The Energetics of Food

September 13, 2004

In this age of chemical additives, preservatives, and the onset of GMOs (genetically manipulated organisms), we are faced with serious concerns about the quality of our food and its effect on our health.

What worsens these concerns is the inordinate difficulty of sorting through all the “newest information” to make any reasonable sense out of an increasingly bewildering picture. Multinational corporations and private interest groups “buy” food science to promote their special agendas, each tailored to support profits in the marketplace. As a result, we are routinely bombarded with an at times bizarre assortment of food theories and fad diets, each solemnly pronounced to be beneficial to our health, a “breakthrough” that will increase our chances at longevity and lean fat free bodies.

Indeed, many of us experience such an information overload that we are no longer able to ask the right questions and think for ourselves. To help remedy this situation, I offer food energetics as a simple way to understand and choose food.


At first hearing, the term “food energetics” may sound like yet another diet theory; quite the opposite is true. Food energetics is an effort to distance us from fad and theory, to start thinking for ourselves and simplify our daily eating habits in a way that can be exceptionally rewarding.

What do you think of when you talk about health and hear the word “energy?” Perhaps words like vitality, stamina, endurance,and mental stability come to mind, as well as other terms that all have to do with feeling good. Thinking of food as being “energetic” suggests the idea of vibrant, healthy, enduring foods, foods that are themselves well nourished.

Grade-school science classes taught us that plants need sunlight, air, water, and soil to grow. True enough, but equally important is the question of quality. Superior plants make superior food; the importance of quality cannot be overemphasized. For example, the healthiest soil contains a balance of many minerals and microorganisms. The highest quality (most energetic) food sources are those grown via the most natural methods. “Wild” or “wild-crafted,” “biodynamic,” and “organic” are terms associated with foods grown with natural methods. “Commercial,” “hydroponic,” and “genetically engineered” are descriptions of those methods that are both more artificial and by far the predominate ones on the market today. Unfortunately, such artificial methods cause their produce (whether plant or animal) to progressively lose its integrity (identity), energy (energetic health), and nutritional value.

Quality nourishment is the first principle of food energetics.


The second principle is “essential character.”
Each food has qualities that make it what it is. For example, a cow is a cow—by its character, it is not a goat or sheep, and certainly not a chicken. The essential character of a food is what gives it the identity we recognize as an orange, duck, fish, or cow. There are four basic patterns that make up this principle; each food has a predominance of one of these patterns. These four patterns are:


These four patterns help to better understand the nature of a particular food. A carrot, for example, grows underground, and not in a rounded path (like a turnip) but fairly straight down, to a tip. Considering the four patterns, we see that “down and in” best reflects the growth pattern of the carrot.

Being a root vegetable, the carrot absorbs and assimilates vital elements from the soil for the ultimate benefit of the entire plant. This is also true for other root vegetables: they are the portions of the plant that absorbs and assimilates elements from the soil and firmly anchors the entire plant into that soil. Yet the turnip, though it is also a root vegetable, doesn’t exhibit the same characteristic pattern as does the carrot. Its growth rather follows the pattern, “down and out,” revealed in the outward, bulging direction that gives it its round shape.

What about leafy green plants, such as collard greens, kale, and lettuce? Which of the four patterns apply to them? Leafy greens grow upward with leaves that spread outward: we would say they are “up and out.” During photosynthesis, green leaves take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Green plants are also high in chlorophyll which helps supply our blood with oxygen.

Let’s take the principle of essential character a step further and see if it can be applied to the systems of the human body.

Do you recall the description above of roots as absorbing and assimilating nutrients for the entire plant? Is there an organ or organ system in the human body that performs the same function? Indeed there is: the gastrointestinal tract,especially the small intestine,where most of our food’s nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream. Therefore, it would be a reasonable step of energetic logic to propose that root vegetables and the GI tract share a similar or related essential character.

Let’s apply the same transposing logic to the essential character of leafy greens. Their function is the exchange of gasses: taking in carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen. Our body functions in a similar but opposite way, taking in oxygen from the environment and giving off carbon dioxide—a process associated with the respiratory system. Again, we have a function in the plant world that is mirrored and paralleled in a function of the human body. Here again, the metaphoric logic of food energetics suggests that it is precisely that food with a particular function that best nourishes and supports the corresponding human organs’ echoed role in the human body. This correspondence has historically been known as the “Doctrine of Signatures” by traditional peoples throughout the world.


