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Nutritional Relationship Between the Cold-Hot Nature of Foods

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has evolved over thousands of years. The earliest known relics are oracle bones that date back to the Shang Dynasty which ruled from around 1600 to 1046 BCE. Today more than 1.4 billion people live in China and they turn to both TCM and Western medicine as their form of health care. The choice as to which to use depends on the individual and the condition being treated.

In the midst of increasing dissatisfaction with the conventional approach to medicine, many people in the Western world are seeking holistic solutions. The most promising is that of Chinese Medicine. And while there seems to be more acceptance as it related to this approach for humans, when it comes to “food energetics” and dog nutrition, I’ve observed confusion, curiosity, and even dismissal especially when it comes to efficacy in applying these concepts. In this article, I will go over the brief history of Chinese Medicine and recent studies on food energetics.

A Brief History

The First Practitioners and Materia Medicas

The roots of TCM are found in the Taoist philosophy, which views the body as a universe with a set of complete and sophisticated interconnected systems, and it aims to balance the Yin and Yang – two opposing but complementary energies. It is an ancient system of health and wellness that’s been used in China for thousands of years making it one of the oldest and most long-standing healthcare systems in the world.

The first Materia Medica was recorded by Shen Nong, “The Classic of Materia Medica”. Compiled around 206 BCE this book laid the foundation for the development of Chinese Herbal medicine and described 365 healing substances which included 252 from plant sources, 46 from minerals, and 67 from animal sources.

Then came the “Huang Di Nei Jing” (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic), which was compiled around the 3rd century BCE. It forms the foundation for TCM and introduced many of the basic concepts, such as the theory of Yin and Yang, the Five Elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), Qi (vital energy), and the meridian system, which are still used in TCM today.

During the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE), Zhang Zhongjing, another prominent figure in TCM, wrote: “Shang Han Lun” (Treatise on Cold Damage), which focused on disease as an internal process of the body and remains a seminal text in TCM.

When Dynasties Take Over

Throughout China’s history, different Emperors were in power. As dynasties fall, and new ones took over it was customary to put new people in places of power. As such ideas on how to live and how to heal people would change.

They didn’t have books in the earliest years and information was often passed on from doctor to doctor. Medical schools had not yet been built.

With Printing Came the Distribution of Information

Woodblock printing, which involves carving an entire page of text onto a single block of wood, was invented in China no later than the Tang Dynasty. (618 – 907), but it was during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) that printing became widespread and significantly impacted Chinese society and culture.

Private printers flourished, producing a wide range of books, including Confucian classics, Buddhist scriptures, works of history, and dictionaries. This spread of printing technology had a profound impact on many areas of knowledge, including medicine. The ability to print texts allowed for the wider dissemination of medical knowledge, which was no longer confined to oral transmission or laborious hand-copying of texts.

Several important medical texts were printed during this period. For example, during the Song Dynasty, the government commissioned the printing of a series of medical texts as part of a larger project to compile and disseminate knowledge. This included the “Tai Ping Sheng Hui Fang”, (Imperially Commissioned Canon of Medicine), a major medical compendium compiled in 992 CE.

In the subsequent Jin and Yuan dynasties, the “Bencao Gang Mu”, (Compendium of Materia Medica)”, one of the most comprehensive pharmacological works in TCM, was written by Li Shizhen and later printed. This text, which includes information on thousands of drugs derived from plants, animals, and minerals, has been widely printed and distributed, becoming a cornerstone of TCM.

The spread of printed medical texts led to a standardization of medical knowledge and practices, and it allowed a larger number of people to access this information. This contributed significantly to the development of TCM knowledge in China.

In the 20th century, TCM faced a period of decline as Western medicine was introduced to China. For some time, it was seen as unscientific and was not taught in universities. However, in the 1950s, under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong, TCM experienced a revival. It was institutionalized and integrated into the national healthcare system alongside Western medicine.

Today, TCM is a critical part of China’s healthcare system and is gaining international recognition and acceptance. It’s used for various health issues, from minor illnesses to chronic diseases, in combination with or as an alternative to Western medicine. TCM practices such as acupuncture and the use of medicinal herbs are now common not just in China but in many parts of the world.

The Population Boom

Let’s step back for a moment and look at the population of China. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the population of China is thought to have been somewhere between 50 and 80 million people. The Tang Dynasty was a period of relative peace, territorial expansion, and economic prosperity, which likely supported population growth.

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) saw significant advancements in agriculture, trade, and technology, leading to further population growth. Estimates for China’s population during the Song Dynasty range from around 100 million to 120 million people.

Comparatively, the population of Great Britain during the same period was much smaller. Precise figures are hard to come by, but estimates suggest that the population of England (not including Scotland and Wales) was likely under 2 million around the year 1000. The population grew slowly throughout the Middle Ages, reaching approximately 4 to 5 million by the end of the 13th century.

