I write often about dietary change and the health benefits of improving this arena of our lives. I write about it often not because the subject is overly complex, just that it is difficult for people to change habits. For some eating is just what they do at certain times of the day or when they are running from place to place. For others, who are on any number of diets, eating is often seen as a somewhat scientific endeavor – calories in, calories out, I “should” eat this, I “shouldn’t” eat that.
Chinese Medicine offers us a relationship with food that goes beyond calories, good and bad. Ultimately food is medicine. It is a medicine that we take multiple times a day and has great potentials for improving or harming our health. Understanding some of the dietary theories within Chinese Medicine can help us to make better choices for ourselves throughout our lives and through our various stages of health.
Previously I had published “Traditional Chinese Medicine Nutrition Theory and Applications in Dietary Therapy“, which I would recommend reading for a more detailed discussion of related dietary theories. You will see within that article that foods are divided into flavors (sweet, sour, bitter, etc.) and energies (hot, cold, neutral, etc.). This is part of the relationship building that Chinese Medicine provides us with our food. When we are weak and cold, we need warming foods (not just more calories) and when we are anxious, for example, we need foods that build the yin (the calming aspect of our nervous system) and those that are cooling in nature.
This article is an introduction to just the Yin and Yang of foods – the basic building blocks that the majority of people need to be concerned with. My hope is that this will help get you started on a new way of using food to help you along your path to health.
To start, what is Yin and Yang?
Yin is the cooling, calming, aspect of our body. It allows us to sleep, to relax, allows our skin to stay moist, our organs to have proper circulation. Yang is our energizing, get up and go aspect. It allows us to move, to react, allows our organs to function correctly, our muscles to be strong and energized.
For ideal health, Yin and Yang need to be balanced. When we want to relax we should be able to do so (the opposite being insomnia, anxiety, etc.), when we want to get up and go we should not be hindered (fatigue, lethargy, etc. being the opposite). In reality, we are always bounding back and forth between these two principles. If we have been stressed for a few weeks we may be falling into the yin deficiency pattern (dizziness, tinnitus, anxiety, vertigo, sore back, constipation, mallor flush, night sweats, insomnia, dry throat, restlessness, etc.). If we have been working too hard physically we may be falling into the yang deficiency pattern (sore a/or weak back/knees, sensation of cold, aversion to cold, weak lower limbs, lassitude, fatigue, clear copious urine, poor appetite, loose stools, edema, etc.).
The remedy for these patterns, along with acupuncture, bodywork, herbal medicines, tai chi, meditation, yoga, etc. is our diet. If we have a general sense of where we are within the Yin and Yang aspects, we can then make food choices to rebalance this relationship and improve our health.
Yin and Yang Foods:
Yang Foods, Properties and Uses:
Yang foods have a warming, energizing effect on the body.
- Meats: Beef, Lamb, Duck (see my “Eat Like A Human” article for more information on meat)
- Grains: Oats, Wheat, Quinoa
- Legumes: Garbanzo (hummus), Lentils
- Nuts: Almonds, Coconuts, Peanuts, Walnuts
- Vegetables: Cabbage, Carrots, Kale, Shiitake Mushroom, Potatoes, Onions, Garlic, Ginger
- Fruits: Avocado, Cherry, Grapes, Figs, Rasberry
- Others: Alcohol, Coffee, Black Tea, Green Tea (to a lesser extent), Cinnamon
Yin Foods, Properties and Uses:
Yin foods have a cooling, calming effect on the body.
- Meats: Chicken, Seafood (fish, oyster, mussels, shrimp)
- Grains: Barley, Rye, Wild Rice
- Legumes: Soybeans (Tofu), Black, Kidney, Mung
- Nuts: Flax, Pistachio
- Vegetables: Broccoli, Beets, Celery, Cucumber, Lettuce, Tomatoes, Spinach, Radish
- Fruits: Apples, Bananas, Lemons, Limes, Oranges, Peaches, Strawberries, Watermelon
- Others: Herbal Teas such as Lavender, Chamomile
These lists offer you a new angle of looking at your diet and the function of various foods in relation to your personal health needs. Take our common western diet, for example. A diet that is high in red meat, coffee, and alcohol will lead to an excess of yang energy. Due to the yin and yang relationship, this will bring about yin deficiency signs such as anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, etc. which are very common in our society. To help us improve our health, the western diet needs to be counterbalanced by adding more yin foods like various fruits and including more yin “meats” such as fish and tofu in place of their yang counterparts.
All in all, if we improve our relationship with foods and we better understand their effect, we will be healthier. A good dietary path to health is one where we eat a range of foods, we enjoy what we are eating, and we are conscious of the effects of our choices.