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Food Therapy in Traditional Chinese Medicine

 Hippocrates said — “Let food be thy medicine & let thy medicine be food”.

One of the five major branches of Traditional Chinese Medicine is Food Therapy. The other branches are acupuncture, exercise, Tui-Na massage and herbal therapy.  Food therapy is based on the theory that different types of food can be used as treatment for various medical conditions. There is a large variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and herbs that can be beneficial in healing different ailments.

Food therapy is a great idea for clients that want to feed their pets home-made food, are already preparing home-made diets for their pets or are interested in supplementing whole foods to dry commercial diets.

Food Therapy is based on two fundamental principles: “Food Energetics” and “Pattern Differentiation.” Let’s discuss these two principles in added detail.

Food Energetics

This principle refers to the effect food has on multiple processes of the body, particularly the digestive, metabolic, and physiological systems. Each food has what is called a “Xing,” which is essentially the “temperature” of the item. This temperature refers to the particular food’s overall effect on the dog’s metabolism.

In the West, food is most often described by its contents and ingredients: fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. In the East, however, food is described by the effect it has on the body when consumed, particularly the “temperature” of the food. The temperatures of food are hot, warm, neutral, cool, or cold. Chili peppers, for example, are considered hot, heating up our bodies when eaten, while watermelon is considered cooling. You may notice that you prefer to eat rich broth soups in the winter, whereas in the summer, you may find a strong preference for salads. Without knowing it, you have been using the basic principle of Food Therapy for your own health!

Types of food are also classified by their “Flavor.” In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are over five flavors that have distinct actions within the body. These flavors include salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and pungent. For example, the Sour flavor is paralleled with the Wood Phase which focuses on the Liver and Gallbladder. The Bitter flavor is correlated with the Fire Phase, affecting the Heart and Small Intestine. Each flavor has a particular quality, ranging from draining to detoxifying.

Lastly, foods may have a particular action within the body, either directly affecting a meridian or an organ.

Pattern Differentiation/Bian Zheng

The second principle in Food Therapy is one of the most important parts of Traditional Chinese Medicine — Pattern Differentiation/Bian Zheng. This principle distinguishes patterns of disharmony within individual dogs. The patterns of disharmony are numerous, often including theories such as Yin/Yang (cold, hot), Location/Jiao (upper, middle and lower Jiao), Five elements Theory (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, Wood), Eight Principles (yin/yang, hot/cold, interior/exterior, excess/deficiency), and six Pathogenic Factors (wind, cold, damp, heat, summer heat, dryness). When a Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine practitioner diagnoses any of the above patterns, the treatment is generally the inverse of the diagnosis, therefore balancing the body and restoring health. These patterns and principles can be quite complicated and would each deserve a blog on their own. For the purpose of this food blog we will not go into great details about each. Here is a simplistic chart of the 5 elements and what is associated with them based on TCM concept.



Food Combinations

Once Food Energetics and Pattern Differentiation have been evaluated, a practitioner will choose a food combination for your dog. Combinations include multiple types of food as well as culinary herbs designed to balance the dog’s physical and physiological imbalances.

Food Properties

— Tonic-type foods

These are best used to strengthen body function, and are particularly helpful for dogs with chronic issues. These foods maintain and improve available energy within the body. Tonic-type foods include beef, chicken, date, fig, ham, lentil, molasses, oats, sweet potato, and squash.

— Blood tonic foods

These types of foods are best used to improve the quality of immediate nourishment for your dog’s body. Blood tonic foods include apricot, beef, bone marrow, chicken egg, dark leafy greens, liver, oyster, nettle, parsley, sardine, and spinach.

— Yin tonic foods

These foods maintain and improve subtle body nourishment, as well as overall soothing of the body with cooling properties. Yin tonic foods include apple, asparagus, cheese, duck, honey, mango, milk, peas, pineapple, pork, rabbit, tofu, and yam.

— Yang tonic foods

These types of foods help to maintain and improve the animal’s ability to generate warmth and stimulate many system functions. Yang tonic foods include basil, cinnamon bark, clove, fennel seed, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, kidney, lamb, rosemary, shrimp, and walnut.

It’s important to remember that food is medicine. Sometimes we rely too much on drugs, supplements, and vitamins, forgetting that food can not only be a supplement to our health, but can also heal us.

