5-Element Nutrition

In Chinese medicine, the distinction between food and medicine is vague at best. There is a deep understanding that we are what we eat and that food can be healing, transforming both the form and function of our bodies from the inside out. In Chinese medicine, there are four main characteristics to look at when it comes to food: quality, quantity, habit, and nature. Most of us are familiar with the idea that the quality and quantity of what we eat is important and that our eating habits can affect our digestion. However, many of us never think about the nature of the types of foods that we eat and how that determines their medicinal properties. In Chinese medicine, foods have special properties like energetic temperature and direction of action that determines their medicinal effects. Ultimately, it is understood that no one diet is right for every person and every condition and that the more specific and individualized we can be about what we eat, the better.


Quality: Nourish Your Body

In terms of quality, foods that are unprocessed, seasonal, and organic are considered best. These contain the highest levels of nutrients, especially chi, something that is only found in fresh foods. Eating in season also helps us adapt and adjust to changes in the weather, making us more resilient to illness and imbalance. For example, leafy greens and fruit, which mature in spring and summer, are lighter and juicier so they are best for keeping us cool and hydrated during that time of year. However, squashes and root vegetables, which mature in fall and winter, are denser and heartier so they are better for keeping us warm and nourished when it is cold.

Quantity: Stoke Your Fire

In Chinese medicine, looking at the quantity of what we eat is not as simple as just looking at the absolute number of calories that we are ingesting. It also means eating the proper proportion of macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) for our particular body types. For example, some people have very high metabolisms and low body fat. Because these individuals cannot store as many calories in their tissues, they need to eat a proportionally higher amount of fats and proteins to regulate their metabolism. On the other hand, for those who have slow metabolisms, a diet lower in simple and refined carbohydrates will be better, helping them to feel lighter and more energetic. Stoking your fire also means eating neither too much (smothering your fire) nor too little (depleting your fire).

Habit: Setting Rhythms, Being Present

Our eating habits can have a profound effect on both our digestive organs and our overall health. Our internal organs thrive on rhythms and cycles so one of the most significant ways to improve digestion is to eat at regular mealtimes. This allows your organs to prepare digestive enzymes ahead of time, increasing the overall efficiency of this system. When we eat is also important. This includes eating according to whether we are hungry or not and eating our largest meal when we are most active, typically mid-day. It also includes making sure that we eat our last meal three to four hours before bedtime. This way our organs can complete the process of digestion before we go to sleep; if they can rest overnight we can sleep more deeply. Another common problem in our society is eating while stressed or distracted, which can disrupt digestion by making us eat too much or too quickly.

Nature: Properties and Characteristics

When looking at the nature of foods we are going well beyond their simple nutrient profile to consider their medicinal properties. In Chinese medicine, the primary qualities of foods are determined by their energetic temperature, flavor, and direction of action. With temperature, foods are categorized on a continuum from hot to cold. For example, cayenne pepper and dried ginger are energetically hot, while cucumber and celery would be classified as cold. The same can be said for conditions. Therefore, if a person has a condition with cold symptoms like chills, low metabolism, weak digestive fire, cold joints, or sensitivity to cold, foods that are energetically hot would help balance and neutralize these symptoms, while foods that are cold would aggravate them. On the other hand, if a person has a condition with heat symptoms like fever, inflammation, heartburn, or hot flashes, energetically cold foods are more appropriate. Direction is just as literal, with herbs that move energy down being more appropriate for conditions like constipation and herbs that lift energy being better for conditions like urinary incontinence and organ prolapse. The other key is considering the primary flavor of food, an indicator of its basic chemistry and, therefore, of its medicinal properties. The five flavors and their properties are:
  • bitter: cooling, draining, reducing, drying, contracts and moves energy down. These foods are cooling and draining so they can help the body eliminate the heat of toxicity, fever, and infection via the bowels. They are also draining so they can assist the body in processing excesses of yeast, parasites, and mucus. Examples of bitter foods include leafy greens like lettuce, kale, and collard greens.
  • sweet: warming, building, strengthening, harmonizing, moistening, moves energy up and out. These foods are building and strengthening so they are most appropriate for conditions such as fatigue and exhaustion. They are also harmonizing so they are considered to be soothing and relaxing for anxiety and stress. Examples of sweet foods include barley, squash, and sweet potatoes. 
  • pungent: warming, expansive, moving, stimulates circulation, moves energy up and out. These foods are good for treating the common cold because they get mucus secretions moving and push pathogens out to help break fevers. Because they are thinning and improve circulation, they are also good for conditions like high cholesterol and plaque. Examples of pungent foods include cayenne pepper, ginger, and mustard.
  • salty: cooling, purging, softening, moistening, moves energy down and in. These foods are good at moistening and moving things down so they are beneficial for certain types of constipation. Because they are softening they are also good for reducing nodules and swollen glands. Examples of salty foods include seaweeds like kelp, nori, and hijiki.
  • sour: cooling, drying, astringent, contracts energy. These foods are contracting and drying so they can be helpful in cases of excessive perspiration and hemorrhage. Because they are astringent they also help tighten tissues for conditions like hemorrhoids and varicose veins. Examples of sour foods include lemon, cranberries, and sauerkraut. 
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