One of the fundamental principles from Chinese medicine (and other humoral medicine systems) is that foods offer energetic properties beyond just calories and macronutrients like carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Foods impart a specific energy to the body when eaten – one that has been described as a "thermal nature" or thermal energy. According to humoral dietary theory, foods can have a warming, cooling, or neutral effect on the body.
Hot peppers are one of the more obvious examples of foods with a warming thermal nature. Eating hot peppers can cause your body to warm up to the point that you perspire, your skin flushes, and your heart races. In contrast, when you consume cooling foods like an iced beverage or ice cream, you can practically feel your body contract and cool down from within. The concept of thermal nature in foods explains why juicy watermelon is the ideal antidote on a hot summer day and cucumber slices are used to soothe inflammation on puffy eyelids. Different foods have different effects on the body – the key is to find balance between hot and cold, and yin and yang.
Why are certain foods considered warming and others cooling? While there have been preliminary scientific studies to explain the differences (research suggests that it may be related to mineral content, antioxidant activity, and/or inflammatory processes in the body), most humoral food traditions are based on empirical observations over centuries of use. Generally, grains, legumes, and staples are considered to be neutral – meats, animal products, and foods with a higher fat content tend to be more warming – and seafood, fruits, and vegetables are typically more cooling.
Within each food category, there are exceptions to the general rule. For example, vegetables that come from roots and bulbs of a plant (e.g. carrots, potatoes, parsnips, kohlrabi, fennel, and onions) are considered to be more warming than leaves and stems (e.g. lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, and asparagus). Warming vegetables tend to come from hardier, more substantial plants that can withstand the cold of winter. They store energy underground and are cultivated over longer periods of time compared to leafy, more delicate plants.
For the cooler Fall and Winter body types, and during the colder months of the year, look for the hearty root vegetables that are grown in those seasons – they are the same ones that will sustain you through the cold and cook up nicely in a warming soup or slow-cooked stew. When the weather starts to warm up and spring beckons with its first shoots of tender greens, that’s nature’s indication that it’s time to start transitioning to a lighter diet and more cooling and cleansing foods.
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