If you’re interested in learning more about Food Therapy, consult a Traditional Veterinary Chinese Medicine practitioner in your area. Traditional Chinese Medicine is a complex form of medicine and best left to a professional for diagnosis.

I am certified by the Chi Institute as a Chinese Veterinary Food Therapist (CVFT) and you can contact me for a food therapy consult. Please be advised that an initial exam is required to perform a full Traditional Chinese Medicine diagnosis in order to better assess the TCM pattern that is present in your pet.

Written by Dr Cindy Lizotte, DVM, MBA, CVFT (CHI institute), CVA (IVAS), Grad Dip Vet Western Herb Med (CIVT) Cert CVHM (IVAS)


Ferguson, Bruce. Introduction to Food Therapy in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine. Australian Veterinary Association Proceedings. 2008.

Raw diets for dogs

What about raw diets?

Raw meat diets can be a great option for feeding your pet. They offer many potential benefits, however it is important to note that they have their limitations and are not meant for everyone.


According to veterinarian Dr. Barbara Fougere, if you choose a raw diet option you need to de-worm your pets monthly. Cleanliness and hygiene are also very important for anyone preparing raw foods since there is a risk of transmitting infections. Food bowls and instruments need to be cleaned daily and constant hand washing is recommended. Raw diets are also not indicated for animals that have certain immune system problems, chronic pancreatitis, or IBD. If the immune system is not working well and you give an animal raw foods containing bacteria then they can get really sick. Chinese Medicine believes that raw meat is contra-indicated in Spleen QI deficient animals. The digestive system in these animals is so weak that they are unable to digest these diets and may cause vomiting and diarrhea. Boiling the food for a couple of minutes is better for those Spleen Qi deficient pets. Raw diets are also not recommended in Yang deficient animals. These are usually older animals that can get worse on raw diets because they are too cooling. From a Chinese Medicine perspective, foods have temperature. Some foods are more cooling and some are more warming then others. The technique used to cook them will also influence how pets will do with certain foods…

Despite these contra-indications, as a veterinarian I do find that raw diets work well in certain conditions. One example is for hot red skin conditions (Damp or Damp Heat patients). I have seen clients have great success with some urine conditions (crystals in their urine) as well. In some cases where pets are sensitive to raw food, we can add-in digestive enzymes and pro-biotics. Holistic vets will often recommend that if your pet is on a raw diet, it should also intermittently be on a non-lactose probiotic designed for pets. As a holistic veterinarian I personally recommend home-made or, in certain cases, raw diets for all my cancer patients.

We have seen how raw and home-made diets can be used well, but the answers definitely depend on the patient. To say that raw diets are good for everyone all the time goes against the holistic principle that we should evaluate each pet and recommend what is best for that particular individual. It is a case by case decision that should be well discussed with your veterinarian to get the best option for you and your companion.

In 2002, there was an interesting article published about The Evolution of Raw Dog Food Diet. This is a great article that supports our point of view that raw food is not ideal for every pet and that in some cases it may be contra-indicated.   It was published in The Whole Dog Journal and presented the opinions of different   holistic vets like Dr.Susan Wynn, Dr. Billinghurst, Dr. Mark Newkirk and Dr. Jean Hofve.

Here is a pretty good small article about how to make raw diets easy for those interested on the subject. This article also lists brands of recommended raw diets that you can likely find in the area from pet stores:


raw food dogs

Here is a free Ebook from Dogs Naturally Magazine  that people can download for a guide on raw diets.

You can subscribe to Dogs Naturally Magazine here. 

This is a link about the calcium and phosphorus balance we need to respect when feeding raw diets in dogs.

Here is a raw dog food primer for more information on how to design diets and what is important: http://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com/raw-feeding-primer/

This is an article on how to include vitamins by using whole food sources with raw diets: http://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com/raw-diets-for-dogs-getting-enough-vitamins-and-minerals/

For those looking to start puppies on raw diets this link may help: https://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com/starting-puppy-on-raw-diet/

I recently spent a weekend listening to a conference about raw diets (the largest online webinar conference on the subject). I learned a few new things from veterinarians and other supporters of raw diets. Here are a few things mentioned by Rodney Habib, pet nutrition blogger and owner of Planet Paws Pet Essentials in Darmouth, Nova Scotia.

1. Make sure the raw meat source is from grass fed animals (make sure the meat source is from 100% grass) and not grain fed animals (higher omega 3 fatty acids in grass fed (anti-inflammatory) vs too much omega 6 fatty acids (pro-inflammatory) in grain fed meats. Therefore, feeding raw meat from grain fed animals goes against the goal of feeding raw in the first place, which is to decrease inflammation with food.

