What are food energetics?

Food energetics are the tangible effects of food on the body. If you pay close attention to your body as you eat, you will begin to feel these effects.

In Chinese medicine, food is considered to be like a gentle form of herbal medicine. Foods, as with medicinal herbs, are categorised according to their flavour, nature and direction of movement.


Bite into a lemon and you will feel a gathering sensation your mouth. The tissues in the mouth will pucker and saliva will gather there – you may feel the same gathering sensation throughout the whole body.

Different flavours affect the body in different ways. According to the classical texts of Chinese medicine:

Acrid can disperse, can [make things] move.

Sweet can build, can slow, can harmonise.

Bitter can drain, can dry, can make firm.

Sour can gather, can astringe.

Salty can descend, can soften.

Bland can leach, can benefit [create flow].

Another example – Chilli is an acrid (or pungent) food. As such it ‘can make things move’. When you eat chillies you will notice that it creates movement in the body: You may wave your hand in front of your mouth, your nose may run, it may make you sweat (moving and dispersing fluids) – even your bowels may move.

Not all foods have such a strong and noticeable effect on the body, but this example demonstrates that the effect of foods can be very tangible and affect the whole body, not just the mouth or digestive tract.


Sometimes referred to as temperature. This refers to the effect on the experienced temperature of the body, rather than the temperature of the food as it is served. Food can be hot, warm, neutral, cool or cold.

  • Chilli is hot, along with spices such as ginger or cinnamon and alcohol.
  • Lemon is cold, along with banana, ice cream and lettuce.
  • Neutral foods include rice, most meat and beans.


This refers to the area most affected or the direction of movement created by the food. This may be:

  • Ascending (above the waist, or rising up towards the head)
  • Descending (below the waist, or moving down through the body)
  • Floating (moving from the centre of the body out to the skin, or from the core to the extremities), or
  • Sinking (moving towards the centre of the body, from the extremities to the core, or often refers to reducing swelling of the abdomen and creating movement of the bowels).

Is red wine good for you?

Every now and then there’s a news report of some research that’s been done showing that red wine, chocolate or some other food is ‘good for you’. A couple of weeks later, another piece of research finds that actually, it’s not good for you after all. The problem is that, according to this way of thinking, foods are chemicals that affect every person in the same way. The Chinese dietary model is much better at accounting for individual differences (without complicated and expensive medical tests).

Here are the Chinese food energetics of red wine:

  • Flavour: pungent, sweet and sour
  • Nature: hot
  • Movement: rising

The predominant effect on the body is to create movement and heat that rises to the head. If you’re somebody who is cold and stagnant, red wine will be good for you. If, on the other hand, you usually feel hot, get irritable and have lots of headaches, red wine will probably make you much worse.

Creating a healthy diet

So a healthy diet is not going to be the same for everyone. The steps to create your own personalised healthy diet are as follows:

  1. Understand your imbalances (for example, are you generally hot or cold, are there areas that are stuck, tight or cold, are there places with too much fluid build up or areas of dryness).
  2. Increase the proportion of foods that help to correct those imbalances. Reduce those that exacerbate those imbalances.

If you have a good awareness of your body it is possible to experiment by yourself, but it will likely be much quicker and more effective to get a full diagnosis and dietary guidance from an acupuncturist (or other Chinese medicine practitioner).

Further Reading

Helping Ourselves: A Guide to Traditional Chinese Food Energetics by Daverick Leggett

Recipes for Self-Healing by Daverick Leggett

Live Well, Live Long by Peter Deadman

Returning Our Focus to the Flavour & Nature of Herbs by Julie-Ann Nugent Head in the Journal of Chinese Medicine, accessible from https://association-for-traditional-studies.teachable.com/p/returning-our-focus-to-the-flavour-nature-of-herbs