When you’re spending scorching summer days outside, it’s pretty standard to rely on icy cold beverages and Popsicles to beat the heat. But according to both Eastern and Western health experts, there are better (and equally delicious) ways to cool down from the inside out: cooling foods for the body.
Here, integrative physician Tania Dempsey, MD, and Divya Alter, the co-founder of Bhagavat Life, an Ayurvedic culinary school, and Divya’s Kitchen, an Ayurvedic restaurant in Manhattan, both give insight into the three food rules to keep in mind when eating this summer while staying cool in the process.
1. Choose water-based foods
In Ayurveda, Alter explains that the idea of cooling doesn’t directly refer to temperature; it’s about the metabolic effect different foods can have on the body. “After food passes through the stomach to the intestine, then that’s where you experience the cooling or the heating effect,” Alter says. You know how when you eat a spicy curry, your body feels a bit warm and fiery? That’s because curry spices are considered “heating foods.”
“In general, water-based foods such as cucumber, zucchini, greens, berries, coconut, and watermelon are cooling,” Alter says. Dr. Dempsey says Western medicine supports this, too. “The key to cooling the body down from the inside, from a Western medicine perspective, is to keep hydrated. Fruits like watermelon and vegetables like celery contain a lot of water and minerals that help with hydration.”
Hydrating foods cool the body, Dr. Dempsey says, because the more fluid you take in, the better your cells function and the less stressed they are. “Cells that function better are less likely to make excess energy or heat so this allows the body temperature to stay regulated,” she says. “In addition, dehydration actually causes you to sweat less, and sweating is important for cooling the body down.”
2. Pick foods and drinks high in electrolytes
Yes, sweating will help cool you down, Dr. Dempsey says—so you have to replenish your body’s electrolytes, too. Foods and drinks high in electrolytes include coconut water, birch water, bananas, spinach, kale, and lime—all of which are also cooling Ayurvedic foods. (Def not a coincidence.)
One point where Eastern and Western medicine differ is whether spicy foods can cool the body down. Dr. Dempsey maintains that they do because spicy foods make you sweat, and sweating in turn cools the body down. But Alter says they have a fiery effect on the body and can heat it up. “Onion and garlic are very heating, very fiery foods and you can feel them right away,” she says. “In general, foods that are acidic and pungent are heating, so you can go with the taste. If they are very spicy or hot or sour, they’re usually heating foods.” See what feels best for your body and act accordingly.
3. Stick to room temperature foods and drinks
Oh, and about that ice-cold drink and freezer full of Popsicles: Both Alter and Dempsey say it’s a myth that they’ll cool the body down. “It shocks the channels in your body, especially the channels in your digestive tract, which actually weakens the digestive system,” Alter says. “You can put ice cubes on your skin, but not in your glass.”
“Many people believe that drinking cold water or other iced drinks can help cool the body down but it only cools down the part of the body it comes in contact with, like the mouth and esophagus,” adds Dr. Dempsey. “This can backfire and actually make the body work harder by trying to warm up the cold part of the body that the water was in contact with. Working harder leads to more heat within the body.” Both experts say slightly cool or room temperature drinks are best.
As always, it’s helpful to listen to your body and pay attention to what it craves during warmer weather. As Alter explains, this helps clue you in on what you need. There’s a reason why that bowl of fresh-cut watermelon looks so darn good. Cool for the summer? You’ve got it covered.
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