China Is Vast

The vast expanse of China, spanning over 9.6 million square kilometers, is home to an impressive diversity of climates, landscapes, and ecosystems, each with its unique array of flora and fauna. This environmental diversity is mirrored in the population distribution across the country, which is, in its sheer size, difficult to fathom, numbering well over a billion individuals.

With such a wide geographical spread and population density, access to specific medicinal herbs, food and the treatment of ailments can significantly vary from region to region. In the humid south, where plant life is lush and diverse, the local pharmacopeia tends to be rich in herbs that thrive in warm, damp climates. Conversely, in the arid regions of the northwest, practitioners of TCM might rely more heavily on mineral and animal-based remedies, as well as hardy desert plants. Furthermore, the prevalence of certain ailments can also vary based on climate and lifestyle differences across regions, leading to regional variations in treatment strategies.

This geographical diversity, combined with the holistic and adaptable nature of TCM, has allowed the system to thrive and evolve over thousands of years, catering to the unique needs of different communities across the vast Chinese landscape.

When someone today tells me they find inconsistencies with the information they find online about food energetics, it’s often because there is a lack of understanding as to:

  • The history of TCM
  • The vast amount of writings on TCM (mostly in Chinese) to keep the population healthy
  • Comprehension of how medicine and herbs varied from region to region
  • Comprehension of how agriculture and food varied from region to region
  • How approaches to healing vary between the different practitioners
  • Comprehension of how TCM was China’s main form of healthcare for thousands of years

The Drug and Herbal Industry Today

It is estimated that China’s TCM market size is valued at over $40 billion while its pharmaceutical size is valued at $332 billion. The most official materia medica used in China today is the “Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China” (PPRC). It is the authoritative compendium of drugs in China, covering Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Western medicines. The PPRC is published by the China Medical Science and Technology Press under the authority of the Pharmacopoeia Commission, which is part of the National Medical Products Administration (NMPA), China’s regulatory body for drugs and medical devices.

The PPRC includes detailed information on the source, description, identification, test, preparation, dosage, and storage of drugs. It’s used as a legal reference by drug regulatory authorities, researchers, manufacturers, and practitioners in China.

For TCM specifically, the PPRC includes a wide range of herbs, animal products, minerals, and prepared medicinal formulas. It serves as an updated and authoritative reference, building on the legacy of historical texts such as “Shennong’s Classic of Materia Medica” (Shennong Ben Cao Jing) and “Compendium of Materia Medica” (Ben Cao Gang Mu).

The PPRC is updated regularly to reflect advances in drug discovery, manufacturing, and regulation.

The Nutritional Relationship

Traditional Chinese Medicine is its own medicine. But the Western World doesn’t understand it and so today we find new studies emerging. Western scientists are seeking to quantify what is well-established in Chinese Medicine through clinical studies. And while these efforts are new, there are a few that are interesting and worth noting.

In a study done in 2020 published in Journal of Agriculture and Food Research, 179 foods in different categories (cold, plain, and hot) were identified from the literature. Their compositional data were obtained from USDA and Chinese food composition databases. The contents of 32 nutritional components and calories were used through ANOVA and multivariate analysis to evaluate the most important variables affecting food warming and cooling characteristics, and the interaction effect of different components on food properties.

Mathematical equations were derived to correlate the component variables and the probability of the food being cold/hot. The results indicate vitamins (B6, folate, and VA) are among the most important influencing factors. Logit functions were developed to evaluate the hot and cold characteristics of a food based on its compositional data. The obtained information from this study is expected to enhance the understanding of the link between food composition and its cold/hot properties which may provide another method to evaluate the food diet and their health effect.

In a different study conducted in 2012 published in Nutrition and Dietician, they found ten nutrients were found to be associated with the cold-hot nature category of foods. In the multiple logistic regression analysis, five nutrients correlated with the cold-hot natures of foods. Large amounts of fat, carbohydrate and selenium were significantly associated with the hot nature of foods (P < 0.01) while the amount of iron and copper were significantly associated with the cold nature of foods (P < 0.05).

Another study found that overall, ‘heating’ foods were associated with metabolism and sympathetic nervous system enhancement via increased proportions of caffeine, carbohydrate, protein, fat, and calories; as well as greater oxidation potential; vasodilatory and pro-inflammatory effects; and higher acidity and aromatic compound content. ‘Cooling’ foods were contrastly found to be higher in water, fiber, alkalinity, and aliphatic compounds; as well as associated with anti-inflammatory, and detoxification (elimination) processes.

It’s important to note that all of these studies were conducted for humans. It’s not a hard reach to know that food has thermal properties. For example we know that chewing a mint leaf, eating a cucumber, or digesting ginger will have a different thermal quality.

