Raw foods seem like a good idea, especially for weight loss. After all, won’t cooking food destroy its nutrients and natural enzymes? Well, in terms of Western nutrition, yes. But the paradigm of Chinese dietary therapy has a whole other element: the thermal quality of food. Certain foods are viewed as warming and nourishing while others are seen as cooling and eliminating.
Uncooked foods tend to be energetically cold. An over-consumption of raw vegetables, juiced vegetables, raw fruits and fruit juices can bring on edema, loose stools, bloating, constant post-nasal drip and a general feeling of coldness.
In traditional Chinese medicine, digestion is like a cooking process. Imagine a soup pot cooking on the stove. Our digestive fire – the burner – resides in our lower abdomen. Our stomach is like a big pot or cauldron into which the food goes. If we turn up the fire, food cooks, or metabolizes, faster. This is the effect of warm foods. Turning the burner down with too many cold, raw foods can slow digestion and make us retain water and hold body fat.
Most veggies and fruits are generally cool in nature, while most animal products are warm (with the exception of dairy). A few examples…
Yang foods (hot): Cayenne pepper, dried ginger, soybean oil, hard alcohol, cinnamon, black pepper, chili powder, horseradish, lamb, trout and whole green or red peppers.
Yang foods (warming): Cherries, coconut, lemons, raspberries, cauliflower, mustard greens, onion, coffee, wine, garlic, fresh ginger, chestnuts, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, chicken, shrimp, mussels, lobster, turkey, yogurt, butter.
Yin foods (cooling): Apples, bananas, pears, strawberries, broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, spinach, Swiss chard, celery, soybeans, buckwheat, sesame oil.
Yin foods (cold): Papaya, watermelon, grapefruit, tomatoes, asparagus, cucumbers, summer squash, romaine lettuce, seaweed, barley, tofu, dairy.
This concept blew my mind when I showed up for my Chinese nutrition class in acupuncture school 10 years ago. At that time I was proud to be the lowest weight I had ever been. I achieved this by eating almost all raw foods. The only problem was that I was pale, always felt chilled, my hands were cold (not a good thing for an acupuncturist), and I had major digestive problems. The root cause was too many cold, raw foods.
In Chinese medicine, nothing is one-size-fits-all. So it’s not just a matter of eating nourishing healthy food but of eating nourishing healthy food that is right for your body type. A mostly raw food diet may be good for a hot, excess person, but not so much for a cold, deficient person. Take my body type quiz to see which one you are.
How can you balance eating raw foods with protecting your digestive fire? Here are a few tips to warm up your diet:
- Add cooked veggies on top of your salads. My faves are roasted beets, carrots and Brussels or sautéed peppers, onions and mushrooms.
- Avoid ice water, which damages the digestive fire. Stick to room temp water or teas.
- Swap out raw lettuce salads for sautéed greens like kale, collards and spinach with garlic or onions.
- Enjoy raw lettuce salads in moderation, and pair them with a cup of hot tea to stoke your digestive fire.
- Eat light broth soups instead of cold smoothies.
- If you just can’t give up your regular smoothies, “warm” them up by adding a dash of cinnamon or some ginger root. And avoid making them the first thing you eat for the day.
- Limit your intake of melons and tropical fruits in the winter, as they can cause coldness.
- Stew or bake fruits to give them a warmer energy, especially stone fruits, apples, pears and berries.
Pitchford, Paul. Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Tradition and Modern Nutrition. 3rd ed. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2002. 23-24. Print.