Applying The Five Elements Theory In Chinese Nutritional Therapy

The Chinese believe that there are five different types of energy or ‘chi’ and that the world is surrounded by five fields of energy which are known as the Five Elements. They also believe that people’s fate could be seriously affected if these five elements are moved or altered.

The five elements can be reflected in and referred to as the five planets, five processes, five forces, five movements, five phases or five agents.

The “five elements” should be considered as the linchpin of Chinese culture if the theory of yin and yang is the center of Chinese culture. What role do these five elements play in Chinese cuisine and what exactly are the five elements of Chinese cooking?

The “Five Elements” are made up of earth, fire, water, wood, and metal. These elements have been used by the Chinese for thousands of years for a lot of reasons, from communication between Chinese medicine, politics, internal organs, and even Chinese food and cooking.

This is just like finding the harmonious balance between yin and yang. Between the five elements, the Chinese are constantly striving to find the right balance. There are mainly a couple of relationships between those five elements. One is termed ‘mutual overcoming’ and the other is ‘mutual generation’.

Examples of “mutual over coming”

o Water stopped by Earth (Imagine people constructing a dam to contain water)

o Fire stopped by Water

o Metal melted by Fire

o Wood cut by Metal

o Earth consumed by Wood

Wood can start fire, and the wood ashes eventually go back to the earth.

Examples of “mutual generating”:

o Fire strengthened by Wood

o Earth (ash) made by Fire

o Metal bared and contained Earth

o Water quality improved by Metal

o Wood grows with Water

How role do the Five Elements Theory play in Chinese nutritional therapy?

According to Chinese physicians and herbalists, in order treat a patient properly, one should know the condition of the five elements of the patient’s body. Any excess or deficiency of an element can result in illness.

Our five major organs are also represented by the five elements. These organs are the spleen (earth), heart (fire), kidney (water), liver (wood), and lung (metal). The five elements can also be symbolized by five different colors: yellow (earth), red (fire), blue/black (water), green (wood), and white (metal).

Water Element

This element is related the Kidney (Yin) and Bladder (Yang) organs, feeling of Fear, the color Black, and Salty taste.

Metal Element

This element is related to the Lungs (Yin) and Large Intestine (Yang) organs, feeling of Sorrow, the color White, and Spicy taste.

Earth Element

This element is related to the Spleen (Yin) and Stomach (Yang) organs, feeling of Thought, the color Yellow, and Sweet taste.

Fire Element

This element is related to the Heart (Yin) and Small Intestine (Yang) organs, feeling of Happiness, the color Red, and Bitter taste.

Wood Element
This element is related to the Liver (Yin) and Gallbladder (Yang) organs, feeling of Rage, the color Green, and Sour taste.

According to Chinese nutritional therapy and medicine, if a person is ill or weak in certain organs or parts of their body, they should eat certain elements/colors of food in order to improve their state of health and help them feel better. If a person has a problem with his kidneys, for instance, they should then eat foods such as black sesame, seaweed, wood ear and foods that are water element and black in color.

List of different element/organ/color foods:

Water/Kidney/ Black Food:

Sweet bean sauce, tea, black vinegar, black sesame, black grapes, blueberry, raisin, black beans, eggplant, shiitake mushroom, seaweed, wood ear, etc.

Black colored food is good for your reproductive organs, ears, bones, and kidneys.

Metal/Lung/White Food:

Rock sugar, white sesame, almond, banana, Asian pear, soy milk, tofu, milk, white wood ear, bamboo shoot, broccoli, winter melon, bitter melon, garlic, onion, daikon, lotus seed, sticky/glutinous rice, rice, etc.

White colored food is good for your skin, respiratory system, nose, large intestine, and lungs.

Wood/Liver/Green Food:

Wasabi, green fruits, green vegetables, Chinese leeks, Mung beans, etc.

Green color food is good for your joint, muscle, eyes, gallbladder, and liver.

Fire/Heart/ Red Food:

Brown sugar, apple, dragon fruit, goji berry, jujube, red pepper, red beans, chili, strawberry, sweet potato, tomato, carrot, etc.

It is believed that eating “red color food” is good for brain, small intestine, and heart.

Earth/Spleen/Yellow Food:

Honey, walnut, peanut, papaya, pineapple, lemon, star fruit, orange, ginger, bean curd, egg yolk, soy beans, yellow pepper, butternut squash, white pumpkin, oat, taro, yellow sweet potato, baby corn, sweet corn, most yellow colored foods, etc.

Eating yellow color food can be good for your spleen and digestive.

It is important to remember that eating a balanced diet is extremely essential in attaining and maintaining health and well being. This article is just an introduction and a recommendation of the ‘Five Elements” and how their concept is mirrored in Chinese food. Before looking into any specific diet, talk to a doctor to see if you have any health issues.

Zuobiao (Roy) Yuan – Board Certified Acupuncturist and Herbalist in Edina, MN