Ancient Chinese medical texts agree with the modern nutrition research by warning against the consumption of animal products. In fact, the ancient eastern medical texts are so thorough, they categorized every consumable, whether it be food or medicinal herbs and labeled everything based on how it affected the body. Warnings are given about any substance that should be used with caution, these warnings include the consumption of meat and dairy. These ancient texts are long and difficult for many to read due to grammatical differences between classical Chinese and modern, so most practitioners do not read them. Therefore, many do not know that meat and dairy come with a warning in the ancient texts. As a result, current, mainstream eastern medical education encourages the consumption of animal-based foods.
What would the ancient doctors say?
Eastern medicine has an authoritative textbook. It is called, Huang Di Nei Jing and is thought to be one of the first comprehensive medical texts dating back more than 2000 years, some argue that it is closer to 3000 years old. This book discusses a wide range of medical subjects including pathology, psychology, acupuncture treatment, and nutrition. It is written in question and answer format between the Emperor and his doctors.
One of the very first mentions of food is a very clear endorsement of the plant-based diet. “Water and grain are the foundation of life, without water and grain a human will die.” Modern research has demonstrated the numerous benefits of the consumption of grains which include the protection of our arteries, prevention against bowel cancer; maintaining healthy gut flora, etc.
The book later describes observations of the dietary habits of populations in different regions of ancient China. Keep in mind that ancient Chinese medical terminology is different from modern western medical terminology:
“In the east… people eat fish and crave salt… As for the fish, it lets one develop a heat in their bowels, as for the salt, it breaks down the blood. Their diseases often include abscesses and ulcers.”
“In the west… people eat rich food and they are overweight. External pathogens cannot harm their bodies, their diseases are created internally.”
“In the North… people find joy in living in the wilderness and in consuming milk. Their bowels are cold and generate diseases with symptoms of abdominal distention.”
“In the South… people crave for rotten [foods] and they eat [food of ] a strong odor, its people all [have] tight [skin] and a reddish complexion. Their diseases are cramps and arthralgia.”
The passage is written in a way that suggests that their problems are directly related to their eating habits. The symptoms listed above are all characteristic of the over-consumption of animal protein, saturated fat, and salt, for example, the mention of diseases beginning internally, bowel disorders with inflammation, (“heat in their bowels”), and skin disorders, etc.
In a study published on January 23, 2014 in Nature, researchers compared the plant-based diet to an animal-based diet. The study, entitled, “Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome,” by Lawrence, et al., found that the intestinal environment changes based on the diet of the individual, but this is not always beneficial, for example, “increases in the abundance and activity of Bilophila wadsworthia on the animal-based diet support a link between dietary fat, bile acids, and the outgrowth of microorganisms capable of triggering inflammatory bowel disease.”
In a chapter about febrile diseases there is a passage about meat consumption being contraindicated. “If [the patient] is recovering and eats meat, then the disease will recur…” Diet should be an integral part of any medical treatment. The goal of eastern medicine is to create an environment in the body that is conducive for healing. The patient therefore should also create a healing internal environment by consuming food that combats disease. Eating meat and dairy creates an internal environment that allows disease to develop and progress.
The Huang Di Nei Jing also states that diet should have a harmonious mix of the different categories, or flavors of food. The Chinese categorized food by flavor and action in the body, not the food groups that are known in the west, like the dairy group, the meat group, etc. Different meats and dairy fit into specific categories, but plant foods also fall into these same categories. Modern research has shown that humans do not need meat to thrive, therefore, one should use various plant foods to create the harmonious diet recommended by the ancient doctors. Ancient observations and modern research are in agreement regarding the effects of animal based foods.