by Erin Alberda, LAc
We can’t get very far in talking about Traditional Chinese Medicine without delving into the theory of Yin and Yang. It provides not only the foundation of our medicine as acupuncturists, but also a beautiful insight into Taoist philosophies and Chinese cultural history.
So how do I summarize and distill millennia of tradition that intertwines medicine, philosophy, and history? Through food, of course!
Yin and Yang represent balance in our world, and within ourselves. The Yin aspect is characterized by stillness and coolness, moisture and descent. The Yang aspect is characterized by movement and heat, fire and ascent. These two aspects have a dependence on one another – the cooling yin nature prevents the active fiery yang from blazing out of control, and the activity of yang prevents stagnancy. These two aspects also transform into one another, like the movement of a river that becomes the stillness of a lake. My nerdy physics side likens Yin to potential energy, while Yang is kinetic energy – the yin vase that is set precariously on the shelf has potential energy – the yang vase that then falls has kinetic energy.
The food we eat can also be categorized into “yin” or “yang” – yin foods being those that are cool, provide moisture, or even those that promote stagnation, and yang foods being those that promote heat and movement. Of course the balanced diet incorporates both yin and yang foods. So where do fats fit in?
Fats are typically categorized as a “yin” food: their heavy and calorie dense nature can be deeply nourishing (eg, they have a great deal of potential energy). However, that same calorie dense nature can act as gasoline on a fire – thereby promoting “yang”. In addition, fats are often classified as “fa wu” – a specific category of foods in Chinese medicine that promote disease rather than prevent it. So what’s the bottom line – yin, yang or fa wu?
There has been an emerging discussion on healthy fats, versus unhealthy. A healthy fat in Chinese Medicine is one that promotes a healthy “yin” aspect – typically plant or seafood based – think avocado, flax or chia, or oily fish such as salmon or mackerel. These types of fats are believed to promote healthy blood and balanced moisture in the body, without bogging it down too much. An “unhealthy” fat is one that rather than promoting moisture, promotes heat – and while a little heat is a good thing, too much winds up in inflammatory conditions. For this reason, animal fats/meat and processed/hydrogenated oils are only to be consumed sparingly, and not at all if you are dealing with a health condition.