HJ: In the West we tend to view health, nutrition and diet from a purely physical, scientific standpoint. We often focus on getting the correct amounts of vitamins, minerals, carbs, fats, proteins and other nutrients based on somewhat arbitrary general guidelines developed by the medical community. There is value in this approach as nutrient deficiencies are a real thing and it is possible to over consume certain macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins). However, this mechanistic view of health and nutrition ignores the etheric/energetic nature and qualities of food, which have very real effects on the body-mind-spirit triad and can cause great imbalances to develop when neglected.
Traditional Chinese Medicine, an ancient healing modality and approach to life, has developed a highly sophisticated system that has methodically categorized nearly all foods and substances available to man based on their effects on these subtle energetic systems of the body. All imbalances in the TCM system are viewed within the context of Yin & Yang, the two opposing forces in the Universe. When both are in balance we achieve harmony, but an imbalance tends to cause the manifestation of symptoms and tendencies associated with whichever side the imbalance leans in favor of (be it Yin or Yang). For instance, certain diets are very Yin — namely Veganism and Vegetariansim and other diets are very Yang — namely Paleo, Atkins and other Meat-Based Diets. Both of these types of diets can throw us out of balance if we do not take adequate steps to maintain harmony between Yin and Yang through appropriate use of specific foods, herbs and lifestyle modifications.
As you can see, focusing only on nutritional qualities of foods is actually quite short sighted because you can be getting all your proteins, carbs and fats in the correct ratio and your nutrients in the correct amounts, but still be very far out of balance in terms of Yin and Yang, in which case, you would notice a tendency to manifest the qualities of Yin or Yang in your life which may or may not be desirable The article below goes into more depth on this concept and will help you to understand many symptoms you may be experiencing and their roots in imbalances in the mind-body-spirit triad based on diet and a number of other factors.
By integrating this holistic viewpoint into your current understanding of health and wellbeing, you will be giving yourself yet another tool to begin to heal yourself, for truly all healing begins within.
Yin-Yang Balance and Food Choice
By Linda Prout | Linda Prout
A common mistake in West is to focus too much on lab work and quantitative information when it comes to our health. We have numbers for cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, and body mass index. Nutritionists obsess over caloric values, fat grams, protein grams and milligrams of vitamins and minerals. In doing so we often miss the subtle but powerful qualitative nature of food and our bodies.
Yes, of course, nutrients and lab values have their place. I pay attention to these myself. But even more important in many cases, are the energetic properties of food and one’s yin-yang constitution. The energetic patterns in food when properly matched with one’s constitution is really what changes tissue, heals disease, and keeps us alive.
Energetic properties includes characteristics such as the yang or warming nature of food, or the yin or cooling nature of a food, whether it creates mucous and dampness, (yin), or is drying (yang). Science and good old folk wisdom for example, show hot chicken soup (a yang food) can help heal someone suffering a head cold (a yin condition) in winter. There is something beyond the protein and minerals of the soup doing the job.
It wasn’t until I began focusing on the energetic properties of foods and cooking techniques, that I really began seeing the health issues and well-being change for my clients.
Understanding Yin and Yang
According to Eastern traditions the forces of yin and yang are energetic qualities that shape everything in the universe, including our health. The Chinese symbol for yin is the shady side of a hill, while the symbol for yang is the sunny side. Thus yin qualities include coolness, dampness, and darkness, relative to the yang qualities of warmth, dryness, and light. Winter is yin, while summer is yang, and night is yin while day is yang. Arthritis made worse by cold weather is a yin condition. A red, inflamed rash brought on by heat is a yang condition. A ruddy-faced, irritable man with high blood pressure is relatively yang. An anemic, melancholy woman is relatively yin.
Yin foods tend to be cooling and/or moistening for the body. Yang foods tend to be warming and drying. This has less to do with the actual temperature or moisture of the food and more to do with “energetics.” Boiled spinach and watermelon, for example, are cooling and moistening, as is baked tofu. Chilled wine is warming, as is a lamb stew or sliced roast beef. Toast, while dry to touch, actually moistens the body. All wheat products are moistening, or damp, and cooling. The effects of such food qualities on health have been observed for thousands of years.
By paying attention to your body and understanding the energetics of food, you can make food and activity choices to speed healing. Although more complex than this, the following is an overview of yin and yang patterns of imbalance and the food choices that can help restore balance. Your constitution is ever changing, so be sure you adjust with the seasons and your life situation.
