, such as fruits and vegetables, are often used as ingredients of medicated tea, while drastic or extremely bitter crude herbal medicines are usually not used. The Daichayin preparations are taken frequently like common tea after being infused in boiling water or decocted in water. Ginger and Sugar Tea, for instance, which is used to treat wind-cold type of common cold is make from fresh ginger (Rhizoma Zingerberis Recens) and brown sugar.

Drink.

A liquid form of dietetic therapy, drinks are prepared usually by decocting in water the edible Chinese herbs by themselves or mixed with some crude herbs. The solids are then strained out of the extract before drinking. Composite Corn Stigma Drink, dietetic therapy that comes in this form, is used to treat ascites due to cirrhosis.

Medicated wine.

In medicated wine, Chinese herbs are combined with wine to deliver the dietetic treatment. It can be made be either infusing or brewing the medicaments (usually edible Chinese herbs) with the wine. An example is Spirit of Ginseng, Gecko and Cordyceps (Shen Ge Chongcao Jiu) which is used to treat bronchial asthma at the remission stage.

Decoction.

Decoctions are the liquid prepared by decocting edible Chinese herbs, crude herbs and a solvent (usually water; though some times wine or honey is used). An example of a decoction of medicated diet is the Decoction of Chinese Angelica Root, Fresh Ginger and Mutton recorded in the Treatise on Febrile and miscellaneous Diseases.

Medicated gruel.

Medicated gruel, which is curative or functions to improve health, is prepared by cooking together herbs, or decoctions, with rice. When edible Chinese herbs such as lily bulb, Job's tears seed, longan aril, red bean, white hyacinth bean and Chinese-date are used, they can be washed clean and cooked together directly with the rice. When other crude herbs are used, they must first be decocted in water. Then strain the liquid from the crude herbs and then make the gruel with the liquid and rice. Alternatively, the gruel can be prepared by adding herb powder or the decoction liquid to almost done rice and then cooking it just a little longer to incorporate the medicament. Medicated gruel makes up a large proportion of the recipes for dietetic therapy. Lily bulb and rice gruel is given to help a person with digestive problems.

Honey extract.

Honey extract, also known as soft extract or decoction extract, is a thick, half-liquid form of dietetic treatment. It is prepared by decocting the edible Chinese herbs or crude herbs in water then straining the dregs from the liquid. The liquid is then cooked down to enrich it and mixed with honey or sucrose. Flavored Extract of Fritillary Bulb and Pear is an example of a honey extract that is used by patients with bronchial asthma.

Medicated cake.

A cooked food prepared by grinding salutary edible Chinese herbs into a powder with or without crude herbs; then mixing the powder with rice, wheat or bean flour and the correct amount of white sugar and cooking oil to make a cake batter. The batter is then either steamed or baked to make a medicated cake. An Eight-Ingredient cake, for example, is used to treat chronic enteritis.

Medicated pancake.

Similar to the medicated cake, dietetic pancakes are made by grinding together relevant medicaments and curative edible Chinese herbs that have a health care function. The resultant powder is mixed with wheat, rice or bean flour, the right amount of jujube paste, white sugar, cooking oil and other ingredients as necessary. The dough is formed into pancakes and steamed, baked, or fried. Pancake Warming the Middle-jiao and Strengthening the Stomach, for instance, is recommended for patients suffering from chronic gastritis of cold or insufficiency type or peptic ulcer.

Cooked dishes.

Cooked dishes make up a large portion of medicated diet therapies, including varieties of meat and vegetable dishes that have curative properties and promote health. These dishes can be prepared in a wide variety of ways. The main ingredients such as chicken, duck, fish, and/or vegetables are cooked along with the herbs and condiments. The method of cooking varies with the recipe. Medicated diet dishes may be boiled, braised, simmered, steamed, boiled, stir-fried, roasted, fricasseed, deep-fried and so on. Baby Pigeon Stewed with Ginseng, Astragalus Root and Cordyceps, for example, can be used to treat bronchial asthma at the remission stage. 

Glossary words in pop-up boxes.

  • ascites- An accumulation of clear yellow fluid in the peritoneal cavity.
    cirrohsis-1. A disease of the liver, marked by progressive destruction of liver cells, accompanied by regeneration of the liver substance and increase of connective tissue. 2. Chronic interstitial inflammation of any organ.
  • gastritis- inflammation of the stomach.
  • hyperlipemia-Excess of lipids (fats) in the blood.

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