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Have you ever wondered why most raw food retreats are in sunny, tropical locations? Or why we crave a bowl of hot oatmeal on a brisk morning instead of fresh fruit? When it is wintry outside, our bodies gravitate toward foods that are naturally warming.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), warming foods are foundational during winter. This is because the body is seen as a microcosm of the natural world, which changes with the seasons. Chinese dietary tradition focuses on eating foods that harmonize with the seasons. This can be accomplished naturally by eating more local foods.

“Nature provides the foods that keep our bodies in balance at certain times of the year,” said Elson Haas, M.D., author of Staying Healthy with the Seasons. “When it’s cool out, we need to add more fuel to the furnace.” You may notice this in your four-legged companion’s hunger, as they become ravenous in the wintertime. It is natural to have a stronger appetite and crave heavier foods this time of year. Traditionally people gain a few pounds in the winter only to notice them melt off in the warmer months.

In the Pacific Northwest, the winter weather is cold and wet. Cold is yin in Chinese Medicine. Yin is considered to be expanding, upward energy and needs the contracting energy of yang for balance. Heat is yang and is the contracting,  downward energy. There are many warming foods and warming cooking methods you can use to get enough yang  to balance the yin weather.

Animals in the wild naturally live in harmony with this cycle. They eat what is available and this signals their body to respond to the environment. As they eat a diet of seasonal foods, they keep warm in winter and cool in summer. Since our grocery stores have foods from far reaches of the globe available at our fingertips, we need to be more conscious about choosing warming foods if we want to stay warm up from the inside out during cold weather months.

This winter, experiment with the following guidelines to stoke your internal fire.

Focus on cooked winter squashes and root vegetables, such as burdock, beets, carrots and parsnips. The downward contractive energy of foods like these, which are grown under the soil, makes them ideal warming foods. These are foods that are typically harvested in the fall and stored for  the winter.

Store up energy by enjoying strengthening, warming foods like long cooked soups and stews. Start your day with a whole grain warm cereal or porridge. Branch out and try brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth or millet, to name a few.

Utilize warming spices such as cayenne, black pepper, ginger, cumin, garlic, and coriander. These spices will add zip to your everyday foods and increase circulation and warmth within your body.

Limit the consumption of iced beverages. These are too yin and cold for winter weather. Instead drink hot or room temperature fluids.

Limit yin foods like bananas. These increase cold in our body and therefore can increase chances of getting a cold.

Just as some foods that are in-season in the winter will warm your body, so will different cooking methods. Braising on the stovetop or in the oven with a flavorful liquid is a perfect example. This tenderizes meat and vegetables and infuses them with flavor, and can make even tough, less expensive cuts of meat tender. You can also simmer foods with low heat. The longer you cook food the more of a warming effect it will have on your body.

Another method is to roast vegetables in the oven with butter and salt until golden and crispy around the edges. This is a delicious way to turn an ordinary vegetable, extraordinary. Or use a pressure cooker or crock-pot. Imagine putting a chicken plus a bunch of root vegetables into the crock-pot in the morning to return home at night with dinner hot and ready. Cooking food with these methods nourishes our body on a very deep level while helping our body to build heat. An added bonus is that these long-term cooking methods also make the food easier to digest.

It is easy to get chilled and catch a cold during these frosty months. Take care this winter to stay warm by focusing on eating foods that warm and nourish to keep you toasty from the inside out.

" ...the body is seen as a microcosm of the natural world, which changes with the seasons."