In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), every season is associated with not only an element, an organ, and an emotion, but also a flavor. Fall is associated with the lungs and the pungent flavor, and should be balanced with sour foods. Fall—and winter—is also a dry season, with lots of wind. You may notice your throat and nose feeling extremely dry to the point of painfulness as the weather gets colder. A humidifier can be a good option to help you with dryness during the night, but to target the issue holistically, you should consider acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, as these practices will get to the root of your condition, rather than just treating the symptoms. Something else you can do: eat warming foods that promote moistening of the internal organs, and nourish the lungs. Check out a few of the foods I love to eat in the fall, all of which can help you stay in balance with the season and keep you healthy and vibrant.
Apples: You may be tired of the apple-fall connection. And I get it. They’re so quintessential, cliched fall they’re almost at the level of pumpkin spice latte. But there’s a reason they’re on this list, aside from the fact that they are in season and quite abundant right now: apples contain flavonoids, including quercetin, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They also contain pectin, a soluble fiber that helps lower LDL cholesterol and may have a role in promoting healthy bacteria in the gut. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, studies show that apples can reduce cholesterol and protect against free radical damage in the heart and blood vessels. In addition, because apples are so fiber-rich with a low glycemic load, they take longer for the body to digest and may keep you satisfied longer. In TCM, apples are one of the foods that help generate fluid and moisten the lungs, supporting your yin and fighting against the dryness and wind of the colder months.
The best way to get all the health benefits of apples is to eat whole, fresh apples, including the skin, as the skin is where many of the flavonoids reside. Fresh or home-cooked is also preferable to dried since drying apples leeches them of much of their Vitamin C. Try sliced apple and nut butter as a wholesome snack; or chop them up into your morning oatmeal; or make a skin-on apple sauce dessert! Also, check out new, delicious varieties that may be available at your local farmer’s market, co-op, or via services like Misfits Market, Imperfect Foods, or Local Roots: Snap Dragon, Paula Red, Macoun, and Fortune are just a few of the delicious, tart, fall varietals!
Asparagus: In TCM, asparagus is a lung-nourishing food and it also helps to tonify the yin and clear the body of heat, one of the causes of excess dryness. On top of all that, asparagus is incredibly nutrient-dense—boasting impressive levels of Vitamins A, B, C, E, and K, magnesium, calcium, zinc, and dietary fiber—but low calorie—at only 20 calories for 1/2 cup cooked. Asparagus also contains inulin, which, registered dietitian nutritionist Liv Lee writing for Savor Health explains is a “type of prebiotic carbohydrate that provides nourishment for the healthy bacteria in our colons and, as such, is associated with better nutrient absorption (a healthy gut absorbs best!) and reduced risk of colon cancer.” How to prepare asparagus? Of course you can steam it and serve with a mustard vinaigrette–a classic preparation–or roast them in the oven; you can also eat them raw, shaving them thinly and making a fresh salad–on the side of your warm main dish, of course.
Walnuts: Like many of the other foods on this list, walnuts have been shown to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, Walnuts are high in fat, as are all nuts, so it’s wise to be careful when grabbing a handful for a snack or as a garnish, but their fatty oils are actually part of what make them so healthy: walnuts contain polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are much healthier than saturated fats and triglycerides, and may also support cardiovascular health. They also contain alpha-linoleic and linoleic acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. Walnuts are also a “warm” food in Chinese healing tradition, so eating nuts when it’s cold can help boost your qi. They benefit your spleen, kidney and blood, and they also nourish your lungs—especially important during the fall lung season! They are delicious when topping your morning oats, or as a garnish on a warm, roasted vegetable salad.
Sweet Potato: Sweet potatoes are another of those quintessential fall foods. And with good reason: they’re packed with nutrients—beta carotene gives them their signature color, manganese helps metabolize carbohydrates, potassium, Vitamins E, C and B6—and although they are sweet, they have a low glycemic index and are full of fiber (especially in the skin), which means they break down slowly in the body and therefore regulate blood sugar. From a TCM perspective, sweet potatoes benefit the stomach, spleen, large intestine, and kidney, aiding in digestion and detoxification. The best thing about sweet potatoes is their versatility! I love to cut them into thick spears, toss them in lots of warming spices like cinnamon, ginger and chili, and roast them; but sometimes a whole, steaming, baked sweet potato can be just the ticket on a chilly fall night.
Pears: Pears are a favorite food in TCM for the fall as they nourish the lungs—and the intestine—by clearing heat inside the body, moistening dryness, generating fluids and transforming phlegm. They are especially good to eat when you have a dry cough or constipation. Pears are also rich in potassium, fiber, Vitamin C, and Vitamin K. And like apples, red-skinned pears contain flavonols, anthocyanins, and carotenoids, powerful antioxidants. I love pears because they can be used in both sweet and savory dishes: use them to complement a roast chicken, or sautée them and slice them into your warm quinoa bowl. Check out this amazing roasted pear and honey recipe for a warm, sweet dessert on a damp autumn night.
Fermented Foods: Yogurt, miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, sourdough. It takes a certain palate to enjoy fermented foods. And you don’t have to like all of them. But incorporating a few of these into your diet everyday can greatly improve digestion and gut health, as well as prevent infection in the lungs, and balance the pungent flavor of fall. How does fermentation work and why is it so good for you? It’s slightly different for each fermented food, but in general, natural bacteria feed on the sugar present in the food and create lactic acid. This process then creates helpful enzyme and probiotics, all of which help us digest our food more easily. It’s almost as though the bacteria is digesting the hard-to-digest elements of the food for us first. While I know that’s not necessarily the most appealing idea, it does result in some delicious treats! Mix in some yogurt into your oatmeal; toast some sourdough and spread it with jam (or garlic and honey); or add some kimchi to your delicious brown rice bowl. Your gut will thank you!
Garlic: You’ll know if you’ve read my article on garlic that this bulb is an immune-boosting wonder. If you feel the beginnings of a cold, start yourself on a garlic regimen: Slicing it into your sautéed vegetables, juicing it, or, for the hardcore out there, mincing it up with honey and spreading it on some wholegrain or sourdough toast. In TCM, garlic supports the spleen, the organ that supplies energy to your other organs and also maintains your qi. And a strong qi is how you fight off those pesky external pathogens (cold and flu). But even if garlic weren’t so good for you, I’d still recommend it for its incredible culinary value! It enhances and deepens pretty much any flavor combination. One of my favorite preparation method is sticking a few whole bulbs or half-bulbs into the oven with a variety of vegetables, and then roasting. The garlic will come out jammy, sweet and almost nutty. You can serve just like that, alongside the vegetables, or puree it all up into a roasted vegetable soup. Delicious either way!