Vegetarian Recommendations from a Chinese Medicine Perspective

The choice to be a vegetarian varies from person to person.  Some are religious, spiritual, philosophical, or for health.    I think it is healthy for many people to be a vegetarian, as long as they make healthy food choices.  At the same time, it takes work in order to build up the nutrients which we find in meat.

Just to answer your question before you ask it, I am personally not a vegetarian, but I do not eat very much meat because it is better for my health and the environment.

What does meat do in Chinese medicine?

From a Chinese medicine perspective, eating meat, particularly red meat, builds blood.  And blood deficiency, or too little blood, is a primary concern for those who are vegetarians.  Although the Western diagnosis of anemia is often a “blood deficiency” in Chinese medicine, blood deficiency does not always signal anemia.  But, of course, for some, it is important to eat red meat to avoid getting anemia.

Blood in Chinese medicine is very similar to Western medicine, but it also has some different functions.  Blood is required for healthy growth, reproduction, emotional well-being, and pain free muscles and joints.   When there is a blood deficiency, you may have a pale complexion, insomnia, thinning hair, as well as tightness is muscle and tendons.  Blood and qi, the body’s vital energy, are intertwined, which is why after a long period of blood deficiency, the person may feel fatigued.

Vegetarians should eat a wide variety of foods to get all the required nutrients.  If there is a problem of blood deficiency, they should pay particular attention to eating foods which nourish qi and blood.  Look at the cultures that are vegetarian, like some Indian traditions.  They eat many different vegetables, beans, sometimes dairy products, and spices which make their diet very healthy.

For some people who are having issues related to their vegetarianism, food therapy can be effective. This type of approach is gradual and improvements happen slowly over time.  Sometimes, Chinese herbs and acupuncture may be required for specific conditions.

Building Blood and Qi for Vegetarians- Add these foods to your regular food choices to help build blood and qi.  Many of the following foods can be found in an East Asian and/or Indian grocery.


White mushroom- promotes digestion and builds qi

Shitake Mushrooms- builds qi and blood and can also enhance the immune system

Hei Er Mu or Black ear mushrooms- these mushrooms are great for building qi

Bai Er Mu or White Ear Mushroom– this mushroom is good for building qi

Grains and Beans

Tofu- this is good tonifying qi, but it can be cold and should be cooked with warming vegetables. I love a brand called Local Tofu, which is close to New York City in the lower Hudson Valley.

Darker beans such as Adzuki, lotus seed and mung bean– all good for tonifying blood.

Back Sesame Seeds-
this is one of the best vegetarian foods for nourishing blood.  These can often be found in Indian grocery stores.  Toast and add to a soup or on bread.

Red Skinned Peanuts and Walnuts– this is also a great food for building blood and tonifying qi.


Cooked vegetables- eating cooked vegetables are easier to digest and aids the absorption of nutrients.

Dark leafy green vegetables boost blood– such as water chestnut, celery, spinach, broccoli, green beans, snow peas, sugar peas, bitter greens, and others

Wolfberries or gou qi zi- these small fruits help tonify blood.  Drink as an herbal tea or add to your stir fry.

For some people, it is possible that these recommendations are not enough, and you may need to get acupuncture and Chinese herbs to prevent health issues.

Joseph Alban, L.Ac.
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