If you’ve ever traveled to China, you may have noticed that turkey is not a food that is normally consumed.  Part of this is because the turkey is not native to the area.  But more importantly, the Chinese do not consume turkey because it is “too hot”.  Huh?  What does that even mean?

The answer to the question of why the turkey is considered “too hot” lies in thinking about food a little differently. Usually, we think of food through the lens of chemistry (looking at you fat free, dairy free, exclusionary “miracle” diets). Most often, when people talk about food, we talk about carbs, rather than grains, protein rather than meat, etc. This is very different from how food is discussed in the clinic and as seen through the lens of East Asian Medicine.

When talking about food in the clinic, we look at the two thermal aspects. First is the temperature at which the food or drink enters the body. This is pretty easy to recognize: hot cup of soup, cold glass of water, etc. The second, and harder to recognize, is the thermal effect of that food once the body has metabolized it. This is what is meant by the turkey being “too hot”.

It is also possible for a food to be too cold in a particular situation. For example, if a patient has a chronic cough with thick, sticky mucus, then certain foods should be avoided because they can exacerbate the problem.  Dairy products are a prime example.  Dairy is cold and may be “too cold” for digestion.  Ingesting dairy can cool off the digestive tract making it work even harder to reach a temperature that allows for sufficient metabolization.  This means that the body has to add warmth from other areas and systems to the digestive tract so that it can function properly.  So a person dealing with mucus and also consuming dairy, creates a system that is so cold that it can’t warm up efficiently enough to metabolize and expel the mucus.

Let’s take a soy product that, as it turns out, is a superfood: miso. It is a soy product that is considered a powerful digestive aid in Asian countries. Scientists have identified it as a major reason that the Japanese have one of the lowest breast cancer rates in the world. Miso, through a long fermentation process takes a highly cold and indigestible food — the soybean — and makes it highly digestible.

Here is another example of how the same food can change temperature depending on how it is processed. Green tea is moderately cooling, which is one reason it’s so refreshing in the summer, and Oolong tea is warming. Oolong is tea from the same plant as green tea, but green tea is raw or unprocessed. Oolong has undergone various levels of aging and fermentation and this processing, results in a “warmer” food, or a food that adds a moderate amount of warmth to the system, while green tea will result in a moderate cooling effect on the body.

Now back to our Thanksgiving turkey, which in Chinese literally is called Fire Chicken 火雞.  The question of whether or not turkey is good or bad, like almost any other food, likely revolves around the question of the frequency that you are eating that particular food and your constitution.  Remember that EAM follows the principle of Zhong Yong, a principle similar to the golden mean in Greek philosophy.  It basically means everything in moderation, including moderation itself.  Even foods at an extreme end of the hot / cold thermal spectrum, like the fire chicken, has their place if only consumed occasionally or as part of a yearly tradition. The key to the turkey lies into the wisdom of the harvest feast and tradition of the fiesta. These festivals, marked by ample food and drink and celebration, were often times to compensate for the days of hard work and more scanty food intake, a sort of rebalancing and storing to get ready for the upcoming cold, harsh winter season. Unfortunately, most modern digestive systems are already overloaded with too much nutrition, thus making Thanksgiving a meal of excess on top of excess.

In East Asian Medicine, when food has a warming, cooling or neutral attribute, it’s not about the temperature of the food itself, but more so about how it affects the body. It is basically like an invisible thermal property. Warming foods aid in supporting metabolism and cooling foods often have anti-inflammatory effects.  Here are some other examples of traditional Thanksgiving foods and how they can thermodynamically work in your body.

Turkey – Because turkeys are able to withstand cold, their meat is said to have a warming attribute. Turkey is said to be tonifying to the qi and blood and also strengthens yang energy.  From a western nutrition perspective, their meat is low in fat and very high in protein and also contains vitamin B3, B6, B12, niacin, choline and several other minerals such as zinc and selenium.
Yams / Sweet potatoes – Yams and sweet potatoes, from an EAM perspective, are very supportive to the digestive system. They are naturally easy to digest when baked, mashed or boiled. However, that changes a little bit when marshmallows and brown sugar are added to them.  From a western nutrition perspective, sweet potatoes are high in fiber, vitamin A and beta-carotene, which have antioxidant effects. Sweet potatoes contain both insoluble and soluble fiber, which is really beneficial to gut health. The soluble and insoluble fiber is fermented in the colon, creating short-chain fatty acids which help to keep the cells of your intestinal lining nice and strong.

Mushrooms –  Mushrooms have numerous health benefits. From an EAM perspective, they are beneficial to digestion and help to remove dampness or excess water accumulation from the body. However, many mushrooms species have also been used in EAM to promote health and longevity and some are even used to quell anxiety.  From a Western nutrition perspective, mushrooms are great sources of antioxidants, B vitamins, vitamin D, copper, phosphorous and selenium.

Green Beans – In East Asian Medicine, green beans are seen as beneficial for the digestive system. However, being green, they are also associated with Liver health. From a western nutrition perspective, green beans are high in fiber, vitamin C and K and contain small amounts of iron, magnesium and B vitamins.
Cranberries – Cranberries, being red in color are known to be beneficial to the Heart.  However, their tart and sour flavor also ties them to the Liver in East Asian Medicine. From a western nutrition perspective, cranberries are high in vitamin C and are rich sources of antioxidants, such as polyphenols. Interestingly enough, cranberries have been shown to improve heart health. Some research has suggested they can possibly help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

One question remains: if it’s okay to tank up on a good, building Thanksgiving meal once a year, how do we keep from over loading the digestive system the rest of the year?  A good rule of thumb is that you can eat as much as you want, as often as you want, as long as you put the right things in your body and only eat till you are 70% full every time.  Even at Thanksgiving, if you stick to this rule, you will be able to enjoy all your favorite holiday foods and not have that terrible food hangover.  Happy Thanksgiving Everybody!!

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