Exploration of Yin and Yang Foods
By Guest Foodie: Sydney Maier
With every seasonal change, I, like many of you, pause to reflect on the past and set intentions for the future. Always in the pursuit of health, wellness, and balance, I like to take the opportunity to review my lifestyle choices and explore different ways to progress toward those goals. With this in mind, I started looking into something I kept hearing about – a method of eating intended to achieve health by creating balance and harmony in your body: the Yin/Yang diet.
The idea of food as therapy is no ancient secret, but the actual practice of food as therapy is a fascinating subject that hasn’t gained much traction. In Chinese medicine, food therapy is practiced through a Yin/Yang diet, which focuses on the energetic effects foods have on the human body. Essentially, there are Yang foods (hot, warm) and Yin foods (cold, and cool) – but this is not so much in reference to cooking temperature as an internal effect on the body. Yin foods are generally cool in color, hydrating, low-calorie, and soothing, while Yang foods might be associated with spice, warm colors, higher calories, fat, and protein, and yes, higher cooking temperature. Similarly characterized hot and cold illnesses and afflictions are said to be alleviated with foods of contrasting effects. For example, trouble sleeping may be caused by the liver, which is activated by Yang foods (spicy, meaty, or alcoholic, for instance). An increase in Yin foods (along with meditation and a regulated sleep schedule) is believed to correct this. Dry skin, anxiety, and sluggishness would also be considered symptoms of excess Yang, and therefore remedied with an increase in Yin foods.
If this sounds familiar, you may remember a few years ago when the alkaline diet was all the rage. Ensuring a balance of acidic and alkaline foods has been speculated to reduce several health risks and improve vital functions. It’s important to note here that the pH number to be aware of is the post-consumption value: the pH of the food has little relevance since it’s the effect of the food on your kidneys that determines its acidic or alkaline effect (for example, we all think of lemons as acidic, but they have an alkaline effect on the body once digested, making them an alkaline food). Ultimately, the alkaline diet supports a common-sense approach to diet: more fruits and veggies, less processed food and sugar, enjoy variety, and moderation. This may be why the diet seems to work (meaning weight loss and healthier living) even though the science is a little shaky.
What you might not know is that the pursuit of this type of balance through Yin/Yang nutrition is actually scientifically sound, rooted in traditional Chinese medicine. This 2000-year-old practice is more than a diet – it’s food therapy. Yin Yang is based on the familiar tenants of whole foods in moderation, with consideration for the energy properties of food. What sets this diet apart from others is its equal consideration for location, climate, and individual biochemistry. While most diets take a one-size-fits-all approach (Whole 30, Keto, Paleo, etc), Yin/Yang is a way for you to eat for your individual body, your individual health, and your individual wellness.
You may think this sounds far-fetched and crunchy. And it’s difficult for Westerners to take seriously – we take a monotheistic view of food and worship the chemical composition of food. But recall our Western adage, “starve a fever; feed a cold.” That supports the much older idea of Yin/Yang in a nutshell! This energetic approach prioritizes the same balance we’re always after, with the additional considerations of gender, ethnicity, location, and state of health. Put another way, it’s a holistic diet specifically tailored to you, rather than the one-size-fits-all options we find here in the states.
In addition to encouraging a balanced diet, Yin/Yang seeks to extend that balance into health and wellness. This therapy asserts that ailments and maladies can be attributed to an excess or deficiency of Yin or Yang, and can be remedied with Yin/Yang ideas beyond food. For example, cold or wet weather (Yin) can exacerbate joint and sinus issues. In addition to warming Yang foods, Yang activities may also help – things like cardio or aerobic exercise can get your blood moving and warm your body, generating Yang energy. Heartburn, headaches, and under-eye bags are considered symptoms of excessive Yang, and can be counterbalanced with Yin foods and Yin activities (healthy fats, starchy veggies, and active relaxation such as walking outside, doing yoga). What’s interesting here is that the Yin/Yang foods recommended vary by season and geography – it’s recommended to eat locally and in-season… but nothing is “off limits.”
If this also sounds familiar, it’s because it’s logical: restoring balance in a sustainable is a natural reaction when something ails us. That was my ultimate take-away from this research. It’s fair to say I’m obsessed with the pursuit of healthfulness and well-being, and I love diving into different methodologies to understand and analyze. And while they come in different packages, these wellness diets all support the same simple ideas I grew up with: balance, moderation, and consideration of how you yourself are feeling. It seems Yin/Yang has a little more common sense than some others that assume the same regimen will work for every body, but they’re all built on whole foods, well-rounded nutrition, and health-focused intentions.
So as we enter this new season I’ll certainly be doing some experimenting with my Yin and Yang energy. I hope you enjoy a soothing cup of tea, an invigorating hike, or whatever makes you feel balanced and restored.
Sydney Maier is a recent MBA graduate from the Emory Goizueta Business School and is an inspired leader within social impact companies.