1 – How we eat is at least as important as what we eat.
Mindful eating (paying attention to tastes, textures, smells, etc. while eating) is the single best ‘dietary’ change we can make. A keen ear for your body’s messages is more important than memorizing all the rules in a nutrition textbook. Also, relaxed eating is good from both the Chinese medicine and biomedicine point of view. When you’re stressed and in ‘sympathetic nervous system’ (i.e. ‘fight or flight’ mode), your body shifts blood circulation away from digestive functions. Stress reduces stomach acid levels, hampering digestion and absorption. In Chinese medicine, not only stress but any ‘pensiveness’ interferes with digestion (you digest ‘thoughts’ as well as the food). So, don’t stress about what you eat! Nourish yourself with a kind, loving, accepting, and gentle attitude . Eating a slow meal with yourself in quiet, or relaxing with good friends is excellent. Deliciousness and joy is important for nutrition too!
2 – Have a bit of each of the 5 flavours daily, but slightly more salty and bitter flavours in the winter.
The 5 flavours are: sweet, salty, sour, pungent (a.k.a. acrid/spicy), and bitter. The ‘sweet’ flavour means the ‘full sweet’ tastes of grains, vegetables, etc. (not ’empty sweets’ of sugars, desserts, etc.), and this flavour should predominate in all seasons. In the winter, however, a slight increase in the salty and bitter flavours can benefit the Kidney-adrenals and the Heart (closely tied to our mental-emotional state). Some foods with bitter (and other) tastes include: kale, turnip, celery, asparagus, burdock root, carrot top, lettuce, watercress, parsley, endive, rye, oats, quinoa, chicory root, and many herbs. Salty foods include seaweeds, salt, millet, barley, miso, etc.
3 – Eat to minimize ‘Dampness.’
Dampness in Traditional Chinese Medicine refers to fluid where it’s not supposed to be. This includes all lovely winter induced things such as phlegm and mucus! Dampness leads to feeling heavy, sluggish and foggy, both physically and mentally, and impairs your digestive ‘fire’ and overall warmth and energy. It contributes to allergies, low immunity and chronic illness. Damp-causing foods include dairy (especially cow), almost all sugars (including most fruit), wheat (sprouting helps), overly-salty food, meats and eggs, most fats and oils, yeasted breads, alcohol (i.e. liquid sugar), food that is hard to digest (raw, cold, inadequately chewed, etc.), and refined, processed, stale or rancid food (including most commercially shelled nuts and seeds, especially peanuts). Eating excessive amounts, overly complex meals, and late at night also contributes to Dampness, as do toxins, anxiety and worry.
4 -Eat warmer and protect your digestive fire.
In winter, it is best to cook foods longer, at lower temperatures, and using less water. These factors increase the meal’s warming qualities. Making your food “warmer” and easier to digest will preserve your ‘digestive fire’ and help you absorb more nutrients. Easier to digest = (1) at least slightly cooked or broken down, (2) in moderate amounts (“until 70% full”), in simple combinations (unless all cooked in the same pot like a stew or soup), (3) warm in temperature, and (4) well-chewed. If you have cold signs, eat warming foods such as oats, parsnips, mustard greens, winter squash, butter, quinoa, walnuts, onion family, chicken, lamb, trout and salmon. Warming spices include dried ginger, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek seeds, fennel. Food that is too ‘hot’ actually releases warmth and cools you (e.g. chilies, hot peppers).
5 -Be Kind to your Kidneys.
Eat dried foods, small dark beans (adzuki, black beans, etc.), seaweeds, and steamed winter greens. Many of the warming foods listed in #4 increase Kidney Yang. Seaweeds, millet, barley, and most beans increase Kidney Yin. Legumes and black/blue foods are generally good for the Kidney-adrenals. See the bone marrow soup recipe. Avoid toxins in food and water, as well as intoxicants and heavy metals. Meditate regularly, and keep your lower trunk and legs warm! (See my “Tips for Winter Yin/Yang balance)
The following link will take you to a tasty recipe for homemade ginger tea!
Examples of specific foods classified as ‘warming’ include:
cinnamon bark or twig cloves
quinoa, sunflower seed, sesame seed, walnut
pine nut, chestnut
sweet brown rice and products (e.g. mochi)
small pinches of hot peppers
onion family (leek, chive, garlic, scallion)
trout chicken beef lamb
A note on meat-eating…
Especially in the winter, *small amounts* of meat or meat products may be helpful for some who are more on the ‘deficient’ and ‘cold’ side, as they are generally ‘warmer’ than vegetables. However, if suitable to your consitution, small quanties are likely best, with the vast majority of the diet still from plant sources. Making a stock or soup from bones or a few pieces of meat can provide the ‘Yang’ (warming) qualities, without the sticky/heavy effect that excess meat produces. Cracking meat bones will allow you to make a ‘bone marrow’ soup which is excellent for nourishing your Kidneys.
Beat the Cold Soup
From Amrita Sondhi, The Modern Ayurvedic Cookbook.
1 tbsp good oil
1/2 cup onions, chopped
3 tsp fresh ginger, minced
2 tsp fresh green chilies, minced (optional) 2 tsp garlic, minced
1/2 cup celery, diced
1/2 cup carrots, diced
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/2 cup mushrooms, chopped
3/4 cup zucchini, chopped 1/4 cup tomatoes, diced
2 cups vegetable stock
4 whole peppercorns
1 cup broccoli and cauliflower florets (mixed) Juice of 1 lemon
Salt to taste
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped (for garnish)
In a large pot on medium-high, heat oil. Add onions, ginger, and green chilies and saute until onions start to soften, about 4 minutes. Stir in garlic and celery and continue to saute for a few minutes. Add carrots, cayenne, turmeric and garam masala and saute for a few more minutes. Add mushrooms and zucchini and saute for another minute. Stir in tomatoes and saute for an additional minute. Add vegetable stock, peppercorns, and cloves, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add broccoli and cauliflower florets and cook for another 7 minutes until softened. Just before soup is done, stir in lemon juice and salt to taste. Remove peppercorns, garnish with cilantro and serve.
Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.”
― Edith Sitwell
Courtesy of the Avicenna Clinic, Brighton and Hove, UK. www.avicenna.co.uk