Paleo & Chinese medicine.

Paleo and Chinese medicine.Paleo and Chinese Medicine

Does Chinese medicine support the paleo diet?

I think most people imagine not.  The contemporary Chinese diet emphasizes the importance of  ‘fan’, or staple foods such as wheat and rice.  These are thought to have a neutral energetic (being neither cooling or warming) which balances the other elements of the meal – such as cai (vegetable dishes) and any proteins such as meat or fish. The typical proportions would be around half a plate of grains or root vegetables, around another half of a variety of vegetables with the rest being ‘wei’ food; wei is ‘taste’.  Wei foods are said to have a dense taste and to be rich and nourishing, such as fish, meat, organ foods, egg, oils and fats and dairy products.   Certainly the average Chinese takeaway meal is a high-carb, insulin spiking nightmare.  Anyone who has read T. Colin Campbell’s book, “The China Study”, will have come away thinking that any benefits the Chinese diet may have are because it is an almost vegan, plant-based diet; and therefore highly rich in carbohydrates.  This view-point has been aggressively debunked by Denise Minger.

Yet Chinese medicine is abundantly clear in its support of the value of animal protein in the diet and it was a doctor of Chinese medicine who persuaded me to give up vegetarianism (despite a solid 12 year commitment).  I embraced a Chinese style diet with moderate protein, high vegetable content with plenty of low-glycaemic carbohydrates (much the same as the popular Mediterranean diet)  I was doing what conventional wisdom advises but was gaining more weight year by year.

Then earlier this year I read, “How to Regulate Yin and Yang through Diet”, by “Peter Torssell” in the Journal of Chinese Medicine, issue no 94, October 2010 (I know, it took me a while to get around to reading it),  which compared different dietary models from a Chinese dietetics perspective.  One of these was a paleo diet composed of “one part varied vegetables to one part animal wei foods such as meat and fish”, which was suggested to have the following benefits: to reduce damp-phlegm, damp-heat (if hot spices, fried foods and alcohol are avoided), strengthen yang, especially Spleen yang.  According to the author – “Dampness is yin and retards the circulation of qi, creating turbid stagnation, disrupting the function of the Spleen and making it difficult to produce clear yin.  By adding spices, which are very much qi (and light) in comparison to wei foods, the circulation of qi is stimulated, which counteracts dampness and creates a better atmosphere for yin to be nourished by the cooling and moistening vegetables.”  He suggests that this model of eating can be further adapted to tonifying yin by eating a low-carb high- fat, or ketogenic diet.

The roots of this dietary approach lie in evolutionary biology, anthropology, and so on.  The theory goes that we evolved over millions of years and evolved to eat a hunter-gatherer style diet.  Whilst this would have varied in different geographical locations and time periods it would have been uniform in not containing grains and legumes in any appreciable quantities.  It certainly wouldn’t have contained any industrially processed foods such as vegetable oils, sugar, low-fat products or any of the chemicals added to processed foods.  Food wouldn’t have had traces of pesticides, hormones, growth-promoters or the like.

I read more books on this dietary style; “The Paleo Solution”, by Robb Wolf;  “The New Evolution Diet”, by Prof Art DeVany;  “The Primal Blueprint”, by Mark Sissons and many more.  Having embarked upon this ancestral health diet/lifeway I have had numerous health benefits.  I’ve dropped 2 trouser sizes, I’m not hungry all the time, I don’t get the afternoon blahs, I can think clearer and don’t get brain fog anymore.  From the Chinese medical perspective my Spleen Qi and Yang are much stronger, my stomach is harmonized, I get less Liver Qi stagnation, and more.

But what about the Chinese veneration of fan (staples)?  It seems that classical Chinese thought was, as is so often the case, way ahead of us.  According to qigong master and China scholar  Kenneth S. Cohen, most of the ancient writings on “qigong diet” advise the avoidance of grains.  Qigong is the ancient Chinese practice of cultivating energy qi (energy).  There are three main energy centres in qigong theory: the third eye, the chest/heart and the lower abdomen.  These centres are dantiens; elixir or cinnabar fields; terms taken from Chinese alchemy.  In his book, “The Way of Qigong”, Cohen writes, “According to Daoist mythology, the three dantiens……are infested by three worms.  These worms live on the impure breaths (qi) created by immoral behaviour, putrid food, and the Five Cereals, which are the basis of Chinese cuisine: rice, millet, wheat, oats and beans”.  Cohen goes on to quote a Daoist text (1), “The Five Cereals are scissors that cut off life, they rot the five internal organs, they shorten life”.  However, Cohen does point out that some of the same Daoist sects required “five pecks of rice” for joining them, suggesting that they were advocating carbohydrate restriction rather than complete abstention.

