Cooling foods for summer – the TCM perspective

Do you know about the thermal nature of foods? That depending on your body type, weather, and cooking method you can regulate your body temperature more easily!

If you are familiar with the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), you will know it divides foods into three categories: Cooling, Warming or of Neutral nature. This is considered their natural property regardless of the cooking method, although cooking can alter their nature somewhat. So eating cooling cucumbers in a warm soup will not have the same cooling effect on the body as eating raw cucumbers, but it is still considered cooling albeit less so.

Similarly, the longer a food is cooked (e.g. a stew or soup) the more warming it will be. This is why, aside from the ingredients you use, the methods of cooking and preparation are given just as much weight in TCM therapy. It follows then, that the recommendation is to eat seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as altering the way you cook to suit the climate and season.

For those of us who live in sweltering climates and cannot head to cooler pastures this summer, it is worth noting that you can prepare your body for the worst and reduce the effect of external heat by eating the right foods. This is especially true if your body’s thermal nature is already hot.

The thermal nature of people

It is not just food that has a warm, cool or neutral nature. People also fall into these categories. This is something that TCM takes into consideration when embarking on any therapy, but which is a concept made even more clear in Ayurveda. Ayurvedic practice classifies people into one of three main body types:  Vata, Pitta and Khapa, whereas the classification of the innate thermal nature of foods is encapsulated in one word Virya. Eating for your body type will affect your metabolism and digestion, and also allow you to feel less hot in summer and cold in winter. It’s all a fine balancing act. The Yin and Yang. Heat and cold.


The general principles describing whether a food is warming or cooling

Since we don’t all walk around with a mental list of warming and cooling foods, here are some general principles to go by:

1.      Plants which take longer to grow, such as carrots, cabbage or ginseng, are more warming than quicker growing ones such as lettuce, radish or cucumbers.

2.      Chemically fertilised plants (stimulated to grow more quickly) are often more cooling. So an organic carrot is considered to be less cooling than a commercially fertilised one.

3.      Raw food is more cooling than cooked food. (Cooked food is easier to digest which causes the easier release of nutrients and energy/warmth into the body).

4.      Similarly, food eaten cold is more cooling. Remember though that room temperature is as cold as Ayurveda and TCM will recommend you eat your food, rather than straight out of the fridge!

5.      Foods with blue, green or purple colours are usually more cooling than similar foods which are red, orange or yellow. So a red apple will be more warming than a green apple.

6.      Cooking methods which take longer, involve higher temperatures, greater pressure, dryness and or air circulation (e.g. fan ovens) give foods more warming qualitites  Cooking for a long time on a lower heat (e.g. a soup or stew) results in more warming nature than cooking for a short time on a high heat (e.g. a stirfry).

7.      Cutting food into smaller portions, grinding, pressing and stirring all cause more warmth and also increase blood-sugar levels more rapidly.

8.      Chewing food more thoroughly releases more energy and warmth as it is more easily assimilated and absorbed in the body.

What about drinks?

The same thermal principles apply to drinks. Would you have a hot chocolate on a cold winter night? What about in the middle of summer? Probably not. In much the same way you should be avoiding coffee (it is warming!) and drink tea (it is cooling) during the warmer months. If you are also avoiding caffeine so much the better. I will give you an alternative cooling drink in a separate blog post (here).

Although chilled water and tea are faster at rehydrating your body, they may cause heat in your body. TCM and Ayurveda recommend the coolest a food or drink should be is room temperature, as opposed to straight out of the fridge. This will not create excess heat in your body to try to bring it to body temperature, as well as preserving your gut flora intact. (Extremely cold foods and drinks, in particular, are said to destroy your gut flora).

Oh and if you’re thinking about kicking back with a glass of beer or wine, forget it. Alcohol has the immediate opposite effect on your body to cooling as any woman who suffers from hot flushes can attest. Why else do you think they drink so much vodka or grappa in cold parts of the world? (Note these are added to coffee and not tea!)


Cooling foods to eat all summer long

For now, let’s focus on the cooling foods you should be eating all summer long!


1.      Amaranth

2.      Barley

3.      Millet

4.      Wheat, Kamut which is an ancient type of wheat, in particular

(note: rice is classified as Neutral)


5.      Kidney beans

6.      Lima beans

7.      Mung beans

8.      Soy beans


9.      Broccoli

10.  Celery

11.  Cucumber

12.  Lettuce

13.  Button mushrooms

14.  Aubergines

15.  Pumpkin

16.  Radish

17.  Spinach

18.  Sweet potato or yam

19.  Watercress

Seaweeds and micro-algae

20.  Seaweeds and micro-algae as a whole are cooling (e.g. spirulina -read more here-, agar agar, nori, wakame, chlorella -read more here-….)



21.  Tomatoes are extremely cooling and nobody should have more than 1 or 2 per day!

22.  Apples

23.  Avocados

24.  Banana (very cooling)

25.  Grapefruit

26.  Lemon (see my go to summer lemon drink here)

27.  Mulberries

28.  Oranges

29.  Peaches

30.  Pears

31.  Persimmons (Very cooling)

32.  Purple plums (slightly cooling, other plums are warming)

33.  Strawberries

34.  Watermelons (very cooling)

35.  Water!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Eggs, crabs, clams and yoghurt are also cooling in nature. If you already suffer from internal heat or live in a very hot climate, try to avoid eating red meats such as beef and especially lamb. Favour peppermint or green tea over black tea (hot or room temperature).

After a day outdoors in the heat or at the beach, I drink lemon water and try to keep my meal light using cooling ingredients. A summer favourite of mine is Cucumber & Avocado soup (recipe can be found in Anna’s Kitchen recipe book).

Other things you can do to keep cool and hydrated

1.      Swim in the sea. The salty water combined with the high levels of magnesium, helps you calm down and cool down.

2.      Take a lukewarm shower when you get back home, as opposed to a hot one.

3.      Avoid fizzy drinks, caffeine, chocolate and fatty, sugary foods.

4.      Eat more fresh green vegetables and seasonal fruits, and at least in part, raw.

5.      Drink at least 2 litres of water per day. More if you are out in the heat or under the sun all day. This will also depend on your constitution. I do better on an average of 3 litres a day even in winter.

6.      Use aloe vera gel to moisturise and calm your skin after every shower.

7.      Drink aloe vera juice, or supplement your diet with spirulina (powder or pill form) and other micro-algae during the summer months.

Mind over matter!

Remember, staying cool in the heat is also as much a state of mind as it is about your body. Stop thinking: “It’s so hot!” and start thinking “This is the perfect weather for some watermelon.”

Stay safe, stay hydrated, stay cool!

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