Using Food As Medicine: Treating Qi Deficiency

Spring foodsWhat is qi? 

Qi (pronounce chee) is essentially our energy. The Chinese character for qi represents steam rising off of rice, and many scholars translate it as the substance that we get from our food and beverages. Our qi circulates through our body giving energy to our muscles, organs, and immune system. The classical texts say that qi generates blood, and blood is the mother of qi. This means that our blood and qi have a very important, symbiotic relationship.

There are nine types of qi. We will discuss three in this blogpost: the wei, ying, and zheng qi.

The wei qi  is the qi that powers our immune system and protects us from easily getting sick. If we run ourselves ragged, we run the risk of lowering our immune system’s power to protect us again simple cold and flu viruses, and common bacteria. Ying or Nutritive qi is the qi we get from our food and beverage. Our bodies are designed to work off of the energy that we derive from our daily meals. If we continually push ourselves beyond our caloric intake, that energy has to come from deeper sources of energy in our body. Sometimes it is our choice to take in fewer calories than we burn in a day–and this can be useful with careful approaches to weight loss and fasting. If we fast too often or when we have a higher level of pollutants/toxins stored in our fat cells, or are just not strong enough to fast, we can actually damage our bodies and lead to qi deficiency in our bodies.

Zheng Qi is your ‘upright qi’ or the overall qi of your organ systems combined as a whole. This represents the energy/vitality/umph of your overall organ systems. If you continually keep pushing yourself beyond your limits of your daily caloric intake, then your energy for the day is pulled from your zheng qi. Eating properly, resting your mind, and resting your body are what preserve your zheng qi.

What is qi deficiency? 

Qi deficiency is quite simply a depletion of your qi. Depending on your lifestyle or environment, certain of the qi types described above can be depleted more than others. If the activity or condition that is depleting your qi continues, then you will eventually deplete your upright qi. Qi deficiency often is strongly related to the ability of your spleen-pancreas and stomach to digest and transform your food into qi. The lungs in medical theory, also are key players in distributing this transformed qi from food throughout the body. Due to these three organ relationships, qi deficiency often begins with one of the above organs being exhausted by lifestyle or environment.

Things that exhaust the spleen-pancreas and stomach pair are: worrying, over-thinking (both ruminating on thoughts and being overly scholastic or analytical), frequently overeating, eating too much greasy, heavy, or sugary foods, and frequent fasting.

Things that exhaust the lung-large intestine pair: grief, melancholia, inhaling too much air pollution, smoking, and excessive consumption of spicy foods (this is a tricky one, because aromatic and spicy herbs open and support the lungs, but moderation is the key here and variety of aromatic herbs, not just chilis that pack a punch).

What are the signs of qi deficiency? 

  • fatigue  (easily fatigued after exertion or general, more constant fatigue)  Note: fatigue that causes you to want to lean against any presentable surface, like a wall or table, instead of standing upright denotes a stronger form of general qi deficiency. If your upright qi were strong, you’d easily be able to stand upright in life.
  • Shiny, white complexion
  • frequent colds and flues
  • sticky, messy bowel movements and/or frequent bowel movements
  • frequent gas (daily or throughout the day)
  • frequent bloating
  • easily sweats– especially without exertion
  • inhalation is noticeably shorter than exhalation


Three Steps to treat Qi Deficiency with Food:

Step One: In general, foods the strengthen qi deficiency are whole, unprocessed foods, as close to local as you can get them. If your food is healthy and vibrant, whether it is vegetable, fruit, grain, or animal, then it should make you healthy and vibrant. The best thing that you can do to fight qi deficiency is to shop from the outside perimeter of the grocery store where the whole foods are sold, and to cook from scratch as much as possible. Remember protecting your health and cultivating your qi is your best weapon against illness and fatigue. It is worth spending a little extra time to show some love to yourself with foods cooked from scratch.

Step Two: Eat three, regular meals a day plus snacks. The classic canons of Chinese medicine say, “Eat before you feel hungry, drink before you feel thirsty.” The idea being if you wait to feel famished or thirsty, then you are already in a screaming need for food and dehydrated. The other important message from these ancient medical texts is to eat three  moderately sized meals, while supplementing your energy with small sips of water and snacks every few hours throughout the day. In modern times, it is also important to select your snacks and meals appropriately. Eating protein first thing in the morning and during your snacks is very helpful to both feel full and to fuel your daily energetic needs.  Pick snacks that are minimally processed. Use sugar and simple carbohydrates sparingly.

Sample menu: 

Breakfast: Frittata filled with veggies

Snack One: nut butter on rice cake, apple slices, or celery root, or a reheated baked sweet potato

Lunch: leftovers such as lentil, swiss chard soup with chicken

Snack Three: a small handful of pumpkin seeds

Dinner: vegetable and shredded chicken fajitas topped with pico de gallo, lettuce, and avocado with a side of pan-seared green beans.

Step Three: Foods that strengthen the spleen-pancreas and stomach pair, as well as the lung-large intestine pair will help with qi deficiency.

Foods that nourish the spleen-stomach:

  • sweet potatoes and yams
  • pumpkins, winter squash
  • carrots
  • rutabagas
  • parsnips
  • peas
  • garbanzo beans
  • black beans
  • golden beets
  • rice and bland grains such as quinoa
  • spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, black pepper, fennel, garlic
  • beef
  • lamb
  • tuna
  • turkey
  • chicken

Foods that nourish the lung-large intestine:

  • pear
  • persimmon
  • water chestnuts
  • leeks
  • onions
  • garlic
  • parsnips
  • rutabagas
  • barley
  • rice
  • pork
  • spices: perilla leaf, mint, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, curry, chili powder, cilantro, rosemary, fennel, sage, thyme, oregano, black pepper

You can see that some of the foods that nourish the spleen-pancreas/stomach and the lung-large intestine pair overlap. These are especially good foods to work into your meal and snack rotations.

Some of the ideas put forward in this article may seem to contradict some commonly held ideas about weight loss and health. I have found that when individuals start feeding themselves nutritious foods and eating small, frequent snacks throughout the day to supplement three-moderate meals, it can transform their lives. Energy and productivity increase. You may also see your body more readily transform fat into muscle, if you have an exercise routine. If your body has the fuel to perform its daily tasks, it is more likely to actually produce muscle mass when you exercise. But this post is not geared toward weight loss, my goal is to provide some tools to guide you to keeping your body and your energy levels at their optimal level. The simplest way to understand this relationship is: if you feel fatigue throughout your day even when you have adequate sleep, then you need to fuel yourself with food to stay alert.



  1. mscapricorn · · Reply

    Nice article.


  2. I love this! I don’t use Qi to explain to everyone I know that food is medicine, and at times I feel like (after staring at their glazed over expressions) that I am the only person who knows that there are just certain foods and nutrients we need to feel our best version of ourselves! Great article!!


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