Yin and yang in food

Yin and yang in food

We have said in a previous post in this blog that life happens in the interaction between two ever-changing complementary and opposing forces. In the Far East these forces are given the name YIN and YANG.

There is a balance in all material things between the force which hold their particles together (contractive forces) and the force which makes them repel each other (expansive force). Those things in which contractive forces are dominant we call yang structures and in those in which expansive forces are dominant we call yin structures.

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In this entry we are going to look at how this is applied in food. If we look at the motto “we are  what we eat”, we will realize that if we have too much yang food, we will become rigid (yang structure), and if we have too much yin food we will become loose (yin structure). If we eat in a balanced way, we will be neither too weak nor too rigid and we will be able to adapt to the continuous changes in life.

However, if we have foods from both ends of the spectrum, some very contractive and others very expansive, it will be very difficult to maintain the balance and chances are that some structures will break and others will fall apart. This again will manifest in terms of physical, mental and emotional problems, because we are an inseparable unit in whose relationship everything affects everything. If we have a saturated liver due to excess (e.g. saturated fats), we might also have problems with allergies or fits of anger or rage.

Each food and each living thing has its own unique way of behaving and its own features, which can be regarded as vital energy. These energy features are created depending on the kind of environment where it lives, how it was formed, how it grew and many other factors. Bearing in mind how food affects us, we need to perceive its energetic features and behaviour.

The best way to do it is to compare animals and plants.

Plants, to get nutrients, grow roots downwards and outwards in the soil and animals do so inwards, in the small intestine, where nutrients are absorbed (intestinal flora can be said to be like the microorganisms in the soil which help plants get nourished).

The plants’ respiratory system grows leaves expanding upwards and outwards, whereas animals’ lungs grow inwards in a dense and compact way. Animals breathe oxygen and release carbon dioxide. In addition to this, plants also breathe in carbon dioxide and release oxygen.

Plants are static and animals are mobile. Animals are mainly formed by proteins and store excess as fat. On the contrary, plants are mainly formed by carbohydrates and they store excess as starches and oils. The vegetable world represents a more passive and expansive tendency, whereas the animal world manifests a more active and contractive tendency.

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This kind of comparison can be established between many other pairs of foods, as well as between the internal features of the human body, its metabolism and different aspects of human behaviour (e.g. extroverted, introverted) and, at the end of the day, all phenomena in the world.

The axiom “you are what you eat” can be understood more easily in these terms. Animal food causes a contractive effect in the body, sugar levels in the blood decrease much more quickly. Internal organs contract, they become more closed, the skin dries more easily and we tend to feel more rigid, less flexible. As far as behaviour is concerned, we become more focused, stubborn, aggressive and increasingly concerned with the material world and immediate circumstances.

On the other hand, a vegetarian diet softens up our body and helps our mind to be more quiet, calm and peaceful. A daily intake of foods such as fruit, sugar, milk and frequent raw salads cause our organs to have a weaker and more sluggish growth, low tissue and muscle tone, and we can even become more prone to infections. Our behaviour will tend to be more timid and passive, we will become more disorganised, lacking discipline and more concerned with the spiritual, psychological, more distant, theoretical or abstract realm.

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In terms of human health we should seek a natural form of dynamic balance between the more contractive and more expansive foods. In practical terms that´s exactly what we do when we have a beer after we´ve had something salty (salt is very contractive, whereas alcohol is very expansive). The same thing happens when we have steak and ice-cream, eggs and orange juice or cheese and wine.

However, a diet based on such extremes in order to achieve balance, causes massive fluctuations in our metabolism and this is really detrimental to our health.

We should learn to use these energetic principles more consciously in order to be able to choose the more balanced and moderate foods. This way we will be able to achieve more balance in our mind and body.


Primarily, in order to classify foods we will have to consider the expansive, cooling effect (yin) or contractive, warming effect (yang) in the human body.

These terms are metaphoric, the most important thing is to see that they are opposites. For example, if you have a headache due to alcohol bingeing (expansive) it will go away in a much better way by having something salty (contractive) rather than something sweet (expansive). The expansive or contractive characteristic is always RELATIVE, which means that there is nothing absolutely expansive or contractive, but there is indeed food which cause more expansion than others.

We could have a classification based on experience but this would be a tough task given the fact that we would have to study the effect of each food separately. This is something that the Ancient Chinese already did and has come down to us through generations.

A food’s expansive or contractive effect depends on its vital energy. If its vital energy is predominantly expansive, its effect will produce expansive effects; on the other hand, if its vital energy is predominantly contractive, it will produce contractive effects. Expansive foods promote organic functions which need expansive forces and contractive foods promote those functions which need contractive forces. In general, expansive foods have a cooling effect and contractive foods have a warming effect.

