Two themes guide our discussion of winter eating:
1. Yin and Yang
In winter the outside environment becomes Yin: cold, dark, still. The Yang energy of plants (the energy of upward growth and metabolism) is pulled deep into the roots. Nature enters a state of rest and storage.
Matching these environmental patterns, the Yang Qi of our bodies also draws deeply inward, warming our internal organs. With Yang deeply inward, Yin energy of our environment pervades the more surface levels of our body, helping us to adjust to cold winter surroundings.
In winter, we can easily loose energy to our environment (whereas in summer, we easily gain energy from a predominantly Yang environment.)
We can keep ourselves healthy by eating foods that mirror these patterns of inner warmth, rest and storage. It is important for us to protect ourselves from the elements and to nourish ourselves with deeply warming foods.
2. Kidney Energy Predominates
In winter, the energy of the Kidney predominates. The Kidneys in Chinese Medicine are regarded as the root and foundation of the body's energy. The health of our Kidneys determines our overall health, the health of our bones, our reproductive capacity, and the grace with which we age. They are responsible for our enduring strength and stamina.
The Kidneys are particularly vulnerable to damage by cold and overexertion in winter. However, they are also uniquely available at this time of year for nourishment through food. Our food choices should be influenced not only by considering the Kidney, but also themes associated with the Kidney and wintertime in Chinese medicine: water, depth, darkness, inward-focus, etc.
Winter is a critical time to eat foods whose energies penetrate deeply inward, warming our Yang energies, supporting Yin, and nourishing our Kidneys. Following are some tips for winter eating and food preparation:
1. Match your environment:
Eat Foods in Season: A trip to a local farmers' market will help you know what's in season. At this time of year, your body thrives on storage vegetables like carrots, parsnips, burdock root, celery root, onions, winter squash, yams, and potatoes. Seasonal fruits include kiwis, oranges, lemons, grapefruits, kumquats and other citrus fruit, as well as dried fruit.
Dark-Colored Foods match the Yin energy of the season. These include sturdy winter greens like kale and collards, mineral-dense seaweeds and sea vegetables, dark-colored mushrooms like shitakes, and dried berries like goji berries.
Other "storage" foods include dried grains and beans. Brown rice, millet, wild rice, dark-colored strains of quinoa, dark-colored beans like kidney, black and aduki are all particularly nourishing in winter, as are nuts and seeds. Walnuts, almonds, and black sesame seeds nourish the Kidney in particular.
Meats: Winter is the best time of year to add moderate amounts of nutrients from animal products to our diets. Particularly nourishing in winter are those deep nutrient storehouses: organ meats and bones.
(A note on meat: Generally speaking, I advocate eating a small to moderate amount of meat or seafood, a few times per week to once per day, especially in the colder seasons, as a source of concentrated nutrients and energy. Animal products should be consumed in the context of a meal including cooked grain, vegetables, savory broth and a garnish of fermented food to aid digestion. Dietary needs and preferences vary, of course, in relation to individuals' constitutions and lifestyles. The way in which meat is cooked significantly impacts its digestibility and its nutritional affect on our bodies.)
Winter is a great time of year to get into the habit of eating bone broths and stocks. Simmering bone stock overnight is a great way to draw out minerals from an animals deepest stores, rendering them easily assimilable to our bodies. Broth and stock can be stored in our freezers and used to enhance soups and stews throughout winter.
See my article on bone broths and stock for recipes and further discussion.
Organ meats, especially liver and kidney, are also nutritionally potent. Dark-colored and originating deep in the body, they match the themes of winter according to TCM theory. It is advisable to seek out organ meats from organic or pastured animals, as the internal organs can be storehouses for toxic chemicals used in raising factory-farmed animals. Liver pates or liverwurst are a luxurious treat at winter celebrations.
As winter and the Kidney are associated with water and the sea, Chinese Medicine traditionally advised eating deep-sea animals to tonify the Kidney energies in winter. Consider adding some shellfish, oysters, shrimp, trout, wild salmon, sardines or cod liver oil to your diet at this time of year.
2. Cooking-styles for warmth and nourishment:
In Chinese Medicinal cooking, different cooking methods are used to accentuate the energetic qualities of foods, be they warm or cool. We increase the warming nature of foods either through hotter cooking methods (roasting, baking, braising or frying), and/or longer cooking time (think slowly-simmered soups, stews and stocks). While long cooking times reduce the contents of certain vitamins, they make minerals more available to the body.