2. Make sure it is fit for human consumption and ask the raw food supplier to prove it with certified paper work (certified by CFIA for human comsumption or FDA in the USA).

3. If it is cheap, you are probably paying for a cheaper source of meat (grain fed or animals finished on grains vs 100% grass fed meat) or they could be adding rendered meat to it, so be careful! Most holistic vet will not recommend you source meat from a supplier that uses grass fed animals that are finished on grains since this modifies the omega 6 ratio and the meat will promote inflammation since it alters the omega 3:6 ratio. Make sure you find a supplier that can guarantee that they source their meet from 100% grass fed animals! Grass fed animals take twice as more time to get to market vs grain fed or animals finished on grains. As a result, so you will end up paying more but you will end up with a meat higher an omega 3! A cheap meat is a meat sourced from grain fed animals, animals finished on grains or rendered meat. *** AVOID THESE!

4. Before buying commercial raw food or finding a raw food supplier, he advises to call or email the president or spokesperson. If they ignore your questions or do not take time to talk to you, it says a lot about them and he avoids sourcing from these companies.

5. He often sources his meat from local farmers or butchers with whom he has developed a relationship with and can trust. Based on his research and the cost per pound of commercially prepared raw diets, it ended up being either cheaper or similar in cost. (He compared to Instinct Nature’s Variety)

6. There is a huge debate regarding HPP raw meats vs non HPP raw meats (Dr Dodds touches on this). Some believe that HPP raw diets should not be recommended and going into this subject would be a blog on its own which I may address in future posts. What is HPP (high pressure processing)? Follow this link for a quick article that describes what it means: http://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/choosing-dog-food/high-pressure-processing-raw-dog-food/

Are there any benefits to cooking home-made diets vs. feeding raw?

There is debate over whether or not we should cook our home-made pet diets or simply feed them raw. Cooking food does offer some benefits to your pets in some cases. With regards to cereals and vegetables, cooking will help improve their overall digestibility. Digestibility is increased with cooking because it softens cell walls. Some pets can’t tolerate raw veggies and may have vomiting and diarrhoea if these are fed. Cooking foods also kills bacteria, such as E. coli and Salmonella, and parasites and toxins which can be responsible for food poisoning and illness.

Even though cooking is good, overcooking is definitely not good. Overcooking foods reduces the nutrients in them. Boiling, baking and frying will destroy some vitamins and due to this vitamin loss, supplementing the diet with approved multivitamins is a great idea. Cooking in high fats and oils can also be bad; however using something like olive oil can be ok. Ideally, you should only add in oils for balance and to help with the calorie requirements of a diet after it is cooked and has cooled down.

If you feel that feeding a raw diet is more beneficial to you and your pet then a fully cooked diet then a compromise to reduce the risk of contamination is to boil the meat for half a minute. You may also sear the outside of the meat in a very hot pan. Again it is imperative to use proper hygiene when handling raw meats. This means washing your hands, cutting boards and utensils with soap and hot water like you would when you prepare your own meals. Wash food bowls daily to insure proper disinfection. You may also consider using HPP raw diets.

You can follow this link to read about Dr Jean Dodd’s opinion on raw food. She is a raw diet supporter.

Part 1: Raw vs cooked Article by Dr Jean Dodds:

Part 2: Raw vs cooked Article by De Jean Dodds:

What about organic foods?

These types of food are more expensive and sometimes may be harder to find, but can often be easily located in organic food sections in most grocery stores today. Organic diets usually have fewer pesticides used on them, although this is not always the case. You do reduce the chance that you will be feeding your pet toxins which may be hard for the liver to process on a daily basis. Organic foods often have higher nutrient and mineral content which may reduce the need for excess supplementation of vitamins and minerals. Some organic foods are usually considered healthier than conventional foods. As there are already a lot of articles about their benefits available on-line, I will not go into full details in this article. Feel free to look them up if you are interested.

Written by Dr Cindy Lizotte, DVM, MBA, CVFT (CHI institute), CVA (IVAS), Grad Dip Vet Western Herb Med (CIVT) Cert CVHM (IVAS)

I would like to thank Dr Murray Alexander Gillies, DVM for his contribution, help and the awesome job he did editing this blog!