Updated May 9, 2020
This is an exciting time to be alive. In an era when 1,000-year-old traditional medicine practices are being integrated into cutting-edge medical advances, the prospects for enlightened health care have never been brighter.
As a nutritionist, I think one of the most amazing aspects of traditional healing is the nutritional medicines that can be re-integrated into our modern diets. As Hippocrates once said, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” For example, in the Traditional Chinese Medical approach to nutrition, doctors first explore the cause of an illness or disease, then they draw from an arsenal of herbal formulas, acupuncture, and nutritional therapy to bring about a cure.
How do we know if certain foods are beneficial? Modern science focuses on the chemical composition of food – the amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fat as well as the presence of vitamins and minerals – to determine whether or not something is good for us. Traditional healing practices take a much different approach. These practices perceive food as medicine that can nourish and harmonize not just the body but also the mind and spirit.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), everything in the world interacts through opposing energies called yin and yang. Each and every food has a distinct energy and set of characteristics. Food energetics is the study of these opposing electromagnetic patterns of foods and how these vibrations affect the human body. For centuries, TCM has observed the human body and how it is affected by the unique qualities of food and the balance that can be found by consuming foods that are expansive rather than contractive, acid rather than alkaline, and warming versus cooling.
In order to experience optimum health, the body strives for a state of balance. Opposites are found in every aspect of life in the universe. In every pair of opposites, there are two sides and neither one can exist without the other. Our metabolism is like a pendulum swinging between the opposites in our food choices. It is the balance between these opposites that keeps us more or less stable.
The Thermal Nature of Foods
Just as the temperature of the body plays a major role in our overall health, the energetic temperature of a food is one important aspect of Eastern dietary therapy. Illnesses such as arthritis, colic, and diarrhea are associated with cold, whereas headaches, circulatory issues, and sweating are associated with heat. These illnesses are thought to be triggered or exacerbated by heat or cold trapped inside the body, caused by either lifestyle factors or environmental factors. For example, stress creates “toxic heat” in the body, and if a stressed person eats warming foods, the body can overheat very quickly, resulting in angry outbursts, hot flashes, high blood pressure, and headaches. On the other hand, cold weather can invade the body causing the core temperature to drop. If a cold person then eats cooling foods, it can make the body prone to catching colds, influenza, and aches and pains.
According to TCM nutritional theory, certain meats, along with fried foods, onions, and spices are thought to be warming, whereas seasonal fruits and vegetables, barley, brown rice, and lettuce are considered to be cooling. This has nothing to do with the temperature of a food or how spicy it is to the taste. It is actually a measurement of the effect it has on the body after digestion. Likewise, in the practice of Ayurveda this concept – the ability of food to warm or cool the body – is called virya.
Treating Illness with Hot and Cold Foods
According to www.chinesemedicinedoc.com: “Every condition can be divided into a thermal temperature of hot or cold. One should emphasize foods that are the opposite of the thermal nature you are diagnosed with. For example, if you have too much heat in the body you should emphasize cooler foods. It is possible to have a mixed pattern of hot and cold, and these situations are best sorted out by your Chinese medical practitioner.
Cooling Foods which reduce heat signs: Apple, banana, pear, persimmon, cantaloupe, watermelon, tomato, all citrus, lettuce, radish, cucumber, celery, button mushrooms, asparagus, Swiss chard, eggplant, spinach, summer squash, Chinese cabbage, bock choy, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, zucchini, soy milk, tofu, tempeh, mung beans, alfalfa sprouts, millet, barley, amaranth, kelp and all seaweed, spirulina, wild blue-green algae, oyster-shell calcium, kudzu, yogurt, crab, clam.
Warming foods which warm cold signs: Ginger root, black beans, aduki beans, lentils, cinnamon, cloves, basil, rosemary, oats, spelt, quinoa, sunflower seed, sesame seed, walnuts, pine nuts, chestnuts, fennel, dill, anise, carraway, carob pod, cumin, sweet brown rice, parsnip, parsley, mustard greens, winter squash, cabbage, kale, onion, leek, chives, garlic, scallions, cherry, citrus deal, date, hot peppers, butter, anchovy, mussel, trout, chicken, beef, lamb.
It is also good to understand how the cooking process can effect the thermal nature of foods. Cooking food slowly and for a longer period of time will produce a more warming effect than if food is heated quickly.
Below are some cooking methods and the effects they have on the energetic temperature of foods:
- Raw food: cools the body
- Steamed food: cooling or neutral effect
- Boiled food: neutral effect
- Stir-fried food: mildly warming
- Stewed food: warming effect on the body
- Baked food: more warming effect
- Deep-fried food: heating effect
- Barbecued food: more heating
- Grilled food: more heating
- Roasted food: most heating
Key Concepts About the Energetics of Food
Once you begin to understand the concept of temperature, you can then tailor it to your own body as you observe your personal reaction to certain foods. Simply pay attention to the foods you eat and notice if they warm you up or cool you down. Warming foods warm us from our core, moving the energy in the body upwards and outwards to our extremities. Cooling foods tend to channel energy inwards and downwards which cools the outer parts of the body first. Foods that are very hot to the taste (like ginger and chili peppers) cause the capillaries to expand, allowing the blood to rush to the surface of the skin. This action initiates perspiration and then evaporation, which has a cooling effect on the surface of the skin.
Below are some key concepts to keep in mind when using the energetics of food to promote health and healing:
- Keep the body healthy and balanced by eating for your constitution. Food energetics takes into account that everyone has a unique body constitution that makes them distinct and individual. Those with dry and warm constitutions would benefit from eating a diet of cooling, hydrating foods. Those with cool and dry constitutions would benefit from warming foods. In order to get an accurate diagnosis of what type of constitution you have, visit a professional experienced with Traditional Chinese Medicine.
- Increase wellness by eating foods that are local and seasonal. Because our bodies are finely tuned to our environment, our needs change with the seasons. Eating with the seasons is a great way to eat energetically and will enhance your overall wellness. Nature provides foods that correspond with the seasons and support our bodies in that particular bioregion.
- Stay in touch with your body by listening to your hunger cues and eating intuitively. In the winter months when our bodies are less active and we are indoors more and need to stay warm, we tend to crave warming root vegetables and winter squashes. In the summer when we are more active and spending time outdoors in the warm weather, we are compelled to eat lighter, more cooling and easily digestible foods.