I wanted to put together a basic guide on food and dieting from my understanding of the Daoist perspective. Although there are 20 million ideas about how to eat well these days, the Daoist way has been well established for many hundreds if not thousands of years, and so isn’t at the mercy of trends as the newer diets are. It’s also interesting to see how diet not only plays a role in general health, but can also specifically aid the kind of self-cultivation taught in our school.
As with everything we do, context is very important. What is medicine for one is poison for the next, and the more precise we want to be with what we should and shouldn’t eat, the more we have to be clear of the context of who the advice is going to, what’s happening in their life, timing and so forth. As a result, this guide will be suuuuppper generalized as it’s not for one specific person and none of them are particularly ‘final’.
In Daoism we have this concept of Qi. It’s a nasty word these days, full of fantasy and misconception. But it’s also a useful term, as it can save a lot of time if we have a shared understanding of its meaning. The traditional character is 氣, and is made up of two radicals. The top part is 气, which refers to air. The bottom part is 米, which refers to a grain, or more generally food. Simply put, Qi is the energy we get from eating food and breathing air. It’s sometimes translated as life-force or vitality.
So we have this big idea of life force and vitality linked to the food we eat and the air we breathe. I’ve talked plenty about breathing in other articles, so I won’t go over that again here. Let’s instead look at the main concepts for food, listed here in order of importance:
1. Eat Food That Is Full of Life/Vitality
The first big concept we want to have is that for food to give us life-force, it must itself be full of life force. It’s a fancy-pants way of saying we want our food to be as close to being alive as possible.
For plants, this means that it was recently still alive/planted. This is pretty straight forward, everyone knows that vegetables harvested directly from a garden, then prepared immediately have a freshness and wonderful taste that is not found in supermarket vegetables that have been harvested 4 weeks ago and carted across the country in a truck. If you don’t have your own vegetable garden, a simple way to achieve this is to buy directly from the farmers at a local farmer’s market, and where possible/relevant select foods that still have their root system attached (maybe a bit of bonus soil too). Not only are you getting super fresh tasty food full of vitality, you’re also supporting local farmers and economy. It’s win/win really.
For meat, it’s the same idea, the flesh has the most life-force in it when it’s very close to the animal having been butchered. Again, try to source your meat from local farms and butchers, and even better if you can eat it before needing to freeze it.
What we want to avoid here as much as possible is packaged/shelved food that is dead inside or has been carted half way across the world. Obviously some foods work well preserved or fermented, if you are eating these kinds of foods just make sure they are the good hand-made variety and not the industrial, sorted and packaged by a machine type.
2. Pay Attention to What You Eat!!
Of equal importance as the quality of the food is the quality of our intention and attention while we eat. These days its usual for people to be on a computer, phone, or watching a TV show while they eat. It makes a HUGE difference to pay attention to what you’re eating, noticing the flavours, and enjoying the experience. A big principle in Daoism is that energy follows our intention, and paying attention to our food as it goes in our mouth fills it with energy and registers it as ‘important’ to our unconscious, allowing the body to begin preparing the digestive process so we can properly assimilate our food. By paying attention, we also make sure that we are not swallowing big chunks of very difficult if not impossible to digest food. If we can’t assimilate the food, then we won’t get the energy and nutrients from it, it’s as simple as that.
To help make the food easily digested, it must also have the consistency of something like a smoothie before it goes down the hatch. Further more, if we’re stressed, irritated or distracted while we eat, our sympathetic nervous system will be dominant and once more the food will not be able to be digested properly. If we describe the same thing with energetic language, the noxious energy from negative emotions we have while we eat attaches itself to the food which makes problems for us. In contrast, enjoying our food with a happy, relaxed energy will supercharge the energy of the food. If we are also paying attention to the flavours of what we eat, we might realize that many things we eat just out of habit and not because we actually like it or want to eat it.
3. Prepare Food Yourself As Often As Possible
This is a much more difficult one today with the lack of time and all the uber-eats and take away food people love to eat. You’ll notice it’s WAY higher on my list of importance than what kind of food you are eating. There are two parts to this concept, the main one being that the moment you start chopping something and separating it into smaller pieces is the moment it starts losing it’s Qi. The energy of Qi (yang in quality) needs a structure (yin) to be contained. Chopping things breaks the structure and the energy can then escape. In Western terms, it’s like oxidization. If we are doing the chopping ourselves, we are very likely to be eating said food soon after, so we reduce the amount of time in which energy can escape.
The second part involves an energetic principle. The basic idea is that the emotional state of the of the person preparing the food will saturate the food that is being prepared. Someone in a shitty mood, who is sad, depressed, or angry while preparing food soaks the food with that shitty energy, just like when we are eating. How often is our take-away food prepared by someone who hates their job or their situation? It’s easily avoided by simply doing it yourself. A good second place to this is knowing the person who is preparing the food, or at least knowing that the person preparing the food LOVES making food and is super passionate about it.
4. Eat With The Seasons
This means that we want to eat seasonal food. If it doesn’t normally grow in winter than we shouldn’t eat it in winter and vice versa, same with all the other seasons. Usually out of season food is available only because it’s been imported from another hemisphere where it is in season, which means it’s travelled a long way and been not-alive for a long time (see the first point).