Winter is really the only good time of year to consume some fried foods. While meats and fried foods are harder for our bodies to digest and can be hard on our vascular systems, they are warming and provide stamina in winter. Be attentive to the choice of fat in which to fry. Animal fats, which are highly saturated, can be heated to high temperatures with little damage, creating non-greasy fried foods. Think bacon grease or ghee. Less saturated vegetable oils don't typically perform well at high heats. They form free radicals which are virtually indigestible and, thus, damaging to our bodies. Peanut oil, an exception, is one of the most stable vegetable oils at high temperatures.
Fried foods in small amounts to garnish winter meals of grains, beans and vegetables. Compliment meats and fried foods with naturally fermented foods, like raw sauerkraut or pickles. These support the digestion and assimilation of heavy foods, starchy foods and oils.
3. Salty: the flavor of winter
Salty is the flavor associated with winter and the Kidney in Chinese Medicine. Eating more salty food in winter helps consolidate your energy, turning your focus inward. But all salt is not created equal.
Stick with truly unrefined salt, such as Celtic sea salt and salt mined from ancient sea beds. These are not bright white in color, but grayish or light pink, indicating the presence of the wide array of minerals naturally present in seawater. Fortunately, these sea salts are now available to us in health food stores. Also, I recently learned from a teacher about Korean sea salt, which is among the purest and most mineral-dense in the world—available to us in Korean food markets here in the East Bay.
Refined salt is pure sodium chloride, stripped of other minerals. It is much harder for the body to balance than natural sea salt. Keep in mind that the chemical composition of our bodies is quite similar to seawater. (Also, remember that water and the sea are associated with the Kidney and with winter in Chinese medicine.)
Again, winter is a great time to eat raw fermented foods like miso, tamari or shoyu (traditionally brewed, high quality soy sauces) and pickles or sauerkraut. Foods foods are not only salty, but also "storage" forms of food, "cooking" slowly over an extended period of time, so to speak. Thus they match the energy of the seasonal environment.
Healthy salts should be eaten in moderate amounts, of course, in a way that enhances--but doesn't overpower-- the flavor of our food.
Aside from salty flavor, bitter-flavored foods, like collards and turnip greens, also help to consolidate energy within during winter time.
4. Eat earlier in the day. Don't overeat.
In wintertime, the yang energy required to digest our food is in shorter supply. Despite our increased nutritional needs this season, our digestion tends to be more sluggish in winter than at other times of the year. Additionally, digestive energies are highest first thing in the morning, decreasing through the course of the day, according to Chinese Medicine theory.
The implications of this is that we are advised to eat most heartily in the morning, but to eat smaller meals later in the day. The days are short now. Try to eat your last meal of the day before 7:00pm. Eat a simple evening meal. Soups and or a bit of grain with lots of savory liquid are good choices for dinner. Late night eating tends to cause indigestion and interfere with sound sleep.
I'll conclude this article with some lists of foods traditionally considered to strengthen the Kidneys in Chinese Medicine theory:
Whole grains: millet, wild rice, dark-colored varieties of grains such as quinoa
Vegetables: parsley, sea vegetables, yams
Fruits: especially dark berries; dried fruits
Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, black sesame seeds
Beans: all beans, particularly dark varieties such as black and kidney beans
Animal foods: bone broths, clams, crab, lobsters, oysters, organ meats, pork
Traditional foods to strengthen Kidney Yang:
Whole grains: oats, spelt, sweet brown rice, quinoa
Vegetables: cabbage, garlic, kale, leeks, mustard greens, onions, parsnips, parsley, green onions, winter squash
Fruits: cherries, dates, raspberries
Spices and herbs: anise, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, caraway, citrus peel, cumin, dill, fenugreek, fennel, ginger, rosemary
Beans: aduki, black beans
Animal foods: chicken, crab, lobster, organ meats, shrimp, trout, wild salmon
Traditional foods to strengthen KidneyYin:
Whole grains: amaranth, barley, millet, rice, wheat
Vegetables: asparagus, beets, eggplant, potatoes, sea vegetables
Fruits: apples, berries, lemon, grapes, mulberries, melon (in season)
Beans: all dried beans, miso
Animal foods: anchovies, cultured dairy products such as yogurt and kefir, duck, goat cheese, raw cheese, eggs, organ meats, pork, shellfish, sardines
Traditional foods to nourish Kidney Jing:
microalgae, chlorella, blue-green algae, barley and wheat grass, fish, shellfish, liver, cod liver oil, kidneys, broth made from bones and marrow, almonds, raw milk and cheese, ghee, nettles, bee pollen, goji berries
For more information on the Kidneys (Yin, Yang, and Jing), please see my associated article.
Bliss, Nishanga. Real Food All Year: Eating Seasonal Whole Foods for Optimal Health and All-Day Energy. To be released by New Harbinger Press in Spring, 2012.
Liu Ming. “Nourishing Within” lecture series: 11/26/11 lecture.