Many of us find ourselves trying to eat a more balanced diet with the turn of the new year, but here’s another type of balance you may want to consider: balancing warming and cooling foods.
Achieving balance in the body is at the heart of traditional Chinese medicine, and what you eat plays a key role in reaching that level of equilibrium.
“Chinese medicine is based on the philosophy of the yin and the yang, two opposing yet complementary forces that make up life and energy,” said Felicia Yu, physician and assistant clinical professor of health sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles Center for East-West Medicine.
In Chinese medicine, the diet is viewed as a way to “maintain energetic balance,” Yu said. Diets are considered dynamic and should change with a person’s health, environment and lifestyle.
“It recognizes that all foods have a particular energy — some more yin, some more yang,” she said. “Yin foods are typically thought of as cooling and moistening, while yang foods help to warm, dry and heat.”
The terms warming and cooling don’t necessarily refer to a food’s temperature or spiciness, but its energy. Chinese medicine experts say food has the power to heal and harmonize the body, mind and qi, which refers to someone’s life force.
Food’s healing properties, according to Chinese medicine
The diet ― along with acupuncture, moxibustion (a form of heat therapy), herbal medicine and exercise ― has been part of the foundation of traditional Chinese medicine therapy for centuries. The guiding principle is to retain or reestablish the balance of yin and yang, said ZhanXiang Wang, professor and clinician at National University of Health Sciences.
Foods are divided into warming and cooling categories to accomplish the balance.
The body can be too cold or warm because of internal or external factors, like illness, climate, seasons or consuming too much or too little of certain foods, said Carla Wilson, dean at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine at the California Institute of Integral Studies.
When the body is too warm, for example, someone may experience constipation or dryness, which could be from eating too many spicy foods or spending too much time in a hot, dry climate, Wilson said. “It’s too much heat being held in the body without it being discharged,” she said.
Too much cold in the body may be from being sick with a cold or virus, or having a deficiency, which Wilson said could cause problems such as fatigue, mental fuzziness or diarrhea.
“A way to start to address either of those — too hot, which would be an excess, or too cold, which would be a deficiency — is to start to think about that [in terms of] food,” she said.
From a Chinese medicine perspective, eating cooling foods brings down the heat, and warming foods add heat to the body. The idea is to find a balance between the two, which varies from person to person and is based on that individual’s constitution.
Some people may have an unbalanced (too hot or too cold) constitution, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily have a medical condition, said Jinhua Xie, a certified acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist and professor of oriental medicine at Midwest College of Oriental Medicine.
“Food, cooling or warming, may be consumed based on constitutional type to help correct some of the abnormality in constitution and prevent illness,” Xie explained. “In this case, food is used for therapeutic purposes.”
Warming and cooling foods
In Chinese medicine, yin (cooling) and yang (warming) foods fall along a spectrum, where nothing is purely yin or purely yang, Yu said. Foods just have more yin or yang energy.
Foods considered yin include dark leafy greens like spinach, lotus root, radish, dandelion greens, cucumbers, bamboo shoots, seaweed, watermelon, green tea, chamomile tea, mint tea, clams, crab and tofu, Yu said.
Yang foods include peppers, chicken, beef, lamb, cinnamon tea, chai, ginger, garlic, onions, peppers, leeks, pumpkin, shallots and cherries.
The five-flavors system, where specific flavors are yin or yang, is another key part of food classification in traditional Chinese medicine, Wang said. For example, sweet and pungent flavors have yang qualities, while salty, sour and bitter flavors have yin qualities.
Flavors offer specific benefits to different bodily organs, Wang said. Sweet offers stomach benefits; acrid, the lungs; salty, the kidneys; sour, the liver; and bitter, the heart.
“However, too much in one taste can also damage organs,” Wang said.
Balancing yin and yang foods in the diet is key to optimal health, Xie said. Moderation helps achieve the balance: Eating too many foods considered warming or cooling, no matter how healthy they are, could create imbalance and lead to illness.
“Eating too much of one group of foods (warming or cooling) will cause accumulation of heat or cold,” Xie said.
How to actually balance yin and yang foods
Truly balancing yin and yang foods on your own dinner plate is a complex, individualized process. Visiting a traditional Chinese medicine provider can assess your constitution and help you get it right.
Xie said practitioners use a questionnaire to evaluate someone’s constitution and classify the constitution into one balanced type and nine unbalanced types to offer dietary advice accordingly.
Yu offered examples of a yin-yang balanced meal.
“If it is cold weather, a soup or stew with root vegetables, garlic, ginger, onions and pumpkin would be helpful to warm the body,” she said. “If it is hot weather, a brown rice bowl with sautéed kale or spinach, tofu, sesame seeds, cucumbers, tomatoes, chickpeas, burdock root and fermented foods, such sauerkraut or cabbage, would be a great way to cool the body.”
Yin-yang nutrition is a holistic approach to nutrition
Comparing Chinese medicine nutrition with Western paradigms is difficult. Many Western diets focus on eliminating or reducing specific types of foods, such as low-fat or low-carb diets. The Chinese nutrition system’s emphasis on a balance of yin and yang foods is a much more holistic approach, Yu said.
“While focusing on calories and carbohydrates is useful in some situations, it is a reductionist way of looking at food,” Yu said. “It does not always take into account the whole person. Eating according to the energetic properties of food is a holistic way to live that supports good health and well-being, factoring in the dynamic quality of human beings.”
Balance and eating with intention are at the heart of dietary therapies in Chinese medicine. Long-term monitoring of the diet is essential in Chinese medicine to ensure balance and that someone with a cold constitution is avoiding too many cooling foods and heat constitutions avoid too many warming foods, Xie said.
“In Chinese medicine, by following the principle of clinical medicine, treating illness based on pattern, foods may be considered a therapeutic tool and recommended based on patient’s pattern when they are sick or constitutional types when they are not sick but they have abnormal constitutional type,” Xie said. “So, you can say it is about eating with intention.”