7 Habits — Confucius’ Healthy Eating Wisdom

January 25, 2010

8 Habits, Healthy, Wisdom, Confucious

Long before the US Department of Agriculture developed The Food Pyramid, Confucius (551-479 BCE) had already taught that he would never allow the quantity of meat to exceed the quantity of rice he took. How else did a sage like Confucius eat his meals?  Confucius recorded 7 eating habits that he believed would cultivate a wise and healthy lifestyle.

1. Prepare your food mindfully; cut everything into small portions that are easy to chew.  Make sure the food is fully cooked, and if it’s raw, make sure it’s been thoroughly cleaned.  Especially sprouts!

Confucius always cleaned his food very carefully and then cut it into tiny pieces.

2. Don’t wait too long before eating fresh or perishable foods.  Some foods like honey will last thousands of years; others just a few days.  Any change to the food in taste or appearance can be a good indicator of safety.  But the dangerous bacteria that can grow on food will show no change and impart no taste.  Make sure your food is stored at the right temperature under the right conditions for the right length of time. You can learn more at foodsafety.gov and stilltasty.com 

Confucius never ate food that wasn’t fresh, had been stored too long, or had changed its color or its flavor.

3. Does charred or burned food really cause cancer?  The carbon compounds that form on the food are probably carcinogenic. Nobody seems to know for sure.  Certainly food that has burnt to a crisp is not particularly appetizing.

Confucius advises us not to eat food that has burned.  This has proved one of his most popular suggestions. 

4. The Chinese cut their food into pieces before they cook them rather than before they serve them. If food is not cut properly or too late, it might not cook evenly.  The small pieces can burn before the larger pieces are fully cooked.

Eating is not only one of the most enjoyable human activities, but one of the most necessary.  Therefore food by nature is both functional and aesthetic.  Confucius combined these two qualities into one simple rule:  Prepare your food with an eye to proportion.  Pleasing to look at, and easy to cook and eat.

5.  Eating too much sodium is one of the leading causes of heart disease, one of the leading causes of death in the United States.  But it isn’t table salt that most people are eating too much of; it’s packaged foods prepared with high levels of sodium.  Sugar is also dangerous, but indirectly.  Eating sugary foods can cause weight gain and eventually obesity, and eating too many of them in a single day takes your appetite away from eating other, healthier, less caloric foods.

Confucius would not eat his meal if he had accidentally put on too much sauce.  He also wouldn’t eat anything without any sauce at all.

6. Food markets are nothing new.  Since ancient times there have been large shops and small shops.  Ancient Athens, for instance, was famous for its agora, but the Athenians also lived surrounded by farms.  The ancients had many choices of who to buy from.  Healthy eating for them began with the vendor, at the market.  Supermarkets today certainly make oversight and quality control a lot easier for the consumer.  But it’s not always clear where the food in them comes from, or how it was grown.

Confucius thought that the larger and more famous the store was the more certain one could be of the good quality of the food.  He never bought from individuals or from markets with no reputation.

7. The French commonly take wine with meals.  The Ancient Greeks drank wine like juice, but they also diluted it with water until it resembled juice.  Many cultures enjoy drinking, but most advise stopping before you’re drunk.  Sage advice!  Of course, the Chinese poets, like many poets, often disagree…

The only thing Confucius didn’t limit was wine, of which he drank plenty.  But he did say not to get drunk.

You’re probably already familiar with many of these 7 habits. In addition, Confucius said that you should never speak while eating.  Eating and talking together is a kind of multitasking that can end in catching food in your throat and choking. You should only talk when your mouth is empty. I find that it’s extremely rude to talk while eating. If someone cooked you food, eating it with full attention is the best appreciation.

Confucius cautioned, “Don’t fill your stomach.”

The Chinese often say that 80% full is ideal.  You won’t digest well beyond that.  It’s difficult on the digestive system.

It’s very tempting when you go to your favorite restaurant once you’re full not to eat that last bit on your plate. You need to take a breath, take it home and eat it for your next meal. If Confucius was having dinner with you, he probably would do the same thing.

The most important thing Confucius taught was, “Don’t live to eat.  Do something meaningful with your life.”  This is why I am translating his words for you, so we can all be healthy.

To read more about Confucius’ wisdom, check out The Wisdom of Confucius, written by the well-known Harvard Chinese Professor, Lin Yutang.

Happy eating!



By Huan Zhang

Chief instructor of Huan's Tai Chi and Kung Fu. 6th Generation of Yang Style Tai Chi. 4th Generation of Five Element Tong Bei. Enjoys a good cup of tea, Chinese cooking and travel.