When considering the health benefits of the foods we eat in the West, we tend to think of them in terms of their nutritional value—the vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins and carbohydrates, but in other parts of the world, primarily China, India and the surrounding areas, the health benefits of food are categorized more by their energetic effects on the body and mind. It’s a simple but important distinction, yet these two viewpoints are not necessarily at odds with each other. In fact scientific studies into the nutritional value of foods often confirm ancient views of their energetic effects on the body.
For example, in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of medicine (one of the oldest on the planet dating back over nearly 7,000 years), ghee, which is clarified butter, is believed to be calming and relaxing in its energetic effects. Western nutritional analysis of ghee reveals it is one of the most concentrated sources of beneficial saturated fat known to man. Saturated fat, it has been shown, is an essential component of the myelin sheathing that coats nerve endings. If this myelin sheathing is thin or of low quality (due to consuming refined, low quality foods and fats, or having a deficiency of saturated fat in your diet), it causes over-stimulation of nerve endings, which has been shown to cause anxiety and agitation. Consequently, when we have abundant sources of high quality saturated fats like ghee or coconut oil in our diet, this myelin sheathing is strengthened and we are calmer as a result.
The point of and benefit to understanding food energetics is to develop a more holistic perspective on our own health. There is a danger in focusing solely on nutritional properties of food when considering its effects on our health, and that has to do with ignoring the energetic properties of food. For example, in the West, fruits are considered to be extraordinarily healthy pending they are fresh, grown organically, are non-GMO and produced without the use of chemicals and pesticides. They have many great nutritional qualities like being high in fiber, rich in water, minerals, and B-vitamins, and are also full of antioxidants and many substances that have been show to fight cancer, improve mood and energy, and generally support overall health and wellness. Sounds like a great idea to eat them all the time, right? Well, not so much when you understand food energetics. Here’s why: in Traditional Chinese Medicine, for example, sweet, cold, raw foods like fruits are known to create dampness in the body and contain some degree of mold, which isn’t a problem when eaten in moderation. However, when eating too much fruit, it can become an issue. Dampness is just what it sounds like: swampy, musty, cold, wet… what you would experience on a foggy day just after a rain. Overeating fruits causes dampness to form in the intestines, and dampness in the intestines eventually causes chronic diseases to form like candida, a fungal infection that thrives in damp, moldy environments and can be hard to get rid of. Candida causes a number of unpleasant symptoms from rashes to brain fog, to chronic fatigue, allergies to food, lethargy and more.
As you can see, when considering the Western nutritional value of a food, fruits seem awesome! By that logic, you can’t go wrong eating fruit all day. However, when we integrate the energetic perspective on fruit, it becomes clear that you don’t want to overdo it. When we view food in terms of its energetic properties, we begin to understand a key principle in creating radiant, lifelong health, which is balance. So long as a food is natural, unprocessed, non-GMO, fresh and grown without chemicals it is inherently healthy in terms of its energetics—so long as it is eaten in moderation and in balance in relation to the energetics of the rest of the foods in your diet as well as your personal constitution, which we’ll get into shortly. What is important when considering food energetics is that you maintain balance across the different types of food energies that can be present in your diet.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, for example, there are many different ways we can categorize the energetics of a particular food, a few of which are as follows:
Yin foods are cold, wet, sweeter, contain more water and less protein. Common yin foods are fruits, beans, milk products like unsalted butter, ice cream, fresh cream, vegetables that grow above ground and/or that tend to be sweeter or more watery, many nuts and seeds, and blatantly sugar-rich products like honey and other sweeteners. Processed foods tend to be very yin as well, but in a detrimental, unbalancing way. Essentially the more sweet, watery, cold, light and airy a food is, the more yin it is.
Yin foods tend to be calming, expansive and cooling in their effects on the body.
Yang foods are basically the opposite of yin foods. Yang foods are warm, salty, dry and dense, and include most meats, most whole grains, root vegetables, salted butter, hard and/or salty cheeses or milk products, many spices, sauces and broths, and seaweeds. Cooking or heating food makes it more yang in its effects. Essentially the more salty, dense, spicy and warm a food is, the more Yang it is.
Yang foods tend to be stimulating/energizing, contractive and warming in their effects on the body.
Here’s a simple graphic that illustrates this principle:
Taste and Flavor
Each food also has a specific taste or flavor which produces different energetic effects on the mind and body as well.
