TCM Nutrition Benefits for Kids

Lang CAI, TCM Physician

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) philosophy, when a child’s internal organs are not at full health, their inner “energy flow,” known as qi, will not be sufficient to sustain their physical activity. There’s a saying that goes, “稚阳未充,稚阴未长者也. (zhi4 yang2 wei4 chong1, zhi4 yin1 wei4 zhang3 zhe3 ye3).” Here, the 稚 (zhi4) refers to children. The 阴 (yin1) refers to circulation, internal organs, tendons, bones, the brain, muscles, skin, basically all aspects of the body that have a physical form. This is contrasted with 阳 (yang2), which refers to the functions and movements of the阴 (yin1) elements. According to the 稚阴稚阳 (zhi4 yin1 zhi4 yang2) school of thought, when children are young – whether in terms of their physical make-up or abilities – they are fragile and frequently do not operate at full health capacity. For the very young, explanations from this school can be even more pointed.

Though the form and qi of children’s internal organs are often lacking in certain ways, the most common ailment is “脾常虚” (pi2 chang2 xu1), or “weak spleen.” According to TCM philosophy, a child’s spleen is weak from birth. The combination of a weak spleen and the rapid pace at which children develop physically translates into remarkable childhood nutrition needs, which can often take a toll on a child’s digestive system. Hence, children often manifest spleen-related deficiencies. The activities of the spleen are like streams in a valley, having implications that flow to all parts of the body. The health impact from any negative development of a child’s spleen can expand and worsen years down the line. In TCM, the foundation of health is a person’s qi and blood. Only when the spleen is healthy can the body efficiently digest and absorb nutrients, which will subsequently boost qi and blood. The qi and blood, in turn, nourish the rest of the body. It’s like an old TCM saying, “A healthy spleen sustains 10,000 other things, but a suffering spleen leads to hundreds of ailments.” Therefore, for a child, protecting and nurturing the spleen and digestive system are of the utmost importance.

From a nutritional standpoint, a 2000-year-old TCM book called the Yellow Emperor Internal Classic or 黄帝内经 (huang2 di4 nei4 jing1) says that “grains nourish, fruits supplement, meats benefit, and vegetables boost.” This means that grains are naturally full of nutrients necessary to the human body. Other foods should be included in our diets in a balanced fashion that encourages mutual nutritional reinforcement in order for us to receive the best nourishment.

Dietary supplements, as the name implies, are foods that make up for what is nutritionally lacking. Children have to be especially careful about supplements for a few reasons:

1) A child’s body is relatively delicate and the balance of yin and yang elements is fairly fragile as their qi is not very strong yet. If they are not already eating a balanced diet, their internal organs could easily suffer damage.

2) A child’s digestive system is also relatively weak. Eating foods that are relatively strange or that take a toll on the system, or eating too much food, can all cause the digestive system to suffer damage. When digestion suffers, circulation of nutrients suffers, which then negatively affects growth and development.

3) The proper use of dietary supplements is a complicated issue. According to TCM nutritional therapists, medicinal products have a “medical nature,” while foods have a “nutritional nature.” These “natures” can be analyzed according to their affect on qi and their taste. The only difference between medical and nutritional natures is that nutritional natures have a weaker overall effect. For adults, eating foods that are not perfectly suited to their physical constitution will not result in any serious harm. However, children’s internal organs are more delicate and, therefore, more sensitive to outside influences. Different foods can trigger dramatic changes, either weakening or strengthening the child. When children respond negatively to food, that response will be much more serious than an adult’s response.

Therefore, dietary supplements should be handled with care, especially when given to children. A good guideline is to only take supplements when absolutely necessary and only on the advice of a dietary professional. Under no circumstances should a decision be made to take dietary supplements based on hearsay. Finally, many dietary supplements are not made from natural products. We should be especially careful to make sure that the quantities and dosages of the ingredients in these supplements do not result in harm to children’s health.

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