Winter has its challenges if, like me, you’re looking for fresh produce. And that makes it hard to resist all those imported fruits and vegetables. Still, if we want to be in sync with our environment, eating foods that are in season has only upsides for the body. That’s why I look to Mother Nature, who provides for cold weather by producing some of the best ‘warming’ foods around.
What are warming foods?
Thousands of years ago, Chinese medicine practitioners took a look at the way food affects a person’s energy and overall health and developed a classification system. They grouped foods according to yin and yang, or their ability to cool or heat the body. Today’s practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine still believe that the combination of foods that a person eats needs to be in equilibrium in order to achieve a balanced and healthy body.
This means there needs to be a balance of yin and yang.
The combination of foods a person eats needs to be in equilibrium
According to traditional Chinese medicine, ‘warming’ foods raise the yang of the body by helping to increase energy levels, improve circulation and chase away cold. Contrarily, ‘cooling’ foods raise the yin of the body by helping it eliminate toxins, reduce heat and cool the blood. There are also foods that are classified as neutral.
It may come as no surprise that excesses in one food group can lead to deficiencies in another. Chinese medicine keeps a keen eye on what a person eats so as to keep the body’s internal climate in balance. And interestingly, nature keeps an eye on things, too, ensuring a balance on Earth by producing different foods in different seasons.
Nature produces different foods in different seasons for a reason
The case for seasonal eating
Before there was long distance (refrigerated) transportation, the seasons defined what we ate. I can still remember when stores sold green grapes in the summer and switched to red grapes in the fall. I’m as guilty as the next person, buying blueberries all year long out of season. But, I pay for it in mealy texture, smaller size and overall lack of flavor.
Seasonal eating is all about achieving equilibrium in the body. And with each season, nature makes new food groups available. Many of the foods that grow in the fall and winter, like root vegetables, carrots, potatoes, garlic and onions, exhibit ‘warming’ qualities. These can help a body brave the chill.
Garlic exhibits ‘warming’ qualities
Another way to look at warming foods is that they take longer to grow. Animal food falls in this category. And eggs and nuts are considered warming foods, too.Here is a list of foods that, according to traditional Chinese medicine, are generally considered ‘warming.’
The theory goes that by incorporating more foods with higher thermal levels into the diet, a body will find it easier to stay warm. And depending on where you live, many of the above-mentioned foods come into season in fall or early winter.Leeks, onions, mustard greens, chives, pumpkin and squash ripen in early fall and can persist well into winter. Pepper, garlic, fennel, and coffee (harvested in October and December in Latin America) also fall in this seasonal category. Chestnuts and pistachios are harvested in the early fall and walnuts come into maturity September through early November.
Of course the fruits cited above don’t necessarily fit with seasonal eating in much of the world. But, if you live in the tropics, they do.
How do I know if I’m yang-deficient?
People like me who are often cold are always searching for ways to bring the body back in balance. Common manifestations of insufficient yang include cold hands, feet, or body. Chinese medicine says diarrhea, stomach pain, bloating, fluid retention, sore joints and general lack of energy are also signs of too little yang. By incorporating more warming foods into the diet, my local practitioner says I’ll be less cold as my body swings back into equilibrium.
Seasonal foods are more nutritious
Aligning our eating patterns with the seasons has many benefits; first and foremost nutrition. Foods picked and eaten at their peak are naturally packed with more vitamins and minerals. Out-of-season foods that are shipped in from other parts of the world or grown locally in hothouses are harvested early and refrigerated (to survive transport). This robs them of the ability to ripen properly, and results in a decrease in nutrients as well as flavor.
Seasonal eating not only puts variation in our diets, it’s great for mental well being. Is there anything more delicious than eating foods in season? Embracing the natural rhythm of things helps connect us with the calendar as we become part of the food growing process. And, it reintroduces an old concept in food shopping: anticipation.
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