A paleo-diet is not necessarily low-carb but rather puts its focus on the quality of foods, and allows macro nutrient ratios to suit individual needs and health conditions.  Individuals with Type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity and so on would generally be better with carbs in the range of 50 to 100g per day.  Most of these would come from non-starchy vegetables and a little fruit.  Insulin sensitive individuals with good body composition and an active lifestyle might do better with higher levels of carbohydrates such as sweet potato, potato, and white rice.  According to Mark Sissons, keeping in the 50 to 100g per day of carbohydrates, “Minimizes insulin production and ramps up fat metabolism. By meeting average daily protein requirements (.7 – 1 gram per pound of lean bodyweight formula), eating nutritious vegetables and fruits (easy to stay in 50-100 gram range, even with generous servings), and staying satisfied with delicious high fat foods (meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds), you can lose one to two pounds of body fat per week and then keep it off forever by eating in the maintenance range.”

Grains and legumes are problematic because they irritate the bowel, block mineral absorption, provoke the immune system and generally wreak havoc with our body; there is ample evidence mounting to support this.  All grains are quickly converted to glucose in the bloodstream, whether they are so called ‘safe’ carbs or not, and so are best not over-consumed, especially by insulin-resistant people.

In conclusion, Chinese medicine does support the use of a low-carb paleo diet.  We have seen there have been proponents of this approach of avoiding grains and limiting carbohydrate consumption both in antiquity and in modern times.

(1) Da-yu Jing, in Henri Maspers, ‘Taoism and Chinese Religion’ ( Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press 1981, p. 333).



  1. Deloras Kosinar on June 24, 2013 at 3:21 am

    The classic therapeutic ketogenic diet was developed for treatment of paediatric epilepsy in the 1920s and was widely used into the next decade, but its popularity waned with the introduction of effective anticonvulsant drugs. In the mid-1990s, Hollywood producer Jim Abrahams, whose son’s severe epilepsy was effectively controlled by the diet, created the Charlie Foundation to promote it..”^`

    Over and out

  2. Steph on May 4, 2015 at 10:58 am

    While I’m all for paleo and keto, I’m not sure Chinese medicine advocates it. Yes, traditional qi gong beliefs are paleo, but qi gong is completely separate from traditional Chinese medicine. You barely mention TCM. In fact, from my experience TCM recommends moderate grain and legume consumption. I would love to see evidence against this claim.

    • Jamie on May 4, 2015 at 1:12 pm

      Hi Steph, it is my understanding that qigong is as much a part of Chinese medicine as acupuncture, herbs or tuina. For a more technical discussion please see Peter Torssell’s excellent article available in the Journal of Chinese Medicine’s article archive (or you may already own the Journal). Here’s the link:

  3. Traci on March 3, 2016 at 8:55 pm

    Thanks for writing this. I’m a TCM student and researching this very thing and wasn’t finding any studies done that merge the two worlds. Fascinating and I will read Peter Torssell’s article.

    • Jamie on March 4, 2016 at 9:59 am

      Hi Traci,
      I would probably write this post differently today but it is still an interesting area. I think the closest paleo diet to the Chinese would be ‘The Perfect Health Diet’ by Jaminet and Jaminet. I’m still not sure I buy into the gluten food hysteria. I’d love to eat a traditional Chinese diet all the time but sadly it has too much histamine in it for me (all those lovely fermented foods).

      • Taylor on May 9, 2017 at 2:42 am

        Jamie, I am curious as to how you would write this post now. I am very interested in the intersection of TCM, carbs and ketosis. Could you do a follow up?

        • Jamie on May 11, 2017 at 2:55 pm

          Hi Taylor, thanks for the question. It would be interesting to do a follow up but I’m way too busy at the moment. I think in general we now have a lot more understanding of the benefits of low carb diets and there are good clinical trials to back their use. I no longer think the term paleo is useful – there are so many different versions out there that I feel the term is redundant. Also, we know now that actual paleolithic diets were more varied than once supposed. It is a fascinating subject and the intersection with TCM is worthy of a whole book; just don’t think I’m the one to write it!

