Traditional Chinese Medicine Nutrition Guide to Eating with the Season (Winter)

Written by on December 21, 2007 in Features, Health

Food—What Difference Does It Make?

People can easily accept to what degree the things they consume (plants, animals, chemicals) affect their mind/body when the effects are very strong and immediate: plants such as Cannabis (marijuana), coffee beans, and mushrooms of a particularly lively variety, are a few examples.

However, people generally don’t understand how much foods can affect their systems when the effects are slower and more subtle in manifesting. This is for several reasons: simply unaware, unfamiliar with or having a dislike of nutrient-rich foods, or having a desire to continue eating foods that are counter to health. Nevertheless, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) food therapy principles, every single food item has an energetic property–warming, cooling, dispersing, etc.–that affects the body as a whole and can also enter and more strongly affect particular organ systems, creating great change over the medium- and long-term.

The Seasons—How Do They Affect Us?

Once again, human beings can easily accept how greatly the change of seasons affects the natural world. We all know that many trees lose their leaves in autumn and go dormant in winter, that many animals slow their activity or hibernate in winter, and that spring is a popular time for courtship in the animal kingdom. We humans, though, being so detached in our modern life from the lifecycles of nature, are quite unaware of the great impact the change of seasons has on our bodies.

The human body and its response to the seasons can be compared with great similarity to a tree. In springtime, the energy begins to move up the trunk and can be seen in its fullest extension in summer, with thick foliage and branches laden with fruit.

As the energy begins to retreat and descend in autumn, the fruit and leaves fall. In winter, the tree’s energy is in its greatest state of contraction deep in the roots. Thus, the energy of winter is storage. According to TCM, human beings also store energy in their roots in the winter, our roots being the kidneys.

Foods and activities that trash your energy (we know what they are and usually engage in lots of them during the holidays) are particularly damaging to energy reserves in wintertime. Winter is the time for retreat, reflection, and protecting energy reserves. So how do we accomplish that?

What To Eat In Winter

Again, if we tune into nature, it will guide us to what is best. The sun rises late and sets early. There is less natural light and it’s colder, so we stay indoors more, rest, and nourish our bodies. Fruits are not abundant in winter, so that’s the Earth’s way of telling us, “these aren’t the most appropriate foods to eat in great quantities now.” Continuing to eat foods with a “cold” energy (salads, raw foods, frozen or iced drinks) will tax the immune system as it works overtime to warm the body. A few results of too much cold in the body are dread of cold, joint aches and pains, cold and sore lower back, and frequent colds and flu. Foods that are too spicy (chilies and curries) that make us experience “warmth” induce sweating and actually release heat from the body and aren’t recommended in winter, either.

So what to eat? Warming foods that strengthen the kidneys, blood, and chi (energy) are on the menu now! Include plenty of protein—again, look to what our ancestors ate, living with the cycles of nature. Fresh fruits and vegetables wouldn’t have been available in great abundance, so dried grains, beans, and meat that could be stored through winter would be eaten.

What protein source and how much? The recommendation is to eat more now—not to eat exorbitant amounts of protein. It simply means that for the average amount you consume during the year, this is the season to eat proportionally more, and during other seasons reduce the amount of protein. Further on the subject, if we look to the traditional Chinese cuisine, enormous slabs of beef were never a part of the meal. Keeping those ideas in mind, your source of protein and the quantity are for you to determine. Of the animal sources, beef and lamb are high on the list, with chicken, turkey and salmon also recommended.

Root vegetables and leafy greens, aduki and black beans, buckwheat, oats, quinoa, winter squash, pumpkin, and walnuts are foods high on the list. Fruits that are eaten can be cooked with warming spices such as cinnamon or cardamom. Prepare foods with warming herbs and spices such as garlic, onions, ginger, cumin, parsley, and basil. Salty foods have an inward energy (which supports storage in the kidneys), so a little sea salt, kelp, and sea vegetables are recommended in winter. The salty flavor moistens and detoxifies the body, and in small quantities improves the quality of the blood. In excess, however, it can stress the heart and overwork the kidneys.

Vegetarians should use special caution in their diet at this time. Eat more protein, cooked foods, and add warming spices and herbs to the menu. Fruit juice, raw salads, soymilk, and tofu are best avoided at this time of year.

What To Eat In Spring…

Come March, our energy will begin moving up and the organ to which we turn our focus is the liver. Foods that have an “upward” energy and that support the liver are recommended. “What are those?” you ask. Look for your spring issue of The Holistic Networker and the next article in our “Eating with the Season” series to find out!

These are general guidelines for people in a state of balance and good health. Though season is considered, when there is any disharmony, a person’s individual constitution and current state take precedence over time of year when making food recommendations.

Allison Ellis is a Certified TCM Nutritionist and can be reached at


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