Chinese Medicine: How to Eat Healthy in Winter
How to eat healthy, not get sick, and boost your immune system in winter.
Ready or not, the snow line is inching down the mountains here in Nelson, British Columbia.
This will be my first winter living in a tiny cabin on the lake, and mostly I love it! Watching bald eagles and Canada geese from huge windows against a backdrop of water and snow: Magic.
But…winter cabin life is also damp and chilly! To stay healthy, prevent colds and flu, and boost my immune system this season, I’ll be following these 4 Chinese Medicine Tips for Healthy Eating in Winter.
In Chinese Medicine, eating and living with the seasons is an important part of staying healthy. For each season, Chinese classics offer sage guidance for what to cultivate in our lives…and what to put on our plates.
What’s this mean in winter?
For starters, winter is a time of sealing and storing. A time of receptivity, responsiveness and reflection — qualities that are yin in nature. It’s an opportunity for increased sleep, rest, meditation and introspection.
In winter, the ancient texts counsel us to “hide” our spirit, mind and consciousness — as if cherishing personal affairs and keeping them to oneself. We should tend to inner cultivation…which will eventually manifest in spring and summer.
They also caution us against rashly depleting or over-venting emotions. Instead, we should find contentment in silence, stillness and looking inward. Later, with the arrival of warmer months, what we learn will emerge and reach fruition.
What’s this have to do with food?
A lot, actually. In Chinese Medicine, we don’t separate food and eating from the rest of life…or from wider patterns of living and being.
What’s on our plate in winter is part of the bigger picture of seasonal attunement. This attunement — in all aspects — supports health and vitality throughout the year.
In winter, as in every season, individual factors come into play too. In other words, eating seasonally is just one variable to consider when crafting your optimal diet. When I work with clients one-on-one, I take many variables, including personal goals, into account. That said, sage guidelines for winter go this way…
4 Chinese Medicine Tips for Healthy Eating in Winter
1. Choose warm comfort food, and avoid fruit smoothies ;).
By warm here, I’m not just talking about whether foods are hot to the touch. I also mean their intrinsic thermal nature and influence on the body after eating them.
Warming foods are more yang-natured. They promote circulation and metabolism and exert an upward, outward influence. Bone broth is an excellent example of a warming food — particularly with the addition of ingredients such as black pepper, garlic and ginger.
Meanwhile, cooling foods are yin-natured. They slow circulation and metabolism and exert a downward, inward influence. Ice cream and fruit smoothies are examples of cold, yin-natured foods you’ll want to minimize throughout the year, especially during colder months.
2. Pull out the slow cooker, and make winter soups and stews.
Slow cooking concentrates nutrients and increases the internal warming effect. It also helps the digestive organs do their job and promotes strong, healthy metabolism. Another way to enhance this effect is to cut foods into smaller pieces before cooking.
When making your pot of slow cooker goodness, take care not to add too much hot spice. While a little supports the desired warming effect, too much is dispersing. During winter, we want to bring the body’s heat and resources deeper, not disperse them to the exterior (through sweating, for instance).
The exception is if you’re catching a cold, in which case adding enough spice to encourage a gentle, light sweat can be helpful for venting the pathogen and assisting recovery. I know all this sounds quaint, but it’s been proven to work over thousands of years. If you’re skeptical, give it a try!
3. Pass the salt and add some bitters.
These flavours promote sinking and centring for winter storage — drawing our inner reserves and body heat deeper.
For salty, consider adding small amounts of seaweed to your soups. Just take care not to overdo it — seaweed is also cooling, and too much during winter is a bad idea.
For bitter, winter greens are an excellent option. Just make sure to cook them lightly in healthy fat to balance their cooling nature (grass fed butter or ghee are great for wintertime). A sprinkle of cumin and coriander helps with this too.
4. Think orange: pumpkin, squash, carrots and sweet potatoes.
Chinese Medicine uses yellow-orange veggies, tubers and gourds to nourish the digestive organs and boost metabolism. This is especially important in wintertime, when the warming, metabolic yang influence of the body is at a low.
Pumpkin, squashes and yams are solid choices. Roasted carrots sprinkled with warming cinnamon and nutmeg are another.
Make these changes during colder months? Or have other seasonal tips? Please share in the comments!
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Wishing you a cozy, nourishing winter!