The other thing to do with the seasons is the balance of energy. If it’s a super cold season, we can balance ourselves by eating a hearty, warm meal (soups, broths, stews etc). Eating raw salads adds to the already over-abundant cold and can make problems for us. Of course, a cool, crisp salad on a hot summer’s day is wonderful, and we would do well to avoid the super hot meals when it’s really hot for the same reason.
5. Cook Your Food
This one’s a little more straight forward, the Daoists are big fans of cooked food rather than raw. The fires of the digestion have an easier time assimilating food that is already heated rather than not. Of course, you don’t want to burn the food either. Lightly steamed, searing (high heat for short periods), simmering, slow cooking or baking with lower temperatures are all good options. Avoid too much deep/shallow frying, and microwaves straight up murder Qi (I haven’t used a microwave in years, and do not miss it at all).
This principle is obviously throughout everything I have said above and continue with below. Daoists are totally into balanced approaches. Not too much, not not enough.
Some interesting specific concepts attached to this principle: Firstly, we do not believe it’s good to be on a strict diet all the time unless you are very sick. If you’re basically healthy, it’s a good idea to spend a little time being strict, and a little time relaxing about it and eating a bit more freely. Strict dieting is nice in spring, where we prepare our system for the year to come (it’s like a spring clean for the body and digestion). Autumn is also a nice period for strict diets, preparing ourselves for the withdrawal and hibernation of winter. In summer, it’s nice to be free and enjoy the festive periods, feasts and so on. In winter, we can be free of strictness but really dialing back on the quantities we eat to balance out the summer (again, broths, soups and stews are awesome for winter)..
The other thing is a balance within the food we eat. Balance the type of food, the colours and the flavours of the food too. Balance a strictness of diet with an enjoyment of eating something out of pure love (mmmm chocalate). As the old saying goes, everything in moderation including moderation. We need to be able to let go from time to time, but we also see that you can’t let go of something you don’t have – in this case if you don’t have a time with a strict diet, you can’t let go of it.
7. Avoid Too Much Damp
Traditionally, we say that dampness interferes with circulation. The term comes from English translations of Chinese Medicine ideas, it’s basically talking about stuff that is simultaneously wet and kinda thick, dense or mucous-y in texture. Too much fatty, greasy food is going to have an impact on our capacity to feel and accumulate Qi (as we like to do in our Qi Gong/Nei Gong and Nei Dan practices). Of course we don’t want things too dry either, as per the previous principle, but generally speaking we don’t encourage people to be consuming large amounts of dairy (including butter and ghee), cakes, or other similar baked foods or super fatty parts of animals.
8. Avoid Too Many Grains
It’s a trend today with paleo, gluten-free and the like, but we also have very old texts in our school that talk about problems with consuming too many grains dating back a few hundred years or more. It’s still difficult to avoid eating grains these days (although that is slowly but surely changing), so if you’re stuck for choice, at least try to look for those prepared with traditional methods – typically soaked, sprouted, or otherwise processed to ready them for digestion. Even better of course is doing it yourself, but again be careful with the ingredients you use for this! You will have to pay for this preparation either with your time or your money, and both are good deterrents that help in reducing the amount you consume them.
Anecdotally speaking, if you are eating grains it might also be worthwhile finding out where they are coming from – I’ve spoken to many people who get all sorts of digestive problems eating food made with Australian-grown wheats, but have no problems eating the same food in Europe, and similarly for alcohol. My friends who are into researching this kind of thing have talked to me about the soil profile here in Australia not being really suitable for growing these imported crops (which did not exist in Australia prior to colonization), and over the years the adaptations the crops have made to survive our soil and climate have made them more difficult to digest.
9. Stability In Your Eating Routine
In five elements theory, the spleen/stomach is linked with the Earth element. Basically this means that it does very well with stability, regularity, slowness, and plenty of time to rest, and inversely does not do so well with chaos and mystery. As much as possible, we want to be eating at the same time for each meal, with time in between meals for the digestion process to finish and everything to be able to rest properly. The earth element also is linked with specific hours: 7-9am, 1-3pm, and 7-9pm, so eating right at the start of these times is perfect, with the earth energy being strongest and supporting the spleen/stomach once you have finished eating and are digesting. No snacks in between meals either! You’ll also see that this means we are not eating so late, having our last meal around 7pm or just before. Our digestion should be DONE by the time we go to sleep, so we can use our sleep to digest the emotions from the day properly rather than having to work on the food we have eaten.
10. Drink Loads of Plain Water
This one should probably be first, but I left it to last due to it being about what we drink rather than eat. It’s amazing how little plain water people drink these days (and I’m plenty guilty of this myself). Not infused with tea or coffee or other herbs, not flavoured, not as part of some crazy soft drink, just regular room-temperature water. You will be amazed how much better you feel being properly hydrated. If you haven’t considered this before, I would highly recommend giving yourself a bit of structure to help get in a good habit – an alarm that goes off every hour so you can remember to take a sip, or a bottle that you want to try and finish (slowly) by a certain time, so you can really feel what happens when it’s done properly.
OK I think that just about covers all the basics. There’s plenty more that can be said on this topic, but this general introduction should already give you a good place to work from. I feel it’s more important to get these things working in your life first, and only after start to play around with specific foods. You’ll be surprised how much can change by adjusting habits to follow these guidelines, and as with everything else, you won’t really know if it works for you unless you try it for yourself. So, do it!