Sour: Sour foods affect, stimulate, and balance the liver and gallbladder. They produce yin effects on the body and mind. Sour-tasting foods can be moistening or drying depending on other energetic factors in the body. They help with digestion and can be calming, as well as astringent and contractive. Sour foods can also help the body process fatty foods.
Examples are: vinegar and acidic fruit, such as tomato, orange, and kiwi.
Bitter: Bitter foods affect, stimulate and balances the heart and small intestine, producing yin effects on the body and mind. Bitter foods help fight dampness in the body and are often used to treat things like yeast infections, parasites, skin problems and other conditions that arise from dampness. They are drying and contractive and tend to stimulate digestion and detoxification.
Examples are: dark leafy greens, herbs.
Sweet: These foods affect, stimulate, and balance the the spleen/pancreas and stomach, producing yin effects in the body and mind. Sweet foods are moistening and calming and will slow an overactive heart and mind, though they can cause lethargy and brain fog if eaten to excess.
Examples are: rice, wheat, sugar, and root vegetables.
Spicy (Pungent): Spicy foods affect, stimulate, and balance the the lungs and large intestine. They produce yang effects in the body and mind. Their qualities are stimulating and activating, sometimes causing sweating and detoxification. While they promote circulation and clears stagnation, they can be overstimulating when eaten in excess. Spicy foods are also warming in the body, which helps relieve dampness and improve digestion.
Examples are: onion, ginger, garlic, and peppers.
Salty: Salty foods affect, stimulate, and balance the the kidneys and bladder. They generally produce yang effects in the body and mind although if you are dehydrated, can also produce some yin effects as well. These foods are drying and energizing while simultaneously being calming. They serve to replenish deficiency of minerals and electrolytes and also stimulate appetite and digestion. They have rebuilding qualities and strengthen the kidneys.
Examples are: salt, olives, some meats.
Balancing Yin and Yang: As you can see, each food has yin or yang effects as well as a flavor that confers additional effects in the body and mind. Eating too much of any one type, taste or category (yin/yang) of food can cause an imbalance in your health and energetics. In Chinese culture, for example, where much of this knowledge originated, in most dishes and recipes they strive to include all five flavors and foods that are both yin and yang. This way, the body naturally stays in balance on an energetic level throughout the day and health is maintained effortlessly.
Your Personal Constitution and Food Energetics
Although understanding basic food energetics is fundamental for creating radiant, lifelong health, the rabbit hole goes quite a bit deeper than that when it comes to food energetics. In addition to each food having its own unique energetic properties and constitution, your body does as well. In Ayurveda, this is called your doshic makeup (or prikriti/vrikriti) and in Chinese Medicine each person is believed to have an elemental type: water, wood, metal, earth and fire. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll focus in on the Ayurvedic doshas here, although do know that there is quite a bit of overlap between these two systems.
Vata: Vata types tend to be skinny, sometimes tall as well. They have quick minds and fast metabolisms and tend to embody the elements of air and ether. Vata types need a lot of oils in their diet, which are grounding and calming and help to balance out their racing heart and mind tendencies. An overly light diet of salads and fruits can make Vata types overly anxious or agitated, which they have a tendency to become anyway. Protein can also be important for Vata types to maintain their high nutrient needs due to their active metabolisms. Vata types shouldn’t skip meals—except during short fasts—as this tends to add more ‘air’ (the lack of food creates more space or air) energetically, which causes them to become ungrounded.
Pitta: Pitta types tend to be of a medium build and have a lot of fiery energy. They tend to have sharp minds and be confident, energetic and assertive. The skinnier a Pitta type is, the more fiery they will be and the bigger/heavier their build, the more watery/earthy they will be on an energetic level, meaning more grounded, paced and methodical. Pitta types do well on a balanced diet with a slight preference toward yin foods, which cool and balance out their fiery nature. Generally avoiding spicy/pungent/hot foods keeps them in balance. Protein can be important for Pitta types to fuel their burning ‘fire’. Heavier Pitta builds may want to incorporate elements of the Kapha diet to keep them in balance as well.
