The very thought of winter makes me excited about getting cozy on the couch with a warm blanket, a hot cup of tea, and a good book or conversation. Suggest this to me as a summer activity? No thanks…I’ll pass.
What is it about the idea of hot tea and warm blankets in summer that elicits a full-body “no way in hell” reaction? The body is always seeking homeostasis. In summer, we sweat to cool off, and in winter, we get goose bumps and shiver to keep warm. Adjusting according to the time of year—genius.
When our bodies are in sync with the seasons, we are naturally drawn to foods, habits and lifestyle choices that help us stay in balance. We love salads and cooling foods in the summer, and more grounding and warming foods in the winter. How does it work?
As you develop a deeper awareness of the foods you eat, you may find that each food has a unique energy to it, beyond whatever minerals, vitamins and nutrients it may contain.
When you eat, you not only absorb nutrients, but the energy of the food as well.
What exactly is this “energy” and how does it get into your food?
Life is energy. It’s what gives us warmth from the sun, moves cars, lights up houses, and fuels our bodies via the food we eat. It’s everywhere and in everything.
Many people would agree that the food you eat is affected by a multitude of factors, including:
- Level of nutrients in the soil
- Amount of water and sunlight
- Products used to fight off pests and diseases
- How long between when it was picked and when you consume it (decomposition starts at harvesting)
- How you prepare it (e.g. raw vs. cooked)
There’s no denying that the way you feel after eating a steak is pretty different than after a garden salad. The energetics of food explains this.
There are many different philosophies and methods of categorizing the energetics of food.
Let’s explore a few for a better idea of what this whole “energy” thing is all about.
Upward + Light vs. Downward + Grounding
Steve Gagne, author of Energetics of Food: Encounters with Your Most Intimate Relationships created one of the more intuitive approaches to food energetics I have seen. He takes into consideration where, when and in what direction a plant grows in helping to determine the unique energy it embodies.
Vegetables like kale, lettuce and bok choy grow towards the sky, their chlorophyll (what makes them green) transforming sunlight into chemical energy for the plant to use. Chlorophyll-rich foods provide your blood with more oxygen. More oxygen = more energy and brain power. This explains why salads and green juices leave you feeling invigorated, uplifted and energized.
These greens also tend to grow in the spring and summer, when we’re transitioning out of the heaviness of winter and entering into a cleansing, “outward and upward” time of year.
They grow into the earth, drawing nutrients and minerals from the soil that surrounds them. Veggies such as carrots, beets, parsnips and burdock all have a powerful downward and grounding energy, which can be incredibly helpful when we’re feeling unstable or over-stimulated.
These are the crops that also grow well in fall and winter, gracing our tables in the form of root bakes, hearty vegetable soups and steamed vegetable dishes.
Warm – Neutral – Cool – Cold
Traditional Chinese Medicine emphasizes using foods to treat and prevent disease. This ancient approach to food and the body is based on the idea that every food brings with it a certain energy, and imposes different effects on the body. Understanding food energetics can help you build a deeper understanding of how to use food to affect your body in specific ways.
For example, warming foods can increase circulation, stimulate the immune system, and improve digestion (stoke the “digestive fire”).
More cooling foods, on the other hand, can help cool the body’s temperature, detoxify various systems, and sooth inflamed tissue.
Examples of warming foods:
Examples of neutral foods:
- Soya Bean
- Glutenous rice (often used to make sticky rice)
Examples of cooling foods:
- Mung Beans
Examples of cold foods:
Yin vs. Yang
Originating in Japan, the Macrobiotic diet categorizes the energetics of food in terms of yin (expansive) and yang (contractive). It uses these different energies to explain why your body often craves certain foods that will help bring the system back into balance.
For example, if you have an excess of sugar or yin (expansive) foods in your diet, you may find yourself drawn to salty foods or meat, which help reign in your energy and bring you back into homeostasis.
On the other hand, if you’re diet is heavy on the yang (contractive) foods (salt and lots of meat), you may find yourself cravings sugar, alcohol or caffeine.
Here’s a brief summary of the various foods, how they affect you when eaten in moderation, and what happens when you overdo it.
Yin – Expansive, sweet, cool + moistening
- White refined sugar
- Coffee, caffeine and chocolate
- Tropical fruits and juices
- Nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants/aubergines, peppers/capsicums, and hot peppers/chillis)
What they can do for you – Make you feel light, lift your mood, and help relieve stagnation and blockages.
What happens when you eat too much – Due to too much expansive energy or cooling, you may experience poor circulation (cold limbs), loose stool, depression, low energy, mental fog, difficulties in concentrating, and anxiety—all excess Yin (exhausted) conditions.
Think “Superwoman/Superman” complex—when you pile too much on your plate until you burn out—or how much colder you feel when you eat ice cream in winter. This is excess Yin (expansive, cooling energy).
Nearly-Neutral – More balanced energy (ideal foods to eat)
- Temperate fruits (apples, pears, berries, stone fruits, etc.)
- Leafy green vegetables
- Round vegetables
- Beans, tofu, tempeh
- Root vegetables
- Sea vegetables
- Whole grains
Yang – Contracting, salty, warming, drying
- Sea salt
- Red meat
- Hard cheese
What they can do for you – Give you a feeling of power, strength and assertiveness. Think Sonic the Hedgehog—concentrated power.
What happens when you eat too much – You can become imbalanced energetically (too much contraction and warming), and can experience excess heat, acne, headaches, irritation and constipation. You may also become more self-centered, uptight, manic and easily angered. Too much heat!
Much like the 100+ dietary theories out there, there is no “right way” of thinking about food energetics and the effects they have on your body. There’s wisdom in them all, and you get to explore what makes the most sense to you.
Understanding the energetics of foods gives you a way to more deeply connect with the subtle energies of life and how they can affect you. You can use them to heal your body and harmonize your life.
The next time you find yourself in the dead of winter, not having left the house or talked to anyone in days, or experiencing a bit of the winter blues, a good cup of hot chocolate may be just the thing to bring you out of your shell and lift your spirits.