What if I told you that the key to balancing your mind, body, and soul was made up of just five elements according to a system that’s been around for over 3,000 years, would you be interested?
If you've been craving a deeper connection to your nourishment and want to understand food and cooking from a place of knowledge and ancient wisdom, then we need to talk about Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM!
Most people associate TCM with acupuncture or herbal remedies that they find at natural pharmacies. But this method is so much more than just needles and herbs. It is a complete medical system used to diagnose, treat, and prevent illness and has since been recognized to heal and improve people's lives across the world.
The core mission of TCM is to focus on root-cause healing and achieve balance in the body through the practical concept of yin and yang. Yin and Yang are defined as opposites that complement each other: from hot and cold, excess and deficient, interior and exterior, light and dark. When yin and yang are in balance, you feel whole, relaxed, and full of vitality. When this is out of balance, you feel negatively affected, sick, or burnt-out which we can all relate to.
According to TCM, it is believed that we are surrounded by five energy fields called “qi” (pronounced “chee”), and that true health stems from nourishing a balance of qi between the mind, body, and spirit.
An important resource to help balance qi are the Five Elements, or the five phases which are said to make up everything in the universe.
The five elements describe patterns in the body and of nature. They are separated into five categories: fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. Each of these elements represents a different phase of life’s cycles and can be used to understand health in a person’s life.
Observing how the five elements translate to human life physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually is a useful and effective tool to balance the body, reduce illness, and treat pain. All of the elements also correspond with a season, feeling, emotion, function, action, and color, so there’s a lot going on, but it just goes to show that everything is truly connected. In addition, each element has distinct characteristics, attributes, and focuses that either bring you into harmony or disharmony.
Now, how does this all relate to cooking, consumption, and our overall nourishment?
These elements play a crucial role in the way people eat, cook, and feel. Foods are prepared and cooked to heal your body and supply energy, and then these foods are consumed to prevent illnesses, nourish the body, and make you feel energized and whole.
Additionally, the five elements heavily correspond with your senses, especially with the sense of taste. It’s important to tap into our senses daily in order to feel connected to ourselves and understand what we need and are craving.
The Five Elements and the Five Flavors of Food
Knowing what element corresponds to each flavor can tell you a lot about your health, how you experience food, and how you bring your body and palette into a balanced state, so you feel good. Let’s dive a little deeper into each element, flavor, and function they provide in order to ensure you get enough nutrients from what you eat and nourish your corresponding organs.
The wood element corresponds with sour flavors and the Spring season. Sour foods are important for your body because they keep things tight, as well as break up stagnation, heat, and moisture from within. When you think of the wood element, think of green foods and sour foods. Some examples are broccoli, broccolini, spinach, lettuce, asparagus, bok choy, chard, celery, lemons, limes, vinegar, yogurt, butter, sourdough, wheat, and fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, or pickles. Sour flavors and green foods help cleanse and purify your liver and gallbladder. They may bring you feelings of excitement, growth, and progress to make better decisions and choices. When it comes to cooking, preparations like pickling, fermenting, smoking, and grilling correspond with the wood element. If this is out of balance, you may feel angry, annoyed, or frustrated, as well as have headaches, migraines, muscle tightness, arthritis, and indecisiveness. If you can feel scatter-brained or indecisive, these foods are helpful for you.
The fire element corresponds with bitter flavors and the Summer season. Bitter foods are crucial for your health because they disperse energy throughout your body, dry fluids and reduce heat from within. When you think of the fire element, think of red foods and bitter foods. Some examples are red bell peppers, strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb, chili peppers, tomatoes, arugula, dandelion greens, radicchio, endive, cayenne pepper, beer, wine, coffee, tea, dark chocolate and bubbly beverages. Bitter flavors and red foods help nourish your heart, small intestine, vascular system, circulatory system, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. They bring feelings of joy, happiness, laughter, and love. They nourish your blood and keep things moving inside your body. If this is out of balance, you may experience depression, insomnia, heart palpitations, anxiety and panic attacks, restlessness, mental stimulation, and overwhelm. Foods that are sautéed, stir-fried, deep fried, flambeed, toasted, or dehydrated correspond with the fire element. If you find yourself feeling sluggish, are overweight or tend to be aggressive, these foods are helpful.