How To Look Things Up

If you’ve gotten this far, then I’m assuming you’re interested in learning reliable sources of information. Here are a few books to start you off:

Note: Some links in this article are affiliate links (Amazon Associates or other programs I participate in). At no charge to you, as an affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  

Books for Animals (TCVM):

Four Paws, Five Directions: A Guide to Chinese Medicine for Cats and Dogs

Yin & Yang Nutrition for Dogs: Maximizing Health with Whole Foods, Not Drugs

Acupuncture Points on the Dog

Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine: Fundamental Principles 2nd Edition

Integrative and Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine Food Therapy Small Animal and Equine

The last two books are very in-depth when it comes to TCM and part of the texts from Chi University. It does require one to have a solid foundation on TCM already so it sometimes helps to start to read about TCM for humans and apply the concepts and then learn how it translates to our animals.

Alternatively, you can search ” (insert ingredient name)” and then “TCM actions” to get summary statements on the energetics of that food. Keep in mind that there may be variations to the answers depending on who published them and their source.

One easy way to look up the energetics of animals if you’re not clear if they are warming or cooling is to look at their nature and ask:

  • What other animals are similar?
  • How fast does their heart beat?
  • Where do they live?
  • Do they seek warmth or cool spots?
  • Are they fatty or lean?
  • How fast do they run?

For example, when asked about ostriches and emus, I posit that these animals are warming based on how fast they run.

On the other hand slow-moving cold water animals might either be more cooling or neutral.

Books for Humans (TCM)

Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine

The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine: A New Translation of the Neijing Suwen with Commentary

Chinese Nutrition Therapy: Dietetics in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition (3rd Edition) Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition

The Tao of Nutrition

Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine

Helping Ourselves: A Guide to Traditional Chinese Food Energetics

Arisal of the Clear: A Simple Guide to Healthy Eating According to Traditional Chinese Medicine

Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History

Chinese Healing Secrets: Time-Tested Ways to Help Your Body Heal Itself

Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen: Recipes from the East for Health, Healing, and Long Life

In Closing

Chinese Medicine looks at everything as a whole. A practitioner in TCM/TCVM realizes that every person and every animal is an individual and unique from each other.

The goal in TCM/TCVM is to first prevent illness and to do so we look at what nature has provided to bring harmony to the body.

As it relates to food, we can fuel ourselves and our dogs in this case, the food that will help to achieve balance with their environment.

As always, I know your time is of extreme value and I thank you for stopping by today. Wishing you and your dogs, Good Health!


Aiying Xie, Hanwen Huang, Fanbin Kong, Relationship between food composition and its cold/hot properties: A statistical study, Journal of Agriculture and Food Research,
Volume 2, 2020, 100043, ISSN 2666-1543, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jafr.2020.100043.

LIU, C., SUN, Y., LI, Y., YANG, W., ZHANG, M., XIONG, C. and YANG, Y. (2012), The relationship between cold-hot nature and nutrient contents of foods. Nutrition & Dietetics, 69: 64-68. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-0080.2011.01565.x

Ormsby SM. Hot and Cold Theory: Evidence in Nutrition. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2021;1343:87-107. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-80983-6_6. PMID: 35015278.

Chen XD. [Brief research on the theory of cold and heat of the foods in Zhou li (The rites of Zhou)]. Zhonghua Yi Shi Za Zhi. 2007 Oct;37(4):248-50. Chinese. PMID: 19127850.

Huang Y, Yao P, Leung KW, Wang H, Kong XP, Wang L, Dong TTX, Chen Y, Tsim KWK. The Yin-Yang Property of Chinese Medicinal Herbs Relates to Chemical Composition but Not Anti-Oxidative Activity: An Illustration Using Spleen-Meridian Herbs. Front Pharmacol. 2018 Nov 15;9:1304. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2018.01304. PMID: 30498446; PMCID: PMC6249273.

Yu S, Li C, Ding Y, Huang S, Wang W, Wu Y, Wang F, Wang A, Han Y, Sun Z, Lu Y, Gu N. Exploring the ‘cold/hot’ properties of traditional Chinese medicine by cell temperature measurement. Pharm Biol. 2020 Dec;58(1):208-218. doi: 10.1080/13880209.2020.1732429. PMID: 32114881; PMCID: PMC7067177.

Author Biography

Hannah Zulueta obtained her Certificate in Canine Nutrition from CASI Institute. She is also studying for her Doctorate in Acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Herbalism from the esteemed Pacific College of Health and Medicine.

She resides in San Diego with her three dogs, Maggie, Orbit, and Mr. Higgins.

She is available for one on one consultations. Additionally, you can find her sharing free content on Instagram.

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