Soup or Salad: it really depends on the season! Let’s talk about why…..

Soup and salad are the quintessential American lunch staples. There are so many varieties and options that you can eat them every day and not get bored. They are both quick and easy to transport and prepare at work. No wonder we love them so! The issue in Oriental Medicine regarding which one to choose and when, is a matter of understanding how our digestion functions, the properties of different foods and how they affect us when we eat them. Season is a HUGE determiner in temperate regions – like here in Wisconsin and the Midwest (anywhere that experiences shifts in barometric/moisture levels and outside temperature).


Let’s start with the basics of digestion according to Oriental Medicine.

The Ancient Chinese described the digestive/metabolic process as being like a cooking pot over liver daigrama fire. There are three levels (Jiao) to this process. The “fire”, or lower jiao, resides in the lower abdomen/belly. It is the strength of digestion, the ability to process and assimilate food products into ourselves. The “cookpot”, or middle jiao, is the Stomach (and Spleen). This area is the middle of the abdomen – what a child would point to if you asked them where their stomach is. This functions to receive, process and break down foods for the body’s use. Like a good cookpot it should be at a gentle simmer for best results. The “steam”, or upper jiao, resides in the chest. It is the body’s ability to utilize the absorbed and purified substances from food and beverages. The oxygen we take in through our lungs is a part of this utilization process as well.

When the fire is strong and proper, the pot stays at the right temperature to efficiently process food intake. If we put too cold foods into the pot, the simmer stops until it can be reestablished by the fire. During cold and/or damp weather the fire is challenged to stay burning properly, so cold foods and drinks have a longer effect on the digestive efficiency. When the pot is cooking sluggishly, foods take longer to digest, things tend to get “sticky” and the derived substances sent out to the body are less pure and useful overall. This can cause a number of symptoms, such as phlegm in the chest or sinuses, chronic cough, foggy headedness, bloating, diarrhea, discharges, cloudy urine, cysts, lumps, even skin rashes. (Yes, there’s such a thing as the fire being too hot and things cooking too quickly – that’s a subject for another day.)

Food properties in Oriental Medicine and how they affect digestion/health

All foods have temperature in Oriental Medicine. That encompasses two qualities – the actual temperature (in degrees) of the food we eat, and the temperature “nature” of the food.

Cooked foods served warm/hot are usually easier for the digestion to process. Parts of the cell walls of plants breaks down in cooking, allowing the body to more easily access nutrients locked inside. Raw or cold foods “cool down” the digestive process. This may not result in a nutrient deficiency, but over time will tax the system to the point where it stops being efficient. In the Oriental Medicine mind this accounts for the eventual difficulty that many people encounter with weight management and digestive balance after years of repeated yo-yo dieting.

Foods also have a “nature” in Oriental Medicine. This speaks of their general effect on the system in terms of being warm and activating or cool and calming. Some great warming foods to include during cold weather are: bell pepper, green bean, kale, leek, mustard greens, onion, parsnip, garlic, cherry, coconut, papaya, grape raspberry, oats, wheat bran and germ, black bean, lentil, pine nut, walnut, beef, chicken, freshwater fish, turkey, basil, cardamom, garlic, black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and anise seed. They can be added to meals that might be a little cool to help “raise the temp” a bit. Most vegetables have a slightly cool nature, so in cold weather they are best eaten cooked and warm (like in a delicious bowl of soup).

In general, salad greens are pretty cooling to the body, as are a lot of salad vegies (cucumber, sprouts, radish, carrot, etc.) If you must have a salad in cold weather it’s best to offset the cold nature on you digestion by doing one of the following:

  • Have a warm bit of protein (chicken, steak) on the salad
  • Add a spicy dressing with ginger, garlic or plenty of black pepper or chilis
  • Chew thoroughly to warm the food before swallowing
  • Pair it with some hot soup or a warm sandwich

In general, it’s best to try to remember to keep the cookpot simmering along during the cold months and save the cooling treats for the summer months, when your body will really appreciate them.