A third crucial principle of food energetics is “temperament.”
The temperament of a food can be compared to the various psychophysical states within people. We describe certain individuals as being “hot-blooded,” others as “cool” or even “cold-blooded.” We instinctively refer to others as having warm personalities but, perhaps, a dry sense of humor. As in the discussion of essential character, these are more than merely fanciful observations: there is something intrinsic to these different people that is quite real and goes to the core of their nature.

Precisely the same is true of foods.
The four temperaments of food are hot, warm, cold, and cool. Each temperament also occurs always in one of two variations, either dry or damp. These permutations produce eight possible temperaments:

• hot and dry;
• hot and damp;
• warm and dry;
• warm and damp;
• cool and dry;
• cool and damp;
• cold and dry;
• cold and damp.

Let’s look at how these temperaments associate with a human personality.
If a person is angry to the point of physical aggression, we can easily surmise that his temperament is hot. If that same person perspires profusely, we can describe his temperament as hot and damp.

Of course, we all have the capacity to control our extreme temperaments, and rarely does anyone exhibit the same temperament all the time. For that matter, there is not a food in nature that exhibits only one, solitary, unchanging temperament. Temperament, whether of a person or a food, can be thought of as a tendency, and one that is subject to change.

The temperament also reveals the potential effects a particular food might have on the body and mind of the person consuming it. For example, fats and proteins help generate warmth to our bodies through a process called thermogenesis. Vitamins, enzymes, minerals, carbohydrates, tend to have cooling effects on the body.

When classifying foods according to temperament you will discover several variables. For example, consider the difference in temperaments between a cow (beef, red meat) and a chicken. The large, mammalian cow is high in protein comprised of long twitch fibers, rich red blood (hemoglobin), and saturated fat, giving this food a hot and damp temperament. Chicken breast meat, by contrast, is white with short twitch fibers, is less fatty, and contains less hemoglobin than red meat. Chicken tends toward a warm and dry temperament. Each will affect the body differently because of these different temperaments.

Every food has its own unique temperament.


It is also important to realize that any temperament can be altered, sometimes significantly, through food preparation methods, i.e. cooking, fermentation, drying, etc. In the study of food energetics, method of preparation is the third and final consideration (after essential character and temperament) in determining how a food will nourish us.

As a simple example, consider a raw carrot, with its character pattern of down and in and a temperament of cool and dry. When sautéed with oil and seasoned with salt, it maintains its essential carrot character of down and in, but its temperament transforms from cool and dryto warm and damp because of the added oil, salt, and heat.

Cooked foods are generally associated with warm temperaments, while raw foods tend to have cool temperaments. A raw green salad, low in fat and protein but high in water, vitamins, and enzymes, will tend to have a cool and damp temperament that will impart a cooling effect on the body.

To consider an example of how this understanding might be applied to health: Imagine a thin, frail person, living in a northern climate and suffering from a chronic condition of cold hands and feet. It doesn’t take a great deal of common sense to realize that he needs to increase warm foods, perhaps those richer in protein and fat. He would be wise to reduce cool foods, such as raw vegetables, fruits, and juices in order to correct his condition through diet.

Now, this is not a black and white process, nor does it serve well as a prescriptive straightjacket. The understanding and application of food energetics has to do with personal choice — with the individual condition and a commonsense approach to applying these principles in real-life situations. As we learn more about food, we learn more about ourselves, our own preferences and natures and tolerance levels. Dietary extremes tend only to lead inevitably to extremes of equivalent force, only in the opposite direction!


Another way of describing the principles of food energetics is to say that this is one approach to studying nature’s science.

Traditional peoples throughout the world were and many still are intimately connected to nature, and it is through this relationship that they learned over time to apply this “science of nature” to all aspects of their lives. As their knowledge increased, their application of natural laws became the traditional wisdom from which today’s natural healing arts draw their scientific and philosophical foundations. Two of the most widely known of these healing arts are traditional Chinese medicine and the Ayurvedic medicine of India; however, there are many others, equally valid and powerful, that are still practiced today by traditional peoples around the world.

By combining ancient wisdom with modern nutritional research and our own creative understanding, we can arrive at a genuine science of nature that will allow each of us to grasp the true meaning of the French gastronome Brillat-Savarin’s famous phrase, “You are what you eat.”1

Energetic principles are easy and fun to apply. I strongly encourage you to consciously choose a wide variety of foods to experiment with, because food variety contributes to vibrant health and an open mind. Explore and enjoy the foods you eat—because ultimately they will become you!

1.Widely described as “history’s greatest gastronome,” Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin spent time in the United States following the French revolution, supporting himself giving language lessons and playing violin in a New York theater orchestra as he introduced new and exotic dishes to his American friends. His most admired work is La Physiologie du Gout (Physiology of Taste) (1825). His actual expression was, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”

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