The earth element corresponds with sweet flavors and the Late Summer season. Sweet foods are critical for good digestion because they nourish your stomach, your spleen, and your digestive system by neutralizing toxins and slow down acute symptoms. They also help you feel content, grounded, stable, and empathetic. Most orange, yellow, and light brown foods are considered earth element foods and consist of mostly root vegetables, grains, and soft fruits. Foods like oats, corn, millet, cantaloupe, apples, dates, potatoes, yams, squash, beets, carrots, parsnips, coconut, banana, papaya, mango, as well as lentils, almonds, honey, maple syrup, and molasses. Proteins like beef, salmon, tuna, and quail are included, too. If this is out of balance, you may experience worry, gas, bloating, loose stools, constipation, fatigue, weight gain, and IBS. Foods that are baked, roasted, stewed, pureed, caramelized, candied, and mashed correspond with the earth element. These foods help calm aggression and settle nerves and anxiety.
The metal element consists of foods with a spicy, strong, or pungent flavor. It also corresponds with the Fall season. Spicy (or pungent) foods are important to eat because they nourish your respiratory system, lungs, and large intestine. They promote energy circulation, eliminate toxic parasites, and have a scattering, warming effect in the body. They benefit lethargic, cold, and slow individuals. Examples of these spicy, pungent foods are mostly white foods and aromatics like ginger, garlic, onions, scallions, radish, cabbage, cauliflower, fennel, turnips, leeks, lotus root, daikon, flounder, halibut, tempeh and tofu. Many herbs and spices like basil, bay leaf, clove, coriander, horseradish, thyme, and bay leaf are included, too. These foods may bring feelings of pride, worthiness, and confidence. If this is out of balance, you may have feelings of sadness and grief as well as symptoms like feeling cold, low energy, shortness of breath, cough, congestion, sore throat. Foods that are blended, minced, or diced correspond with the metal element.
Lastly, the water element corresponds with salty flavors and the Winter season. Salty foods are crucial because they have a calming effect on the body, soften hard masses, and promote moisture from within. They also nourish your kidneys, bladder, bones, and endocrine system. Salty foods help you feel calm, at peace, and in flow. They promote actions like willpower, confidence, and courage. Most dark foods like purple, black, dark brown, and dark green/blue foods are water element foods. Some examples are seaweed, black rice, black soybeans, aduki beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, blackberries, black raspberries, eggplant, grapes, mushrooms, tamari, miso, aviar, clams, black sesame seeds, and chia seeds. They nourish your deep energetic reserves which are your adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys. If this is out of balance, you may experience fear and anxiety, as well as symptoms like frequent urination, sexual dysfunction, lower back pain, kidney stones, and bladder infections. In terms of cooking, boiling, steaming, poaching, and simmering correspond with the water element.
Best practices to achieve optimum health through the flavors and elements
In order to create balance and harmony in your body and in your palette, you must have a balance of all five flavors present in your meals. And, depending on what you’re feeling or going through, you can use the flavors of foods in each element to help heal your organs, manage your emotions, or to help you simply feel well.
This isn’t about eating the right foods or knowing what is good or bad for you. All food, in its whole, natural form, is energetically beneficial for you. Here are the top do’s and don’ts for achieving balance for your health:
Eat according to the seasons and elements.
Have all five flavors present when you cook. This will make your food delicious and help your palette be satisfied.
Use different cooking methods when you make your meals. This creates excitement and makes your food taste delicious.
Eat a variety of fresh, whole food every day that is organic or locally raised or grown. The more variety, the happier your gut microbiome will be.
Experiment with flavors! Taste test as you cook and season your food well.
Don’t do this:
Focus on one element or flavor at a time. Be sure to eat from all elements and flavors in order to achieve balance in what you eat and how you feel.
Only cook your food using one method. Using two or more cooking methods make food taste delicious and incorporate different energies into the food.
Eat only raw foods. Having a mix of both raw and cooked will help digestion and balance.
The Bottom Line:
It’s not just what you eat that will bring you optimum health. It’s how you cook your food with a balance of the five elements and five flavors of foods is imperative for balanced life and optimum health. If you practice this daily, you will feel whole, happy, rid yourself of illness, and experience vibrant energy daily.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in the article are the views of the cited guest/expert and do not necessarily represent the views of PRISM.