The traditional Chinese approach to medicine is based upon the balance between yin and yang —complementary, opposite forces in nature. Yin refers to cold, damp, and dark qualities, while yang refers to warm, dry, and light qualities. When applied to nutrition, yin foods are cooling and moistening, and yang foods are warming and drying.
However, do not be misled by the common connotations of these characteristics; the qualities of yin and yang are based more upon the energetics of food than its actual temperature. For example, pasta and pastries are yin foods that cool/moisten. This ancient approach may seem daunting at first, but here are a few basic principles that can help you find a balance between Yin and Yang in your diet.
1. The Yin and Yang spectrum of foods
Since the key to traditional Chinese medicine is to find a balance, too much of either yin or yang will upset your body’s internal equilibrium. Think of foods on a yin and yang spectrum: on the extreme spectrum of yang lie salt, steroids, drugs, pork, beef, eggs, hard cheeses.
The extreme side of yin consists of white sugar, nicotine, caffeine, preservatives, and microwaves. Extremes should be avoided as much as possible, or at least consumed in very small quantities and on rare occasions. What lies between the extreme must still be balanced.
2. Too much yin in the modern diet
In Western nutrition, many individuals have advocated fully raw diets. According to Chinese medicine, however, too many raw foods will push the body to become too yin. Consequently, the body becomes overly cooled, leading to “yin disease”, which includes symptoms such as low metabolism, feelings of resentment, and increased risk of fungal diseases and parasitic illnesses.
Rather than limiting yourself to eating raw fruits and vegetables, traditional Chinese medicine recommends incorporating a few yang foods into your diet to warm your body (such as smoked fish), cooking a few yin foods to make them yang, or adding a few bitter foods to dry up the moisture of yin foods (such as kale or oregano).
At the same time, while the emphasis on raw foods increases, the prevailing diet in the Western world consists of highly refined grains, sugar, and dairy—all very yin foods. Dr. Lawrence Wilson, a traditional Chinese medicine expert, points out that even natural forms of sugar found in fruits are dangerous, especially due to pesticides and the fact that nearly all fruits were hybridized over 100 years ago.
The modern diet also heavily features white bread/pasta, soft cheeses, yogurt, and butter, all of which lie under the “very yin” category, the antecedent to the “extremely yin” category. Be mindful when you consume these foods, and pair them with yang foods to maintain your body’s balance.
3. Etheric energy
Etheric energy is also known as life energy or vitality. The way food is prepared commonly impacts on its level of etheric energy. Fresher foods have higher levels of etheric energy and are more yang, but packaged or canned foods are more yin. Fried foods are commonly looked down upon in nutrition because of the toxic oils, but frying foods does preserve some etheric energy. For this reason, Chinese medicine recommends stir-frying foods, but not deep-frying. On the other hand, fermenting foods leads to lower levels of etheric energy and more yin.
Water has a neutral pH of 7, but can be Yin and Yang based on the method of water purification. At the primary level of water purification is tap water, slightly more yin as a result of the chlorine and fluorides added. Soft water, which contains more minerals, is more yin than tap water. There are yin and yang extremes of water as well: mineral or spring water is very yang, while reverse osmosis and alkaline water are extremely yin.
5. Other beverages
As fruits contain natural sugar, fruit juices are very yin. Naturally, tea and coffee are yang, but when paired with sugar or cream, they become very yin. Tea or coffee in moderation is fine but limit the sweeteners and creamers. Chinese medicine strongly recommends avoiding any forms of alcohol, which are all yin and, in (the case of wine) may contain residual arsenic or lead from pesticides.