Whether you turn to acupuncture or allopathic medicine for healing, choosing the right foods for your constitution will speed your progress.
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), health is a state of balance in which food choice is key. As a longtime nutritionist I can report profound positive changes when people get their food selections right.
Nutritional balance from a TCM perspective is far different from that of Western nutrition. Modern nutrition science is based on knowing the chemical composition of foods and the biochemical pathways of the body. Western nutritionists quantify nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, and fat, then group foods accordingly, with a one-size-fits-all serving recommendation.
The Food Pyramid, for example, groups bread, pasta, grains, and potatoes together as “carbohydrates” and suggests 5 to 8 servings. According to TCM, however, bread and pasta are damp and cooling, and thus are not recommended for someone overweight, bloated, or suffering sinus congestion. Sprouted grains, rye, and wild rice, although also carbohydrates, do not contribute to dampness because they have energetic properties different from flour and can actually be helpful for people with such yin conditions.
Understanding Yin and Yang Foods
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 its “energetics.” Boiled spinach for example, is cooling and moistening, as is baked tofu. Chilled wine is warming, as is roast beef. Toast, while dry to touch, actually moistens the body. The effects of such food qualities on health have been observed for thousands of years.
Your acupuncturist is trained to balance your body’s constitution. By observing your body and understanding the energetics of food, you can make food and activity choices to speed your body’s healing progress. Imbalance can come from an excess, or deficiency, of yin or yang. 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
- Tendency toward loose
- Pale complexion stools
- Preference for warm food/drinks
- Slow metabolism drinks
- Soft, fleshy muscles
- Rarely thirsty
- Often tired, sleeps a lot
- Tendency to feel depressed
- Health worse in cold pressed weather
- Quiet, withdrawn
A cold pattern often occurs in vegetarians or those who eat primarily raw foods, especially when they live in the cold. Cold can also set in with age and may be combined with dampness. Regular, warming aerobic exercise is essential. 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, 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
- Easily short of breath
- Feeling of heaviness especially in lower body
Dampness can be associated with cold or heat and is exacerbated by damp living conditions. Chronic dampness is 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 lead to dampness. 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.
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
- May suffer fever blisters, canker sores
- Dresses in short sleeves
- Tends toward ruddy complexion
- May suffer headaches, nose bleeds, bleeding
- High blood pressure gums
- Often thirsty, craves cold drinks
- Sleep often restless, disturbing dreams
- Tendency toward impatience, irritability or anger
- May be constipated
A heat pattern often shows up 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.
Other 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 both hot or cold
- Thin body type
- Easily stressed, irritated or frustrated
- Rosy cheeks, especially after exercise
A dry pattern is 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 and skin becomes dry. 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 with grass-fed animal fats are very helpful. 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 naturally seem balancing.