Chinese dietary principles stress the importance of eating according to the seasons, as well as our individual constitution. During the warm months of the year, we eat cooling foods; during the cooler months, we eat warming foods. Here are some tips for a beneficial diet for the winter season.
Yin & Yang
In the autumn and winter seasons, when the weather chills, Yin dominates. Yin & yang are polar opposites. Yang represents upward movement, heat, the sun, male and activity. Yin energy is female, dark, quiescence, deep, downward and cool. Spring and summer are yang seasons: fall and winter are yin seasons. Yin seasons, with their long nights and cool days, have an inward, storing nature. Warm, yang seasons have an outward, thrusting energy. During the winter, we have a natural tendency to conserve energy — staying in by a warm fire. Spring and summer we like to reach out socially and enjoy outdoor activities, in accordance with the yang nature of the season.
Likewise, our diet should reflect the different yin and yang energies of the seasons. In Chinese dietary therapy, we advise eating more cooling foods during the warm months of the year. During cooler weather, a more warming diet is appropriate to nourish the body’s yang energy, which keeps us warm.
Seasonal cooking techniques
Baking and roasting are recommended cooking techniques during the cooler seasons as they are deeply warming. Steaming is more appropriate during warmer months. So steamed veggies and rice are appropriate during the summer season. In the fall and winter, emphasize baking, roasting, stews and pilafs.
Cool foods, such as raw vegetables and salads, should be avoided or kept to a minimum in the cooler months, when the body is working harder to stay warm. If salads are included, they should be small, side salads with cooked foods included, such as beans, beets or potatoes. When tossed salads are eaten, use warm dressings, such and ginger or garlic. A warm chicken salad or a piece of salmon or tuna would be a warm, cooked addition to balance the cold, raw veggies.
Root vegetables: A winter superfood
During the winter months, our tendency is to go in and become more introspective — a yin activity. We are drawn to doing more yoga and meditation during the dark, cold months. Root vegetables, which grow downward in the cool earth absorb her deep, yin energy. Chinese dietary advice stresses eating root veggies during the cooler months to nourish the body’s yin energy, which is dominant during the winter (yin) season. Above ground veggies are more appropriately eaten during the spring and summer as they have an outward-thrusting, lighter, yang energy, which matches the yang season.
In the winter, people enjoy spice cake, oranges with cloves and chai. To assist in warming yang during the colder months, add warm spices such a cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and clove. Chinese herbalists use these herbs in formulas to treat yang deficiency in patients with conditions that have a cold nature. For example, pain that improves with the application of heat (hot shower, hot tub). We use cardamom to warm the digestive organs. Cinnamon bark strongly tonifies kidney yang.
Winter and the kidney organ system
The Chinese medicine kidney organ system is the root of yin and yang in the body and houses the life gate fire: the warm, vital, life energy — our body’s heat. Kidney energy dominates in the winter months. In contrast, the heart is energetically related to fire and the summer season. So the winter season is the appropriate time to strengthen and tonify kidney energy. Black is the color of the kidney, so black foods, such as black beans, sea vegetables and black radishes tonify the kidney. Kidney beans are the shape of the kidney, so they are another food that supports this vital organ system.
The brain is supported by the kidney system, which physically includes adrenal functions and some hormone production. Walnuts are shaped like the brain, so are another beneficial winter food that tonifies kidney energy and brain function. Include walnuts when baking, toasted on top of breakfast porridges and as a topping on squashes and root veggies.
Most sea vegetables are black, which is the color of and thus hones to the kidney. The flavor of the kidney is salty and its element is water, so black sea vegetables are an optimal choice for nourishing the kidneys. The kidney system holds our deep, reserve energy, called Jing Qi. The western go, go, go lifestyle depletes kidney Jing, so we must take advantage of every opportunity we have to supplement Jing.
