Not all food is created equal. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (or “TCM” for short), it is believed that food has different energy properties that could be “balanced” for optimal health function. To eat consciously in Chinese culture would be to avoid food types that are thought to bring about symptoms, or exacerbate symptoms you already have.
In the TCM diet, food can be classified into 5 categories: cold, cool, neutral, warm, and hot. Warmer foods tend to be energy-promoting, improve circulation, and heat up the body, while cooler foods clear toxins, reduce body temperature, and soothe the blood.
The rule of thumb is that “hot” or “cold” foods should be consumed in moderation, and during special seasons to neutralize the effects of climate on the body. We want to maintain neutral bodies with balanced yin and yang, and understanding how to balance your intake of hot and cold foods along with external pressures is key.
You will get more intuitive with TCM food properties as we walk through the following “warming” and “cooling” food in our common diet.
Food can be divided into different natures in TCM: “cooling”, “neutral,” and “warm”, with each nature determined by its effect on the body. Consuming too much of one nature of food over another could lead to a qi imbalance in the body; moreover, this concept goes hand in hand with one’s body constitution. For example, those with yang deficiency lean “cool” and indigestion is a common symptom, so they could seek to balance their qi by consuming warm-natured foods like onions, asparagus, peaches, cherries, walnuts, chicken, kale, and even coffee and wine.
With the exception of pork and duck, most meats are warming – red meat being highest on the “warm” spectrum while goat is known to be the most “hottest”. In colder days and climates, consuming more meat can warm our bodies, but you may want to steer away from red meat when recovering from a cold or suffering from pain symptoms. A recent study found that people who eat less red meat are more likely to have lower inflammation levels, build up of belly fat, as well as insulin resistance.
If you do get that typical seasonal cold, though, chicken soup is well known for its healing properties. Besides nourishment, chicken can replenish qi, providing you with the extra energy and body warmth to get you through cold winter nights. With that said, if you have “hot” symptoms (acne, sore throat or constipation), then chicken soup may be too “warm” for your body at this time. Try removing the skin before cooking and add more celery into your chicken soup recipe to cool it down..
Pork is the most common food staple among Chinese culture.Not only does it blend well with most flavors, but it also has cooling properties. Because it’s only slightly cooling in TCM property, pork is good to enjoy all year round.
Fruits can be either warming or cooling depending on the type and water content. It appears that fruits with a higher water content, such as watermelon, strawberry, orange, and grapefruit, are cooling foods, while fruits such as dates, peaches, and pineapple, and cherries are warming. If you feel very warm and flushed on a hot summer day, you’ve probably felt the desire to bite into some refreshing watermelon or a crisp apple. According to TCM, this desire to eat more cooling foods stems from the need to balance out the excess heat in the body and restore yin and yang harmony.
Generally, green vegetables tend to be more yin, or cooling. In the summer or autumn, TCM recommends that you eat more of these cooling veggies, such as asparagus, broccoli, and spinach to expel some of that excess heat. But in the blistery winter and often-changing spring, balancing qi requires eating many yang foods that bring heat to our bodies. Some vegetables include pumpkin, peppers, and cauliflower.
The legume family is largely made up of a variety of beans, peas, and peanuts. TCM encourages the consumption of legumes as they absorb cholesterol and toxins. Additionally, many legumes are neutral foods, meaning they will not change the qi of your body. One popular neutral legume is the kidney bean. This bean resolves water accumulation in the body, as well as calms blood – meaning if you’re having issues with clearing heat in the kidneys, eat a kidney bean! Peanuts are also neutral.
Although most legumes are neutral, soybeans and tofu are cooling and good to consume in the summer months, and preferably not in the colder winters.