The terms yin and yang refer to the oriental philosophical system in which everything in the Universe is considered to be a dynamic relationship between yin and yang attributes, which complement each other as part of the whole. George Ohsawa, the father of Macrobiotics [an age-old Japanese form of healing] called it the unifying principle because it explains the unity and diversity of all things. All of life has this dual nature, a principle of balance, harmony and change.
Yang attributes are contractive or centripetal, hot, dense, heavy, flat and low. Yin attributes are expansive or centrifugal, cold, dilated, light, vertical and thin. Foods and people can be categorised according to the balance of these attributes. Men are said to be yang and women are said to be yin, although each has attributes of both—that is to say everything in nature is yin-yang but the proportions differ.
Know the yin from the yang
The following foods are listed in relative order from yin to yang: chemical additives, [the most yin], processed foods, fruits, night shade vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, seaweeds, greens and other vegetables.
Relative order from yang to yin: Starts with salt, eggs, meats, cheese, fish, most grains and brown rice and whole grains.
The yin-yang of foods is judged by characteristics such as their colour, growth pattern, climatic condition, height, density, hardness and sodium-potassium ratio. The most yang colour is red, corresponding to the base chakra i.e. the one closest to the ground. The most yin colour is violet, corresponding to the crown chakra, which is the greatest distance from the ground and the most yin state.
It is important to remember that the more yang-tending or red-orange-yellow fruits are still basically yin in the total spectrum of yang and yin foods. White is a sign of a yin vegetable and black is a sign of a yang vegetable. Vegetables and fruits that are heavier, harder, shorter, and grow slower and horizontally are considered yang. Yin fruits and vegetables are lighter, softer, taller, thinner, grow faster and vertically. Foods that grow bigger and more abundantly in warmer climates are more yin. Bear in mind that the way we cut and cook our food can change its yin-yang quality.
How different is this from Ayurveda?
Ohsawa spent some time in India studying Ayurveda and therefore the many similar concepts between Macrobiotics and Ayurveda. Both systems stress on a balanced diet, based on whole grains including brown rice and millets with a variety of vegetables. In the Japanese system, pulses are replaced by beans and soya. In India, we have a variety of local green leafy vegetables, whilst in Japan seaweed is predominant. Both systems stress the use of natural salt—either rock or sea salt—in place of refined salt. Both systems use cold pressed oil, although the use in India is more liberal and is in addition to the use of ghee. Nuts and seeds are used in both systems; India has a greater variety of seeds. Both systems use a limited amount of natural sugars and not white sugar.
Fruit is essential in the Indian diet because of our climate. This is of course meant to be fruit which is naturally ripened, un-juiced, grown locally or at least within the country, seasonal and eaten on an empty stomach. If not, the magical properties of fruits that are normally alkaline for the body may become just the opposite by contributing to an acidic situation in the blood.
In both healing diets, tomato, brinjal, capsicum and potato are considered to be not the best choice of vegetables, especially when one is recuperating from an illness. These vegetables are more yin than other vegetables.
Can there be too much yin or too much yang?
It is best to stay away from extreme yin and extreme yang foods, except when we use salt to bring balance to our meal just as we use pickles to do the same. Yet, at the same time we need to understand that even if you did consume extreme yin foods, left to its instincts your body would immediately crave the extreme yang food in order to bring the balance that it needs for survival. Thank God it does this, for without it we would all be one big mess, as is the case when we do not follow the signals of our body.
For example, when we reach for the extreme yin alcohol, the body, in its wisdom will crave for its opposite—fried salty snacks or meats or that cigarette. White sugar and white rice will make the body crave similar extreme yang foods.
When you eat too much extreme food, the body survives but in the long term it cannot deal with this stress, since essential known and unknown vitamins and minerals are missing in such foods. Therefore there is an increase in the incidence of depression. The trick, therefore, is to allow your body to do the choosing, but in the range of yin-yang foods that are better balanced to serve our health rather than take away from it.
Ohsawa says that our will is affected by what we consume. A strong will is built by consuming mineral-rich [balanced yang] foods whilst avoiding extreme yin items that deplete our bodies and brains of minerals. Sugary foods, cookies and snacks made with white flour, white rice and carbonated beverages all lack minerals so our blood leaches them from the body, brain tissues, bones and teeth. The continued use of extreme yin foods makes the brain and its functions dilated and makes mental disorders a reality. Thus a yang body is the supportive foundation for a mind that can be yin [open to inspiration], yet probing and creative at the same time.
Thus, a diet predominantly of organic brown rice, millets, lentils, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds will serve us well. These are balanced non-extreme yin and yang foods. Meats, eggs, dairy should form a smaller part of our intake if we enjoy them, but even so, ensure that they are from organic sources. The extreme yin foods, as in refined, chemically processed foods are best avoided. Today we have so many organic options that we have no excuse reaching for foods that lead us away from living to our full potential.
Eating with consciousness allows us to build our immunity. Yes, we can make ourselves germ/virus proof if we just start listening to what our unadulterated taste buds tell us.
I hope that this article has given you an introduction to yin-yang foods without getting you obsessed about it. Don’t let it become one more confusing concept. Instead, make it one more reason to trust yourself when you choose local, seasonal, natural, whole, unrefined and organic foods.
This was first published in the April 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.