To include the valuable and often missed trace minerals – a rich source is found in sea veggies – toast a sheet of nori, crumble and sprinkle over the top. Nori is used for sushi rolls and has little flavor or fragrance. Find Nori in packages in the macrobiotic section of the natural food store. Try floating a few crumbles of wakame in miso soup, with grated ginger, green onion slices, a tablespoon of cooked rice and some tofu cubes for a calcium-rich lunch.
Nori is high in vitamin A (a breathtaking 11,000 IU’s per 100g) is rich in Calcium (470mg) and phosphate (510mg). Many sea veggies, such as wakame, hijiki, arame & kombu are high in calcium (800-1300mg/100g). For comparison, spinach and cow’s milk have 93 & 118mg/100g, respectively.
The calcium in sea veggies is an easier form for the body to digest and does not cause stone formation. In fact, Chinese herbal medicine uses two sea veggies to dissolve cysts, masses and tumors: Hai Zao and kombu. Sea vegetables are an important dietary source of calcium for perimenopausal women. Also of note is the high level of potassium in many sea veggies, such as kombu (5800mg/100g), wakame (6800mg), dulse (8060mg), hijiki (get this: 14,700mg) & arame 3860mg). spinach: 470mg, cow’s milk: 144mg.
How to roast root vegetables
Roasted root vegetables are easy, delicious and the perfect choice for autumn & winter. I like to do a medley of several different vegetables: beets, carrots, rutabagas (there’s a vegetable many won’t eat!), yams and winter squash. Whatever is available and you like will be fine. You can also roast singles: beets with rosemary, potatoes with oregano, or baked yams & squash with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.
Peel the veggies & cut into 2 to 3-inch pieces: quarter or halve a round vegetable, such as rutabagas or beets and, depending on their size, cut carrots in half lengthwise.
Put veggies in a Pyrex dish (9×12 or 9×9 or larger if you are making a big batch) and drizzle with olive oil.
You could add a few above ground vegetables for flavor, such as garlic cloves and quartered onions. Sprinkle with dried spices. I like rosemary and sea salt.
Cover with foil and roast at 375 degrees for about an hour: shorten the cooking time for convection ovens by about 10%.
Bake until tender and fragrant. When you begin to smell the lovely, sweet aroma of the vegetables, give them a look and test for tenderness with a fork.
I like to make a large batch as the veggies store well and can be reheated easily.
How to bake winter squash
Cut in half, scoop out the seeds and put a pat of butter or a spoonful of coconut oil in the cavity.
Place it on a cookie sheet, cover with foil and bake at 365 degrees for about an hour until tender and fragrant.
Acorn, spaghetti, delicata and butternut all bake well.
Yams can be baked whole or you can make yam fries:
Peel & slice vertically into 1/2 – 3/4″ x 3″ strips.
Put strips into a glass dish, drizzle with olive oil, lightly salt & cover with foil.
Bake at 375 degrees for about an hour, until tender and somewhat browned. Yummy!
Yam and squash puree
Yams and squash make versatile purees, which can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert. I like to do a combination of yams, butternut, apples and pears. It’s really up to your imagination and what you have on hand.
Cut the fruits and veggies into 2-3” pieces.
Pressure cook for about 10 minutes with a little water (½” or so) on the bottom of the pot and on top of a steamer tray insert. Natural release the pressure, remove the peels the yams.
Puree in a Vitamix or food processor until smooth.
Season with freshly ground nutmeg, cinnamon, ground cardamom seeds and a little ground clove, to taste.
Garnish with lots of toasted nuts, such as walnuts or pecans, broken into pieces.
For added protein, stir in a ½ scoop or so of unflavored protein powder (I use Designs for Health’s Pure Pea).
If you find it is too sweet, use more tart green apples and increase the amount of squash.
Stay warm and nourished this winter!
About the author
This post was written by Kath Bartlett, LAc, licensed acupuncturist and traditional Chinese herbalist. She practices at Bartlett Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine in Scarborough.