  4. Geoffrey Allen on October 29, 2018 at 6:42 am

    I really can’t believe how Chinese medicine is being polluted with this high protein, low carbohydrate diet (Atkinson, Paleo, HCG, etc) and these ideas are being put forward by Westernised trained TCM doctors as this isn’t the case among TCM doctors in China, Taiwan, etc. The Chinese are basically proppents of a low fat diet as per the China study. The term TCM was put forward by the communist Chinese in the 1950s because they hated anything to do with traditional China prior to that TCM was know as Taoist Medicine which include TCM, Taoist martial arts (tai chi, Bagua, Yingyiquan), meditation, astrology, the list goes on. In addition, there was no such thing as Qigong as it was part of Taoist meditation and Chinese martial arts (Zhan Zhuang or standing postures ) and the communist Chinese again removed the mystique of taoism so separated qigong from these practices. Let’s no forget TCM was created by these taoist immortals through their meditation and qi practices. If you want to look at this in detail read the books of Ni Hua Ching, Mantak Chia, Eva Wong and Ding Ming Dao (The Wandering Taoist), etc.

    If you are a practitioner of TCM it is essential you do some Taoist or spiritual practice otherwise how can you even talk about Qi, but how many actually do? Traditionally one learnt TCM from one’s teacher as part of their learning and it is only after one’s energy became refined that you learnt the medical side. However today it is just all about money and desire.

    The evils of the five grains is mentioned in Taoism, but the underlying thing was that this was the diet of the immortals who had basically given up consuming all food except plants of longevity like mushrooms, tonic herbs and water All food we eat creates some imbalance, for example I can’t eat dairy and most meat except a little seafood because it makes me feel very weak. It is ridiculous for Cohen to sound all high and mighty talking about the evils of grains as this diet is not meant for those who are still attached to the world of desire and power, it is the diet of Taoist immortals who are not interested in the world of the red dust. Who are beyond DESIRE and COMPETITION. I’m very interested in the China study as it is the only diet that has successfully treated people in the US with heart disease. It is very similar to the diet of people of longevity (Okinawans, etc). The natural diet of humans are plants, fruit, grains and other non animal products (China study diet). Compare this with the Standard American Diet (SAD) of 70% meat and dairy products, 20% percent simple sugars and refined starches, 5% fruit and 5% non starchy vegetables. No wonder 75% of America is either obese or overweight and suffering from huge numbers of people with diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer and other cancers, etc. Why is this? The Paleo and other high protein, low carbohydrate diets don’t work because it is the same diet as the SAD.

    I met a friend recently who told me quite proudly that she was on the HCG diet (high protein, low carbs) and consumed two dozen eggs and used 20 litres of milk a week this is ridiculous.

    • Jamie on October 29, 2018 at 10:48 am

      Wow, that is a very cross post for a “Taoist”. Firstly, the post was intended to be light hearted and thought provoking, and certainly not the last word on Chinese dietetics. I’m not going to spend long on this but will make a few brief points. Modern ‘paleo’ diets generally recommend moderate rather than high protein. The China Study book has been thoroughly debunked here

      The Chinese, as anyone who has visited China will attest, are not squeamish about eating animal products (or insect or….). The pre-industrial diet was high in starch and yet they had excellent health. But with the introduction of industrial foods such as sugar and refined vegetable oils they are developing a massive problems with Typ 2 diabetes, etc.

      There isn’t a single study that supports the use of a low fat diet. This was proven in court when the lipo-phobic South African dieticians took Professor Tim Noakes to court for recommending a low carb high fat diet and lost – see here

      Anyone with any understanding of the history of Chinese medicine knows that it has a mix of sources and isn’t simply Taoist. Chinese martial arts such as bagua and tai chi are very modern compared to the Han dynasty origins of Chinese medicine. The developers of Han dynasty medicine most probably didn’t practice martial arts.

      The decline in the practice of acupuncture in China predates communism. At least Mao allowed it to be practiced, unlike the nationalists before him. According to Daoist priest Jeffrey Yuen, the full acupuncture system has been in decline since the Sung Dynasty which was centuries ago (Jade purity foundation).

      Kenneth Cohen is a massively well respected teacher of Qigong, Taoism and indigenous religion. I don’t mind you casting aspersions on my character but please leave Ken alone!

      As to your final point, 20 litres of milk would be high carb (lactose), so would be a little off.

  5. Molly on August 15, 2022 at 1:09 am

    I know this is an old post but thank you for writing it! I am also very tickled at your response to the previous “very cross post”

    • Jamie on August 15, 2022 at 10:49 am

      Ha ha, thanks Molly.

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