Seasonal eating is paramount in Chinese Medicine. Much of the medicine’s wisdom and philosophy evolved from observing people and nature. In times thousands of years ago (or even 100 years ago!), we were much more in tune with the natural rhythms of nature. We would naturally make the changes that the season demanded as we only had access to certain foods or activities at a specific time of the year (think the fresh abundant fruits and vegetables of summer and the cold dark stillness of winter that calls for rest and reflection).
We now live in a time where we have access to every type of food year round. Our lifestyle also seems to keep the same pace and productivity level year round as well. This is great in that we have access to healthy fresh food where we might not have had in the past. But the downside is that we’ve lost touch with the natural rhythms of nature and our body. When we disconnect from what’s going on outside and ‘push through’ or continually eat colder tropical summery foods in the winter or raw foods year round, we can throw our system off balance which can lead to discomfort, burn out and dis-ease. Dropping back into the subtle changes of the season can be one of the best and restorative things we can do for ourselves.
Here are some general guidelines to follow for adapting your food and activity to the various seasons:
Spring-time is a time of renewal and the spark of life. It’s about movement and bringing life back after a dormant and sedentary winter. This is a time to start introducing more fresh spring foods (greens and baby beets etc) into your diet. Don’t switch to a fully raw or uncooked diet but think of more lightly cooking your food or combining warm things with fresh foods to ease your digestion into the new season.
Top Spring Foods: Green greens greens! Green onions, leeks, cilantro and sprouted foods
Summer is a time when the heat is at its height and there is an abundance of fresh food and produce. Taking advantage of local seasonal food is easy to do at this time of year. And with the extra heat from the season, our body is better equipped to digest the naturally more cooling summer foods like tomatoes, cucumbers and all the fresh green leafy foods growing. If you suffer from bloating or loose bowels regularly, it’s best to stick with cooked foods year round, but you can cook them lighter in the summer months and introduce a bit of raw food as long as it’s consumed with something cooked as well.
Top Summer foods: tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, peppers, leafy green lettuce, mint, basil and any other local fresh produce.
Fall is the time when nights get cooler and the days get shorter. The crops shift from the fast growing summer crops into the slower grown root and cold weather crops. As we transition into the darker more reflective days of winter, we should start adjusting our diet in the same way. Adding more soups, slower roasted root vegetables and warmer cooked foods into your diet in general is a great way to help your body make this transition smoothly. Think more teas and warming stocks for those crisp fall nights!
Top Fall Foods: carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, squashes, onions, ginger, kale and turnips
Winter is the time we go in. It’s a time of deep reflection and restoration. It’s the time to embrace the non-doing instead of the active do-ing energy of the summer. This is a time when both our energy and our food should be slower. Slower cooking imparts more heat into the foods making them naturally more warming, nourishing and easier to absorb in the cold winter months. We should focus on more warming spices and crops like carrots, parsnips, turnips and beets. Kale is a great winter green and using spices like dried ginger, cumin, cloves and cinnamon make great additions to the warmer winter fare. In general raw and frozen foods should be avoided during the winter months and activities should be more geared toward the inner world and have a more restorative action on the body instead of the very social outward energy of summer. Think curl up by the fire with a book and go for fresh walks bundled up outside to get some fresh air.
Top Winter Foods: legumes such as black beans, warming spices such as ginger, pepper, cumin, naturally salty foods such as seaweeds and warm cooked foods in general.
Your body is talking, be sure to Listen
Every body is different. Just as we’re all born with our own unique set of physical characteristics (our nose, eyes, height, disposition), our physical body has our unique stamp as well. Digestion is easily affected by stress, mood, diet, environment and season. It’s important to tap in and listen to the unique messages that your body is sending out. Not all diets are suited for all people! General eating guidelines such as eating whole foods in their most natural state and avoiding processed or fast food in general are important. As is making sure you’re getting adequate protein, healthy fats and at least 7-12 servings of vegetables and fruits/day. But within those guidelines, listening to your body and how it responds to certain foods is key in optimal health. Salads and raw food, although high in nutrients, are not good for everyone. Those with bloating and lethargy after meals or looser bowels should avoid. Even lightly cooking food for many can be enough to help them absorb the nutrients easier and nourish their body in a more profound way. Hot dry and irritable people should avoid hot, spicy and fried food in general. These foods will tend to send them more off balance. Your diet can be fine tuned to your particular pattern or body type and sometimes it’s easily figured out with the help of a trained practitioner.
To learn more about optimizing your digestion with TCM, check out the first part of the series on digestion: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Stomach
Or some other articles on Food as Medicine and optimizing digestion here