Staying Healthy by Eating in Balance with the Seasons

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) emphasizes the importance of eating very fresh, seasonal foods, which is another reason to appreciate our local Farmer’s Market. In TCM, balance is the key to maintaining optimum health and longevity, as well as living harmoniously in the world.

Chinese medical theory is guided by Taoist thought which teaches that the more in harmony we stay to the rhythms and cycles of nature, the healthier and more balanced we will be. The body is viewed as an extension of the natural world and strongest when in balance with it. This is a dynamic balance, as the seasons are continuously waxing and waning. In spite of our modern lifestyle, which insulates us to a great degree from nature, millions of years of evolution have linked our bodies to nature’s rhythms.

This concept of balance is most directly expressed in our choice of food. The Chinese dietary tradition is to eat foods which harmonize the body, helping it adapt to the demands of the season. Foods should be chosen to balance the body and strengthen it against disease, as well as for sustenance. Each of the organ systems has a season and corresponding flavor associated with it. In winter, the storage season, the flavor is bitter and the Kidneys and Bladder are emphasized. At this time of the year the body’s energy or “qi” (pronounced “chee”) is said to gather in the body’s core. It is the season when living creatures conserve energy and build strength in preparation for spring.

Strengthening, warming foods such as soups, root vegetables, nuts, small amounts of meat, and porridges are appropriate during winter. This is a good time to boost the constitution and alleviate symptoms associated with chronic conditions. Another very important consideration is to balance the type of food recommended for the season with your individual constitutional needs. For instance, if you have a “hot” constitution” you may be better off balancing seasonal eating with some cooling foods like (cooked) dark leafy vegetables. In general, TCM holds that cooked (but not greasy) foods are best for one’s digestive health and assimilation of nutrients, and this is especially true in cold seasons.

Following are examples of foods suited to the winter season, many of which can be found at the Farmer’s Market:

• eggs, lamb, beef, chicken
• sweet potatoes, potatoes
• nuts, seeds, chestnuts
• leeks, escarole, kale
• rosemary, garlic, cooked ginger
• mushrooms
• barley, millet and other grains
• wine, hops, vinegar, black tea

Here are a few modified traditional winter recipes for hearty winter soups. All should be served hot and no more than 1 ½ cups per person.

(Green) Turnip Soup*
This is a very simple Chinese soup said to cleanse toxins from the body. It is not considered to be too warming, but is neutral in character.

1 lb. turnips**
3 medium carrots
8 oz. locally grown pork neck bones or pork ribs cut into bite sized pieces
generous pinch pepper
pinch of sugar
finely sliced spring onion

Scrub, trim and peel the turnip. Cut the turnip lengthwise into quarters, then cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces. Trim the ends of the carrots and cut on the diagonal slice into ½ inch thick slices.

In a 2 1/2-quart saucepan, bring 2 quarts of water and the pork to a boil over high heat. Skim scum off, and add turnip and carrots, returning to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer 3 hours. If used neck bones, remove from soup. Add pepper, salt, sugar to taste, garnish with spring onion and serve hot.

*modified from “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen,” by Grace Young
**Chinese green turnips are traditionally used in this soup, but use what you can find

Lamb Stew*
This tonic stew is much more warming in nature and would not be appropriate for those with a hot constitution. In this case pork, which is neutral in temperature, could be substituted.

2 TB cooking oil
1 lb. lamb, cut into 1 ½ inc cubes
½ cup soy sauce
1 ½ teaspoons sugar
2 t. cooking wine
6 slices ginger
2TB chopped onion
8 cups water
¼ t. anise seed
½ cup potato, diced
2 carrots, cut into small pieces

Heat oil in wok or large soup pot. Add lamb, soy sauce, sugar and cooking wine, and stir-fry lamb for 5 minutes or until brown. Add 4 cups of water, ginger, onion, and anise and simmer covered on low heat for 1 ½ hours. Add carrot and potato (and more water if necessary) and simmer for 20 minutes more. Serve hot.

*from “The Healing Cuisine of China”, by Zhuo Zhao & George Ellis.

Walnut Soup*
This last recipe is eaten as a popular snack or dessert. Walnuts, looking like miniature brains, have long been believed by the Chinese to tonify the brain and to contribute to longevity. My Chinese professors at acupuncture school often urged us to eat more walnuts to combat the wear and tear on our brains from studying. Interestingly, researchers at Tufts University** have found that diets high in walnuts do reverse a number of parameters of brain aging in senior rats.

2 cups shelled walnuts
¼ cup rice flour
3 oz. turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring 1 quart water to high boil in large saucepan. Add walnuts, boil for 1 minute, drain well. Spread walnuts on foil or parchment lined cookie sheet and bake til golden and fragrant, about 15 minutes. Cool on rack.

Grind with ½ cup cold water in blender or food processor until nearly consistency of smooth paste. Add ½ more cup of cold water, scraping down sides and blend til almost smooth.

Wisk 1 cup water and rice flour in large saucepan til smooth, then wisk in walnut puree and 2 ½ cups more water. Heat over medium high heat, whisking constantly until it comes to a boil. Add turbinado sugar, reduce heat, and simmer 10 more minutes, whisking frequently. Add water if necessary; it should be about as thick as a light cream soup. Serve hot.

*from “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen,” by Grace Young


For more information on Chinese dietary therapy, Traditional Chinese Medicine or acupuncture, you can go to or

There are a number of really lovely books with wonderful recipes and information on Chinese dietary therapy, like “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, by Grace Young, and “A Spoonful of Ginger”, both of which are in the Oxford library collection.
“The Healing Cuisine of China” by Zhao and Ellis, “Chinese System of Food Cures” by Henry Lu, and “The Tao of Healthy Eating,” by Bob Flaws, are references on Chinese Dietary therapy, which focus more on food remedies.

You can reach Robin McLennan, writer of this article, with questions or comments She is a Licensed Acupuncturist, and received her Masters of Traditional Oriental Medicine (M.T.O.M.) degree from the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, New York NY, in 1997. She has practiced in New York City, Easton, PA, and currently in Oxford, Ohio. Robin is NCCAOM National Board Certified and holds licenses to practice acupuncture in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.