According ancient Chinese thought, everything in the world can be classified into five vibrational groups and the Five Elements (Metal, Earth, Fire, Wood, and Water). In the body, these Five Elements are seen in the five major organs of the body that are all necessary for survival – the Lungs, Pancreas/Stomach/Spleen, the Heart, the Liver, and the Kidneys. Typically, within our bodies, one organ will be stronger than the others. This organ can provide additional energy to some of the organs and may cause people to behave in certain ways. One dominant organ may influence an individual’s lifestyle preferences (i.e., playing, sleeping, decorating, fashion, fun, food choices, etc.) and personality. One organ can be usually slightly deficient and may need to be built up. However, in Chinese medicine, when one organ is very strong, another organ must be weak and it is necessary to restore the strength of the weak organ in order to balance the body.
According to the Five Element system, the elements need to be in balance in order to attain optimum health. When one understands how to balance the Five Elements of Food, this will give him the knowledge to eat the right and adequate amounts of nutrients from food in order to support his entire body. Consuming foods that correspond to all the Five Flavors: umami, pungent, savory & sweet, bitter, sour, and salty is one of the best ways to generate balance in the body in a manner that perfectly suits your specific needs.
The following is a short list of foods related to a specific element and how they influence the body:
Foods associated with the metal element include prepared condiments, several spices and herbs, white foods, pungent foods, and savory foods. It’s not necessary to consume lots of metal foods as they are spicy (not hot) and strong or have very simple flavors. The flavor umami is a relatively recently discovered flavor that is mainly related to glutamate. This flavor can be also tasted in fish sauce, parmesan cheese, porcini mushrooms, and shitake mushrooms giving them that special savory flavor. Other metal-related foods include nutmeg, basil, mustard, horseradish, wasabi, mustard greens, dill, anise, parsley, coriander, cilantro, fennel bulb and seed, scallions, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, tarragon, mint, cinnamon, kohlrabi, pears, lotus root, tofu, turnip, cauliflower, daikon, radish, chives, garlic, raw onion, white cheeses, cream, milk, and white. All these foods promote the flow of energy and have a dispersing effect. People who can benefit from metal foods include cold, lethargic, damp, and sluggish people.
These comprise all starchy and sweet foods, especially brown, orange, and yellow foods as well as very sweet soft fruits and root vegetables. Other Earth foods include tropical fruits like mangoes, cherimoyas, papayas, as well as coconut, almond, cucumbers, summer and winter squash, fungi such as chantarelle and button mushrooms, beets, taro, okra, yam, plantains and bananas, sweet potato, potato, cabbage, carrots, peaches, grapes, dates, sweet cherries, sweet apples, cantaloupe, watermelon, slow cooked onion, oats, corn, milk chocolate, sugar, rye, barley, millet, and beef. You can also include barley syrup, rice syrup, molasses, agave syrup, corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, peanuts, dried peas and lentils. They all can neutralize toxins, inhibit acute symptoms, and soothe aggression. They are ideal for weak, nervous, and dry people.
These include most red foods, all bitter foods, hot foods, dried foods, and foods that are shaped like a heart. Fire foods that can reduce dry fluids and heat include carbonated beverages, dark chocolate, tea, coffee, beer, wine, paprika, cayenne pepper, black pepper, hit chilis, peppers, rhubarb, strawberries, sweet plums, apricots, kumquats, citrus peel, tomatoes, watercress, dandelion, arugula, lettuce, venison, and lamb. They are most appropriate for aggressive, overheated, overweight, and slow people.
They encompass a lot of fast growing green foods especially sprouts as well foods with green stalks and all sour foods. Other Wood foods include olives, sauerkraut, all sorts of pickles, kimchi, yogurt, vinegar, sourdough crackers and bread, starfruit, pineapple, sour plum, grapefruit, all citrus foods (grapefruit, oranges, lemons, etc.), celery, asparagus, spinach, broccoli, chard, leafy greens (like bok choy), wheat, most wild game, liver, and chicken. These foods are considered astringents and can block movement. They most benefit changeable, erratic, and scattered people.
They include black, blue, and purple colored foods, all dark foods and all salty foods as well as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, walnuts, wild rice, kale, eggplant, blackberries, blueberries, figs, miso, tamari, soy sauce, sea vegetables including seaweed, all types of beans, eggs, pork, all types of shellfish, fish eggs including caviar, salted meat, salted fish, and fresh fish. All these foods can help relax the body, stimulate moisture, and have a softening effect on the body. Nervous, dry, and thin people are the ones who will most benefit from Water foods.
Lots of foods can be associated with more than one element and some can be designated to different elements depending on the way they are cooked. Raw onion, for instance, because of its pungency, is considered a metal element while cooked onion becomes sweet which turns it into an earth element, or they may change elements at different stages of growth (i.e., from unripe to ripe). For instance, when they are green, tomatoes are quite sour and thus, are considered more as Wood Element. But when they ripen, they are considered Fire Element and when they become very sweet, they change into Earth element. The mode of cooking also affects the five elements:
1. Metal – Dicing, mincing, Julienne, finishing sauces, condiments, garnishes, and composed
2. Earth – Candy, desserts, caramelizing, jellies, jams, pureeing, mashing, stewing, roasting, and baking
3. Fire – Snacks & appetizers, dehydrating, sautéing, flambéing, stir frying, and deep frying
4. Wood – Campfire cooking, fermenting, pickling, searing, smoking, and grilling
5. Water – Sous-vide cooking, freezing, curing, poaching, steaming, boiling, and soups
Healthy eating may imply eating foods that are in accordance with the seasons: In Fall, it is the Metal element, in Winter, it is the Water Element, Spring is the Wood Element, Early Summer is Fire, and Late Summer is Earth. We recommend eating foods that have been well preserved for future use or foods that are as fresh as possible. Foods that are recommended for consumption include ones that you have grown yourself or locally raised or locally grown foods as they help you connect to the place you live. The more varied, the more beneficial they are to your Stomach as Earth Element is consumed by Fire Element, which is variety. The five elements are more involved when you eat meals that have a wide blend of color. Eating foods the 5 Element Food way is tasty, nutritious, enjoyable, and definitely healthy!
Cindy Chamberlain is a licensed acupuncturist of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC in Overland Park, KS.