Yin Patterns of Imbalance
- Tendency to feel chilled
- Urine tends to be clear
- Dresses warmly, likes heat
- Loose stools
- Pale complexion
- Preference for warm food/drinks
- Slow metabolism
- Soft, fleshy muscles
- Rarely thirsty
- Tired, sleeps a lot
- Health worse in cold weather
- Quiet, withdrawn
Like all patterns, a cold pattern is an inherited quality but it can often occur in vegetarians or those who eat primarily raw foods, especially when they live in cold climates. Cold can also set in with age and may be combined with dampness. Regular, warming aerobic exercise is essential to balance, as is keeping warm. Healing food choices include warm lamb or beef dishes, dark poultry, meat-based soups and stews, free-range eggs, eel, trout, and wild salmon. Beneficial vegetables include cooked root veggies, baked winter squash, onions, and mustard greens. Nuts and seeds are warming, as are butter, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and pepper. Helpful grains include oatmeal, quinoa, and buckwheat. Food and drinks are best eaten cooked and warm. Salads, raw fruits, juices, frozen desserts, pasta, white flour, and iced beverages should be minimized.
- Strong dislike of humidity
- Stuffy nose, postnasal drip
- Health worsens in dampness
- Mentally “foggy”
- Abdominal bloating
- Retention of fluids
- Little thirst or hunger
- Overweight, soft fat
- Urine tends to be cloudy
- Puffy eyes or face
- Short of breath
- Heaviness especially in lower body
Dampness can be associated with cold or heat and is exacerbated by damp living conditions. Dampness can be brought on by eating on the run, excessive worry, or from a diet rich in fried foods, breads, pasta, commercial dairy, ice cream, and other sweets. Too many salads and raw fruits weaken digestion and also lead to dampness. The drying nature of aerobic exercise is essential for balance.
Helpful foods include lightly cooked greens including broccoli, turnip greens, asparagus, and kale. Fish and grilled or roasted meats and poultry are balancing. The best grains for a damp pattern are rye, jasmine and basmati rice as well as sprouted grains. Radishes, turnips, pumpkin seeds, green tea, and bitter foods and herbs help to dry dampness. Chewing food thoroughly is also important for healing damp conditions. Sweets, dairy, and starchy foods contribute to dampness. Ice cream, lasagna, white bread, and milk should be avoided.
Yang Patterns of Imbalance
- Tendency to feel warm
- Tendency to be talkative
- Uncomfortable in hot weather
- Urine tends to be dark
- Fever blisters, canker sores
- Dresses in short sleeves
- Tends toward ruddy complexion
- Headaches, nose bleeds
- High blood pressure
- Bleeding gums
- Thirst, craves cold drinks
- Restless sleep, disturbing dreams
- Impatience, irritability, anger
A heat pattern is exacerbated in hot weather or with stress. Overwork, alcohol, and sugar heat the body. Meditation, walks in nature, swimming, and/or yoga are ideal for balancing the agitated nature of a heat imbalance. Ideal foods are salads, cucumbers, and lightly cooked green leafy vegetables especially spinach and watercress. Vegetables of all kinds are helpful whereas meats should be limited.
Particularly cooling foods include melons, pears, bean dishes, mung beans, sprouts, sushi, non-spicy soups, and lots of water. Alcohol and sugar are best avoided. Mint is a beneficial cooling herb whereas pepper, garlic, ginger, and onions should be reduced.
- Dry skin, dandruff
- Cravings for sweets
- Dry stools, constipation
- Preference for warm liquids in small sips
- Dry throat or eyes
- Night sweats
- Can easily become hot or cold
- Thin body type
- Easily stressed, irritated, frustrated
- Rosy cheeks, especially after exercise
A dry pattern is generally a deficiency of yin, or fluids. Hormones, skin oils, saliva, digestive juices and secretions provide us our yin element. Fluids are akin to a car’s antifreeze; when low you can easily overheat or freeze. We see dryness at menopause, or as we age. Although hot flashes feel like heat, they are a sign of diminishing yin, which allows the normal heat of the body to go unchecked. Stress also depletes yin.
Remedies include meditation, yoga, walks in nature and gardening. Beneficial fats are critical. Healthful choices include fatty fish, free-range eggs, grass-fed butter, goat and sheep cheeses, olive and coconut oil, dark poultry meat, pork, nuts, and avocado. Soups and stews rich in grass-fed animal fats are very helpful for dryness. Other moistening foods include black beans, green beans, Napa cabbage, winter squash, yams, sea vegetables, millet, whole wheat, fermented soy, and shellfish.
All types benefit by choosing foods according to the seasons. Summer foods such as salads, cucumbers, and melons are ideal for hot weather. Conversely meats, root vegetables, hot soups, and stews are most nourishing in winter. Pay attention to your body and choose the foods that are appealing as these are most likely to be naturally balancing. For more on determining your constitution and choosing the ideal foods for balance, see my book Live in The Balance (Marlowe & Co. 2000).
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