Popularly used to describe certain foods and conditions, these TCM concepts are based on TCM doctrines and years of empirical observation
Ask any Singaporean what they know about the terms "heaty" and "cooling" and chances are they will be able to deliver a rough idea of the concept. Attempts to explain it from a scientific point of view or compare it to an equivalent condition in Western medicine, however, have been less than successful.
According to Mr Yan Yew Wai, acupuncturist at the Complementary Integrative Medicine Clinic at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, "The concept of 'heaty' and 'cooling' is not meaningful or relevant in the Western medicine paradigm as TCM [Traditional Chinese Medicine] has very different founding principles from Western medicine." For instance, indulging in durian and chocolate in the presence of a believer in TCM is likely to elicit comments such as "very heaty — eat too much and you'll get a sore throat".
A doctor trained in Western medicine, on the other hand, will point out that sore throats are more commonly caused by microbial infections — and also that consuming too much durian and chocolate spells bad news mostly for diabetics and those watching their waistlines due to the foods' high sugar content.
The concept is based on the Chinese philosophy of yin (cooling) and yang (heaty). Rather than being medical tools, the terms 'heaty' and 'cooling' act as a classification system to describe symptoms and characteristics of certain foods and the effects they have on our body. This system has been developed through more than 2,000 years of detailed observation in TCM.
Mr Yan describes heaty foods as having the ability to warm and improve circulation, dispel cold and stimulate the body. When these foods are taken in excess, heatiness is caused, resulting in symptoms such as fever, sore throat, mouth ulcers, acne, excessive thirst, redness of the skin and irritability. These foods are typically high in calories and subjected to high cooking temperatures. They include red meat, baked and deep fried foods, durian, chocolate, as well as spicy dishes like curry.
Cooling foods can eradicate heat and toxins, and have a nourishing effect on the body. However, Mr Yan warns that they can also trigger conditions associated with "cold", including intolerance to cold, a pale complexion, sore muscles and joints as well as fatigue. Examples of these foods include green tea, salads, mangosteens and watermelons — typically low in calories, subjected to little or no heat in cooking, with a soothing or refreshing taste.
From a TCM point of view, the body functions at an optimal level when there is a balance of yin and yang. As heaty and cooling foods do not make you fall ill per se but merely contribute to a tip in the balance of your body's yin and yang, neither is better than the other.
"It really depends on each individual's body constitution," says Mr Yan. "For a person prone to 'cold' conditions, eating food with warm or hot energy would be helpful. For a person with a heaty constitution, it is beneficial to eat cooling food to 'clear' heat and relieve symptoms."
This article was last reviewed on
22 Nov 2023
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