Food is medicine: How does eating locally and eating in season benefit our health?

Food is medicine: How does eating locally and eating in season benefit our health?

by Grace Ganel, L.Ac., Dipl.Ac.

The weather is beginning to heat up! What do you reach for when you need to cool down? An iced coffee? A wine spritzer? Ice cream? These foods may actually be exacerbating the problems you’re seeking to help. Read on to learn how eating locally and eating in season can benefit your health according to Chinese medicine. After all, food is medicine!


There’s a nifty theory of nutrition according to Chinese Medicine called Law of Signature whereby the nature of the foods we eat influences our bodies in specific ways. This law can be applied to offer nutritional guidance to clients based upon their signs and symptoms. For example, someone diagnosed with a deficiency of warmth (they might feel cold and tired much of the time, get head colds easily, and stiffness in the joints) might be instructed to eat warming foods. On the other hand, folks whose symptoms point to dryness stemming from heat or from lack of moisture may be instructed to eat foods which are cooling and moistening.

Here are some examples of ways that Law of Signature applies to foods:

The faster something grows, the cooler it is, and the slower it grows, the warmer it is (because it has more opportunity to absorb energy from the sun).

The faster a creature moves, the hotter it is, and the slower it moves the cooler it is (so lamb is a hot meat relative to mutton, for example).

Fermenting a food cools its nature, while pan-searing a food makes it hotter, and grilling it hotter still.

So coffee, even when served cold, is actually warming in nature by virtue of the way it is grown and prepared for consumption. Check out the fantastic infographic here if you’re curious about how coffee is made! From seeding to harvest, the coffee plant spends 26.5 months just growing and maturing to the point where the cherries can be harvested. Then the harvested coffee beans are dried (either in sunlight for 5-10 days at around 25ºC or in a silo at 50ºC for 24 hours). And all that comes before they’re roasted, which also cranks up the heat on these beloved beans.

As you can see, processing food changes its nature a lot. When we eat whole foods, we have a much better idea of the nature of the foods we consume.

Here are some ways the foods that are in season in Maryland and Virginia right now fit into Law of Signature! Since it’s early summer, it makes sense that many of the foods coming from the earth right now give us the medicine we need to combat heat. It's as though the earth provided us with all that we need right when we need it.

1) Lettuce

Lettuces are cooling because they grow quickly. I often advise folks who are very fatigued, especially those who are more tired after eating, to avoid eating salads. This is because of the cold nature of this food. On the other hand, folks who feel hot often, are always hungry, and have scanty sweat and urination may benefit a lot from eating lettuce to cool heat! (If these symptoms persist, you should see your doctor to check your thyroid). Heat can also contribute to a feeling of agitation, irritability, and even itching and insomnia. Of course, individual diagnosis is important.

2) Rhubarb

Rhubarb is cold in nature and it is used in Chinese medicine to balance intestinal concerns. Roasting rhubarb can help to combat the cold nature, but be careful not to add too much processed sugar!

3) Arugula

Arugula is neutral to cooling. It grows quickly, but its acrid flavor somewhat lessens that heat. I like to add a handful of arugula to a warm bowl of buckwheat groats and mushrooms for breakfast!

4) Mushrooms

Many mushrooms are cooling in Chinese medicine. They are often indicated in cases of anxiety, as well as for those with bright, heavy menstrual bleeding.

5) Peas

Fresh peas are neutral with regard to their thermal nature. They are a powerhouse for supporting Spleen qi. As many of my patients know, the Spleen is really important in Chinese medicine! As a channel, it encompasses the functions of the spleen and pancreas and is very important in the production of Blood and Qi according to Chinese medicine. There is even a school of Chinese medical thought that says imbalance of the Spleen is the heart of every illness. So dig into some stir-fried peas this week to give your Spleen some love!

The bottom line? Eat local, eat what’s in season, eat everything in moderation, and you’ll be well on your way to a cool and easy summer.

Want to know what your Chinese medicine diet is? Schedule your appointment today and be sure to let me know you’re looking for dietary recommendations. I’m happy to provide Chinese-medicine-informed diet plans and suggestions to my clients!