The Yin and Yang of Food

Too hot? Too cold? Find foods that are “just right” for you based on traditional Chinese medicine wisdom.

One of the things I most like about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the recognition of individuality. This also extends to dietary considerations. There are no "one size fits all" herbal regiments or diets in TCM. Everything is tailored to the individual's body and every body’s needs can differ widely.

Dieting and nutrition are subjects for which there are many, often conflicting, view points. The eastern view of nutrition works in the same way that the eastern view of medicine works. It is flexible enough to be uniquely suited to an individual based on their state of health and also allowing room, in the case of nutrition, for an individual’s preferences.

The Chinese viewpoint of a balanced diet is one which includes all five tastes — spicy, sour, bitter, sweet and salty. Foods and herbs which have a particular taste tend to have particular properties. It is these properties that help balance the body for it to work optimally. TCM is also a system of balancing opposites out according to the individual’s temperature, as well as the season and food temperature.

To balance a yang deficiency, which can be looked at as not enough heat or yang energy to keep the body warm, means using herbs and foods rich in yang or warming energy. Yin deficiency imbalances, explained as not enough fluids to nourish the body, means using foods and herbs that are more yin, which are usually cool and fluid generating.

In general, meats tend to be yang and veggies tend to be yin. The way food is prepared also affects the amount of yang or yin energy it has. Frying tends to increase yang (or heat energy), while steaming tends to increase yin, adding more moisture to the body. Thus, stir-fried veggies are more yang than steamed veggies. A person who is yang deficient (always cold) may wish to stir-fry the vegetables s/he eats, whereas a person who needs more yin (who is more dry) would tend to benefit from eating more steamed veggies.

Traditional Chinese herbal preparations also subscribe to this law of balance. Teas or decoctions are less heating (yang) than elixirs made with alcohol. Even if the alcohol is dissipated, the making of the formula still has a heating element to it. Of course the temperature of the herbs/foods used in making the formula also determines the effect it has on the body. A chart at the end of this article will give you some examples of foods that may help you understand what foods will balance a hot or cold constitution.

Overcoming any diet-related disharmony would be to first eat foods that are clean, not eat cold or raw foods to excess (as cold foods do not make it easy to extract the essence of our food), not to eat too much fat or sweets (they may lead to an excess of phlegm and heaviness), avoid the overuse of alcohol (since this substance will not even freeze and therefore can heat the body too much) and to try to eat small portions of many different foods, which will include the five flavors in them.

Becoming aware of the body’s internal temperature in terms of hot and cold also help each person better choose foods that will complement their constitution. The use of warming herbs/foods in the winter and cooling ones during the hot summers are an easy way we can serve our bodies. We will do well in understanding that there is absolutely no forbidden food in TCM, but we should take care and know that the excess or deficiency of any one type of foods can cause imbalances.

Certain precautions should be noted that might have a deep and long-lasting effect on the body's functions, like consuming hot, drying herbs/foods regularly over a long period of time. In other words, there's wisdom in following a varied diet, not only from a Western standpoint of allergies and/or assimilating a range of nutrients, but also from a TCM standpoint it is essential for well being.

In Eastern Traditional Medicine, diet is considered the first line of defense in health matters. In some cases, medicinal herbs/foods may be needed in order to help the body begin to work properly again. Maintaining good energy to extract the essence from our foods goes a long way to help keep chronic illnesses and long-standing disharmonies from developing.

This chart notes the yin and yang temperature elements of foods and is intended to assist in the decisions that we all must make surrounding our food choices.

Laura Mignosa, NCCH (Nationally Certified Chinese Herbologist), is the director of the Connecticut School of Herbal Studies in Wethersfield, CT. To learn more about this year’s China Cultural Tour or to find out about their Chinese herbology treatment or certification programs, please call (860) 666-5064 or visit www.ctherbschool.com