The Healing Properties of Thanksgiving Dinner

When people come in for Chinese medicine consultations, I often talk about doing food therapy as part of their treatment strategy. But what does “food therapy” mean? Meal planning? A list of things they can’t eat? Usually I start with basic, Western nutrition principles: Are you getting your major nutrients and ratios of protein, fat, and carbs? Are you eating at the right times of day? If you’re already doing that, then we can really dig into the energetics—or healing properties—of food.

I truly believe there is no bad food. There are genetically processed foods or foods that are no longer really food—but that’s another subject altogether. All real, whole foods have different healing properties. We can adjust our diets to heal our bodies depending on our needs.

Thanksgiving dinner is a perfect example of this. Most of us think of Thanksgiving dinner as a very comforting, warming meal. And, in Chinese medicine standards, it is indeed a very healing, nourishing meal, because not only is it “comfort food” in popular terms, it is also comforting because the foods lift our spirit, or emotional state, according to Chinese medicine!

When people talk about being in a food coma, they’re referring to feeling tired and relaxed and lying on the couch. Part of that is because you’re eating quite a bit more than you usually do on a daily basis, but the other part of that is because they are relaxing foods that help take away some of the stresses we feel.

So, with that, I thought I’d highlight five common Thanksgiving-meal dishes and their healing properties!


It’s the cornerstone of any Thanksgiving meal, and for good reason: it’s a very nourishing food for your qi. It’s a great tonic, because it is a very uplifting food. In Western terms, we hear about tryptophan, which creates serotonin, which makes happy chemicals in your brain. In Chinese medicine, it’s considered an uplifting food that helps with depression, making it a perfect food for this time of year.

I find this one fascinating because the trend right now is tending toward eating gluten-free foods, or at the very least, eating less wheat. But in Chinese medicine, wheat is considered a very calming food. I agree most Americans eat too much wheat, but it makes sense why we do: It helps calm restlessness, stress, and anxiety. Now, genetically modified wheat has caused some dietary issues for us, but overall, the original heritage forms of wheat are very, very calming. So don’t feel too bad about having an extra roll or serving of dressing/stuffing.

This fruit is so fantastic: You should definitely eat at least a little bit with your Thanksgiving dinner. Cranberries are great because they can help break down and digest fat. And if you’re eating some gravy and some butter (I know I am!) it can really help. The sour quality of cranberries helps your gall bladder. It also balances out the wheat you’re eating: Wheat can cause your body to hold on to water, but cranberries will help flush that water. You can add ginger for even more digestive aid!

Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes also help digestion, in a different way: They help strengthen your digestive fire. If you’re having weak digestion or sensitivities, sweet potatoes can really help you out.

Apple Pie
Don’t skip dessert! (How many times do you get to hear that when it comes to diets?) One of our favorite desserts helps your digestion: apple pie. The apples help to empty your stomach and help to stimulate appetite a little bit. If you’re feeling overly full but still want dessert, choose a slice of apple pie. It will help clear your stomach out and relieve that full feeling. For an extra boost, drink coffee with your dessert. It stimulates digestion and helps to move things through your intestines.

How cool is it that the basics of our Thanksgiving dinner help to balance our digestion and mood? That’s the kind of thing I love to discuss with patients when we do food therapy. Enjoy your dinner—especially now that you know how good it is for you!