Food as Medicine

It’s difficult to keep track of what foods are considered healthy these days, isn’t it? It seems like one thing everyone can agree on is that whole foods just have to be good. Unadulterated, nutritious whole foods; foods that look like food, that come from where we live, that are raised without chemical and hormonal intervention. I am so happy that whole foods are becoming valued these days for people, and I’d like to invite you to extend that thinking to our pets as well.

Food in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has a jump on us here. TCM is made up of three important parts: acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and Chinese food therapy. The theory teaches that whenFood as medicine an individual is able to maintain a state of balance, health is achieved. When the individual is not able to maintain this state of balance, illness results. Acupuncture, herbal medicine and food therapy are ways to help restore balance. Once this balance is restored, the goal is to maintain this balance with the proper diet and lifestyle. This applies to humans, and also to our animal companions.

So this is why TCM devotes a lot of time and space to what foods we should put into our mouths. It takes into account what our inborn tendencies are, our age, our species, our geography, our personality and our disharmonies or imbalances. We are encouraged to eat foods of various flavors and energies in accordance with our individual make-ups and needs. Imagine our health if we were to choose foods based on these theories, in combination with our growing knowledge of important nutrients!

Food and Qi



Thousands of years ago, we may not have known much about physiology and pathology, but people and animals were still getting sick. The Eastern healers at the time developed some theories that helped a lot of those sick people get better. The paradigm of TCM revolves around Qi. We are born with a certain amount of Qi, we breathe in a bunch of Qi, we eat a bunch of Qi. We process it, we use it, we lose it over time. It helps organs to function, it gives us energy, it helps to move toxins through, it circulates in channels over the surface of our body. These channels are associated with different organs. Different organs have different purposes and jobs, store different things, and are impacted by different emotions and different foods. Different foods have different tastes – sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, salty and bland. These different tastes have different actions. Sour astringes, bitter eliminates heat and can purge the intestines, sweet nourishes Qi, pungent activates Qi and promotes circulation, salty can soften and purge the intestines. Some foods are warming in nature, some are cooling and some are neutral.

For me, I use this information to help tweak my patients’ diets. It is not always possible to do a homemade nutritionally balanced diet in our busy lives, so I strive for the best possible – the least amount of processing (whole food is better than canned food is better than dry kibble), thoughtful foods to supplement with, and a whole lot of flexibility when it comes to a particular pet’s preference (cats, I’m talking to you!)

  • Let’s say I’ve got a handsome, good-natured labrador, who happens to be a little chubby and has some digestive issues now and then. Perhaps I’ll give him a little sweet potato or pumpkin, sweet things, things that are easy to digest to help out his spleen channel with digestion.
  • Or say I’ve got a painful, arthritic, warm-seeking aloof male cat, perhaps I’ll try to slip a little ginger or mint into his food, foods that help warm him up and move his Qi through his channels.
  • Or it turns out I have a super itchy, young beagle with chronic ear infections and a touch of separation anxiety; I might consider adding in a little asparagus and celery with his limited ingredient diet. And when I consider which meat to add in, I might consider something neutral (beef) for the labrador, something warming for the cat (venison, chicken, shrimp) and something cooling (white fish, rabbit) for the beagle.

It is always important to check in with your veterinarian about what you are giving and make sure that nothing is toxic or contraindicated. Always add things in slowly, one food at a time, so if your pet has a problem with anything, you are aware of which food it was. And remember that if you are giving supplemental foods, you likely need to decrease the amount of canned food or other diet you are giving to account for the extra calories, so check in with your veterinarian about that as well. If your pets are anything like mine, they will thank you for the interesting additions and be asking for more with every meal.

Beth Innis, DVM, CVA, CVCHM
Beth is a practicing Veterinarian, Veterinary Acupuncturist, certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist, and Veterinary Chinese Herbalist who treats her patients with an integrative approach both in the hospital and through home visits. Learn more about Beth
Beth Innis, DVM, CVA, CVCHM

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