Are you eating right for winter?
Winter's coming...and snow has already crept down the mountains and into town here in Nelson, BC.
Thankfully though, I love this: Looking out at snow-capped peaks, hands wrapping a warm mug. Walking along quiet streets under cold, sharp, quiet skies.
The shift in climate means changes in eating and lifestyle, as we attune to the wintery season. Protein-rich salads are no longer a nightly staple. Instead, the slow-cooker is always going, and hot bowls of meaty, brothy goodness form the centrepiece of mealtimes.
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 during winter?
Well, for starters, winter is a time of sealing and storing. A time of receptivity, introspection, calmness and responsiveness – qualities that are yin in nature.
It’s a time of increased sleep and rest, of meditation and introspection, of pulling inward.
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 are to tend to inner cultivation...which will eventually manifest in spring and summer.
They also caution us against rashly depleting or over-venting emotions. Instead, they advise, 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...
Four sage guidelines for winter go this way...
1. Emphasize warming food...and minimize cooling food.
By warming and cooling, I’m not talking about whether foods are hot or cold to the touch. Rather, I mean their intrinsic thermal nature and influence on the body after eating them.
Warming foods are more yang-natured. They tend to promote circulation and metabolism and to 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.
Cooling foods are yin-natured. They tend to slow circulation and metabolism and to exert a downward, inward influence. Fruit smoothies are an example of cold, yin-natured foods you’ll want to minimize throughout the year, especially during colder months.
2. Emphasize hearty soups and stews cooked at low temperatures for a long time.
Slow cooking concentrates nutrients and increases the internal warming effect. It also makes food easy on the digestion, helping digestive organs do their job and promoting strong metabolism. Another way to enhance this effect is to cut foods into smaller pieces before cooking.
When making your pot of slow-cooked 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, I suggest just giving it a try!
3. Add small amounts of salty and bitter foods.
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 (ghee’s a great one for wintertime), countering their cooling nature. A sprinkle of cumin and coriander helps with this too.
4. Add yellow-orange veggies, tubers and gourds.
Chinese Medicine uses these foods to nourish the digestive organs. 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!