Kapha: Kapha types tend to be of a heavier build and have a slower, more methodical and balanced demeanor and body/mind. Not to be confused with being dumber, Kapha types are equally as intelligent as Pitta and Vata, however, the their thinking tends to be more paced and intentional. Kapha types embody the heavier water and earth elements. They move slower, have slower digestion and metabolism, and bigger bodies. As such, they do much better with spicy/pungent/hot foods, which stimulate their often-sluggish digestion. They should avoid too much fruit or sweet foods, which can aggravate the already heavier, damper water/earth elements they embody and cause lethargy. A balanced diet with a focus on more yang foods, vegetables and grains can be beneficial for Kapha types.
It is also important to note that no one embodies only one dosha. Everyone has a dominant doshic type and a subdominant type. In rarer cases someone might have a perfect balance between two doshas and in even rarer cases be perfectly tridoshic. We all have elements of all three doshas in our constitution, however, as a general rule of thumb, whichever dosha or doshas are most strongly dominant will determine what our bodies most need on an energetic level.
Eating for Your Constitutional Type
Depending on your doshic makeup, you will want to adjust your diet accordingly. For example, Pitta types should place a slightly greater emphasis on yin foods generally speaking as the cooling effect they have on the body will balance out their fiery nature. Vata types need to strive for balance between yin and yang foods and Kapha types generally do better with slightly more yang foods in their diet.
Energetic needs also change greatly with the seasons and climates. In the summer, the body will naturally crave more yin, cooling, sweet foods to help dissipate the heat in the environment and keep the body in balance, no matter what your doshic makeup. In the winter, on the other hand, yang, warm foods will generally be craved to balance out the colder temperatures. In warm, tropical climates, there grows an abundance of fruit (yin) because that is what the body does best on, and in colder climates, there tends to be mainly root vegetables and meat (yang), which is what the body needs to thrive there.
As you learn the energetic properties of the foods you eat and begin to tune into that level of awareness in your body, you will begin to sense when you are getting out of balance and need to eat certain foods to bring yourself back into homeostasis. For example, have you ever noticed that after eating really salty foods that you crave something sweet or vice versa? This is your body seeking to maintain energetic balance within your system. In fact, we are always getting signals like this, but it requires us to develop a more intimate connection with our bodies to tune into the oftentimes subtle intuitions and signals they are sending telling us exactly what we need to thrive and what we should be eating next to stay in balance and good health. If you start to pay attention to these signals regularly, over time it becomes quite easy to maintain energetic balance within your body and mind, which always leads to greater health, happiness, harmony and flow.
Here’s an exercise to get you started on the journey of becoming more aware of the connection between your body, mind and the energetics of the food you eat, and what you need to eat to harmonize all three:
Exercise: Sensing the Energetics of Food
Typically when we eat a meal, we eat multiple foods and ingredients at once. This is not necessarily a problem, but when learning to sense the energetics of food and how they affect your body, it can make it difficult to discern what’s what—that is, which ingredient is having which effect on your state of mind and health.
To begin developing or refining your energetic sensitivity, try the following:
About 20-30 minutes before eating your next meal, take just one ingredient you are planning on using and eat it by itself. For example, have a piece of fruit, a handful of almonds, a few bites of whatever vegetable you are making, or dip your fingertip in a spice you plan on using and taste it. Within about 5-15 minutes, you should notice a shift in your body, mind and energetics after eating just this single food by itself. Sometimes it happens instantly, sometimes it takes a bit longer. The point is, you want to begin eating foods by themselves without the contaminating effects of anything else for a little while before and after eating it.
Doing this allows you to get a clear read on how that one food is affecting you on a mental, emotional, physical and energetic level. Does the food make you feel energized or calm? Does it warm you up or cool you down? How do you feel after you eat it? Better or worse or neutral? All of this is energetic data about how this food affects your constitution and health. Obviously, whatever makes you feel good and/or brings you back into balance if you are feeling over- or under-stimulated is ideal.
Also notice how you feel after you eat your meal. Are you craving something sweet afterwards? Your meal may have been overly salty and yang, and your body is now craving something sweet and yin to balance it out. Or vice versa. Many people eat very sweet breakfasts in the West and then you might find yourself craving a salty, yang snack shortly thereafter.
Your body is constantly giving you data about what you are eating and that data comes in the form of food cravings, intuitions, feelings, sensations, states of mind, and other subtle or overt ways your body shifts in relation to what you are eating. By paying attention to these signals and using the food energetics guidelines outlined in this article, you can get a quick sense of how something is affecting you energetically and what you need to shift to maintain balance—because at the end of the day, balance equals health.