Oriental medicine (OM) emphasises that we should eat according to the season to stay healthy.
Summer is the season of maximum Yang (expansive, warming, vibrant energy). These days, we often see it as a time to kick back and relax, but it’s worth remembering that in ancient times, especially in an agrarian culture, summer would have been a physically demanding time of year. So diet would have been very important.
So what sort of food should we eat to help cool ourselves down when the mercury starts climbing? Have you ever noticed that when you devour an ice cream, it feels cooling at the time but you actually feel hotter soon afterwards? This is an example of the body trying to restore equilibrium. You put something very cold in your system and the body will try to warm itself up again to counteract this, and will often overshoot.
Oriental medicine (OM) takes a subtler approach. One of the first principles is to eat lighter meals than you would in winter or autumn, as heavy meals are taxing on the digestion and can make you feel sluggish.
Flavour is very important in OM dietetics, with five main flavours identified – salty, sweet, sour, pungent (acrid, spicy), and bitter. Each of these flavours has different energetic properties and has a different action in the body when consumed. The bitter flavour is thought to be cooling. So during summer, it’s a good idea to incorporate some foods with a slightly bitter flavour. Some of the examples recommended in ancient texts are a little hard to come across in the modern supermarket, but equivalents include green leafy vegetables such as kale, Chinese greens, raddichio, and rocket; sprouts; vinegar; and raw cacao. Bitter drinks would include green tea, dandelion tea, and tonic water. The key here is moderation – you would not include all of these at every meal, but just use some of them in small amounts, according to the temperature and how much you feel the heat.
From a broader health perspective, many of these bitter foods are packed with beneficial nutrients such as antioxidants. The bitter taste also helps stimulate the production of gastric acid and bile, and therefore helps digestion. Interestingly, modern Western culture tends to instead favour the sweet taste, overconsumption of which can tax our digestive systems and, in the long term, lead to diabetes and obesity.
Spicy foods can also be cooling when eaten in moderation. Think fresh ginger, chilli, capsicum, horseradish and black pepper, as seasoning or in curries. These spices help dissipate heat by bringing it out to the surface. But again – moderation – as if eaten in excess, they can dissipate too much energy, leaving you susceptible to illness in cooler weather.
Other foods seen to have an intrinsically cooling effect in OM are cucumber, tomatoes, celery; and many fruits, including apples, watermelon, lemons and limes. But don’t overdose on these either, especially if you have weak digestion (tendency to bloating or loose stools).
So, as you can see, OM has many dietary strategies to help you keep cool this summer, without reaching for the ice-cream.