The more expansive (yin) foods we had better not abuse are the following:

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The more contractive (yang) foods which we should also control:

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To classify foods according to their expansive (yin) or contractive (yang) features we need to take into account the following aspects:

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As an example of the latter, let us compare an aubergine to a burdock.

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It is necessary to point out that we will always have to see what general characteristics predominate in the food. For example, a tomato is red (yang, although it is true that only when ripe), but the yin characteristics predominate because: it is more humid, tropical, it grows rapidly, it has a stronger smell, it tends to be larger, it grows above the ground, it is high in potassium and decays (rots) earlier.


The foods listed below are comparatively classified from more expansive to more contractive using aspects discussed in the previous section.

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This doesn´t automatically mean we must have ONLY those foods and the rest of them are forbidden. These are foods to be consumed on a daily basis whereas the rest are for occasional consumption. Remember that quantity always changes quality. When you feel like having a tomato ask yourself: why? what have I had before? What is the time of the year? What is the temperature? or simply, what is the extreme effect I aim to achieve? Am I trying to compensate an opposite extreme effect?The ideal thing is to eat more food from the centre, adapted to the surrounding environment. These (depending on the yin / yang) are whole grains, vegetables, legumes, seaweed, seeds, fish and fruit (although there are many subcategories).

In general, yang contractive foods keep inner heat stopping it from escaping, therefore they are warming. When it is cold and we are very contracted we need something hot to expand and feel a little bit more relaxed.

Yin expansive foods disperse heat, that is why they are refreshing. When it is very hot and we are very expanded, we need to have cool foods and drinks in order to cause sudden contraction and feel better.

When we have fever (inner heat) we shouldn´t have extreme warming foods such as meat, fried food, excess carbohydrate intake… fasting would be the best choice.

The effect of pungent spices such as curry, pepper or chili pepper is boiling at first, because they expand the external capillaries rushing the blood to the surface, causing sweating. When the sweat evaporates, the effect is cooling.

Ginger is also pungent and it activates blood circulation, but since it is a root, it is more contractive and it contributes to keeping warmth inside the body.

With excess salt and yang foods in general, you feel cold at first, then hot.

With excess sugar and yin foods in general, you feel warm at first, then cold.


I wouldn´t like finish this article without referring to the art of cooking as a laboratory where food is transformed through using salt, fire and time. Thus we change the energy of foods and we make them more digestible in order to harness all its nutrients.

In general, the longer the cooking time and the higher the temperature, the more the contractive effect of the food. The salt used in cooking expels the water from inside the cells and that´s why it is also contracting.

The cooking techniques also alter the ying and yang features too:

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Therefore, bearing in mind the above, we could classify the cooking methods from a less contractive to a more contractive effect:

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Macrobiotics is not a strict diet where everybody should be tarred with the same brush. We must bear in mind that everyone is an individual. It all depends largely on the person’s constitution, condition, gender, age, job and lifestyle.To learn how find balance through food it is fairly obvious that avoiding extreme foods altogether and eating from the more balanced foods will be an important step in the path towards recovering and maintaining our health.



In order to help you understand a little bit better what a nutritionally balanced yummy dish would look like I´ve prepared a couple of different menus you can find below. Both of them are pretty well balanced in terms of nutrients, whole grains, protein content, vegetables (great source of vitamins and minerals), etc.

I cannot stress enough the need for us to create variety in the our menus and our daily food. We must choose from different cooking styles, vegetables, cutting methods and preparations, as well as condiments and sauces. It is no good to always cook nishime style, or always prepare salads, or always steam the vegetables and never boil them, etc. Cooking styles must change according to the time of the year and its energy in order to make balance with our environment. If we use a very yang cooking style (e.g. baking) in the summer, when we really need to give freshness to our body, then we will not be helping it to make balance. It is for a reason that nature provides refreshing foods in the summer and warming foods in the winter.

I will be writing a new post on cooking with the seasons and cooking styles in the near future.


Menu 1
Miso soup with lotus root, assorted roots, kombu and ginger.

sopa de miso macrobioteca macrobiotica zaragoza

Main dish:

·         Chickpea stew with red and Green vegetables.

·         Caramelized pointed cabbage and leek with vinaigrette sauce.

·         Millet with pumpkin.

·         Condiments: Gomasio and parsley

menu1 macrobiotica macrobioteca zaragoza

Menu 2
Main dish:

·         Millet and quinua with gomasio and mint leaves.

·         Purple cabbage pressed salad with umeboshi vinegar.

·         SweetSour Tempeh

·         Blanched Green beans.

·         Baked pumpkin

plato macrobiotica macrobioteca zaragoza





Olga Cuevas “El equilibrio a través de la alimentación”

Michio Kushi “The Macrobiotic Way”

  1. Ohsawa: “Macrobiótica Zen”
  2. Varatojo: “Macrobiótica: La revolución sana”.