by Ellen Wang MS, AADP
Basic Concepts in Chinese Nutrition Therapy
Before we talk about what foods are best to eat for winter, it is helpful to know a few basic therapeutic principles in Chinese Medicine. The central concepts include yin and yang, the five phases, and the energy level of food. These concepts reflect the Taoists' understanding of the universe and the human body.
In Chinese medicine, yin and yang describe the two opposites inherent in every object or phenomena in the universe, including ourselves. They are rooted in each other; they counterbalance each other; and they are always changing. Health flourishes when yin and yang are in balance. Conversely, one becomes sick when yin and yang are out of balance.
The Taoists believe that the five phases - water, fire, earth, metal, and wood - are what everything is consisted of in the universe, including ourselves. The organs in our body fall into one of the five phases: metal represents the lung and large intestines, wood represents the liver and gallbladder, earth represents the spleen-pancreas and stomach, water represents the kidney and bladder, and fire represents the heart and small intestine.
Foods are also divided in five levels according to their energy level: hot, warm, neutral, cool, and cold. The energy referred here is the life force, which keeps our blood circulating and our organs functioning. Cool or cold foods are "yin." Warm or hot foods are "yang."
Eat Food that Support the Kidneys
In the winter, the body slows down and the environment is dark and cold, which can result in fatigue and dysfunctions of certain organs. Winter is ruled by the water phase, which is associated with our kidneys. According to the philosophy of Chinese medicine, the kidneys are considered the source of all energy (Qi) within the body. Thus it is important to add to our winter diets food that supports the kidneys.
One may choose from vegetables like chives, garlic, beet, or onion, and nuts such as chestnut and walnut. Sesame seeds are especially helpful in strengthening the kidney. They can be easily added to soup or dishes. Beef bone broth supports kidneys as well.
Eat Yang Food that Warm the Body
"Supplement the body when it is weak; warm the body when it is cold." This is an important principle in tradition Chinese medicine. In winter, when it is cold, the key in eating well is to pay attention to cultivating "yang" energy in the body. One should eat more food that is "warm" or "hot" in its energetic nature, which helps improve the body's ability to resist cold.
For example, lamb, which is hot, will contribute additional energy, while pork, which is cool, will reduce energy level. Beef and chicken are both warm and they are also appropriate to have in winter. Spices such as cinnamon, pepper, chili, curry, garlic, and ginger add heat to the dishes, and are great for winter.
Avoid 'Cold' Food
When the weather starts to turn cold in the fall, we should eat fewer melons such as watermelon, cantaloupes, honeydews, or cucumber, because they are either cool or cold in their energy levels. Eating a lot of melons in the winter could cause diarrhea. It is especially important for older people because their organ functions are weaker and they tend to have a cold stomach.
Both apples and pears are "neutral" in nature, thus making them the preferable choices of fruits in winter. Elderly people or people who are weak or recovering from an illness could warm the fruits first before eating. Dried dates or raisins could be cooked with oats or rice congee. Avoid raw and cold foods during the winter as much as possible, as these tend to cool the body. So this winter, eat more food that will supplement kidney energy, resist cold, and nourish blood and Qi.
Ellen Wang is a certified holistic health counselor at Tao Institute of Mind & Body Medicine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.