See How Easily You Can Use 5 Element Theory to Eat Optimally

I’ve been seeing quite a few articles about balancing color in one’s diet as a way to eat well. These articles are always so beautiful – illustrated with plenty of photos of gorgeous blueberries, tantalizing tomatoes and the like. Further, the concept of choosing your food by color is an attractive one, simple and engaging of the senses. I’d like to add a little to the conversation by showing how you can similarly choose foods to create an exciting and balanced diet by using two symbol categories associated with the five elements: color and flavor. Each elemental phase has a color and flavor traditionally associated with it, and while competing theories exist regarding the exact assignment of correlation – what I’ve listed below is what is most commonly agreed upon.

My thought is that by using the following structure as a guideline, you could easily create a balanced diet. Below I just list a few examples of foods that would fit in each category, you should pick a variety of foods in each category for maximal health. I have experimented with this structure in a number of ways:

  1. I’ve used a different element for each of 3 meals and 2 snacks
  2. I’ve tried to use all five elements in each meal
  3. I’ve even used the creation and control cycles to have fun with recipe planning! Let me know if you use this structure and how it works for you in the comments!
  • Fire: Element of Heart, Pericardium, Triple Burner and Small Intestine. Resonates with the season of summer, inspiration, intimacy and the Sun.
    • Red, the color of Fire
      • Red vegetables: Tomatoes – from a Chinese perspective, tomatoes are cool in nature and have both sweet and sour flavors, and go to the Stomach and Liver channels – both prime candidates for suffering due to heat. From a Western perspective, tomatoes are a great source of antioxidants like Vitamin C as well as being a source of lycopene, a cartenoid thought to be helpful in cancer prevention. Other red foods: Beets, strawberries, raspberries, pomegranates
    • Bitter, the flavor of Fire
      • Bitter greens: Swiss chard – Bitter flavor clears heat, and given that these leafy green are cooling, they can be a great addition to the diet of someone who has followed the Standard American diet and thus have a lot of built up heat and dampness. From a Western perspective, all leafy greens contain very high amounts of essential vitamins and minerals, as well as providing a healthy amount of fiber. Other leafy, bitter greens: collards, kale
  • Earth: Element of Spleen and Stomach. Resonates with the times between the seasons or the very late summer, nurturing, stability and the earth beneath our feet.
    • Yellow, the color of Earth
      • Yellow vegetables: Yams/sweet potatoes – Okay, so these are often orange in color, but some are paler. Work with me, here. From a Chinese medicine perspective, sweet potatoes are sweet in flavor and neutral in nature. They work on the Spleen, Stomach and Large Intestine – so work powerfully on a number of levels in improving digestion. From a Western perspective, they are a potent source of antioxidants and vitamin E. Other yellow vegetables: corn
    • Sweet, the flavor of Earth
      • Whole grains: Whole wheat and/or spelt, brown rice, quinoa, millet – People are often confused about the sweet flavor in Chinese medicine. This is not the sweet of ice cream, Skittles and soda. To experience the ideal sweet flavor, take a bit of well cooked brown rice and chew thoroughly. That’s sweet. 🙂 So whole grains are the ideal candidate in this category. Rice is sweet and neutral and goes to the Spleen and Stomach. It is the perennial digestive booster, powerful enough to be effective but gentle enough for convalescing individuals. From a Western perspective, whole grains are the foundation of a great diet – providing key minerals, B vitamins and fiber for digestive health.
  • Metal: Element of Lung and Large Intestine. Resonates with the autumn, justice, permanence and high mountain glaciers.
    • White, the color of Metal
      • Tofu/tempeh and other legumes, fish, chicken: quality protein sources in line with your ethical standards, keep it free-range, organic, local and well-cooked. Most of the greatest protein sources are white (or beige, or something like it). For those of you who want to argue about some of the legumes, point taken. But even many beans that are one color on the outside are pale within. Any of these sources, when prepared sans cream sauce, are excellent sources of protein as well as many minerals. In the case of legumes and their products (tofu, tempeh, etc) you will also get a decent amount of fiber.
    • Pungent
      • Onions: Flavor is important, and pungent flavor is great for keeping energy moving through the body. Onion is both bitter and pungent in flavor and warm in nature. It goes to the Lung, Stomach and Large Intestine. It can activate the Yang principle of the body as well as helping draw energy downward as might be desirable in constipation. It also reinvigorates stomach fire when used responsibly – good for sluggish digestion. From a Western perspective, there is some evidence that onions may have protective effects against cancer. Other pungent foods: garlic, chilis
  • Water: Element of Bladder and Kidney. Resonates with the energy of the winter, wisdom and contemplation and the vastness of the ocean.
    • Blue, the color of Water
      • Blue fruits: Blueberries – Blueberries have been in the media a lot lately, mostly their antioxidant benefit is touted. Unfortunately, I do not have information about the Chinese classification of berries in front of me but my sense is that they are probably both sweet and sour, with a neutral nature and probably an affinity for the Large Intestine among other organs. The data on blueberries from Western medicine is easy enough to locate – they are a potent source of vitamins C, E and several protective compounds that are being heavily researched now. Other blue fruits: boysenberries, black raspberries, blackberries
    • Salty, the flavor of Water
      • Seaweed, condiments: Again, for food to be a holistic experience it must not only satisfy our intellectual understanding of nutrition or our emotional need to be able to look forward to a long, healthy life but the food must also taste good. I have used seaweed in place of salt in many situations with great results – many products are available to make this a simple experience. Other condiments are also fine, especially high grade sea salt and organic nama shoyu.
  • Wood: Element of Liver and Gallbladder. Resonates with the springtime, Yang energy, motivation and new beginnings and a rapidly growing field of grass.
    • Green, the color of Wood
      • Green vegetables: Broccoli, from a Western perspective, is a powerhouse food full of vitamins, minerals and the ever crucial fiber. There are so many green vegetables to choose from, this is a category that you can expand pretty much endlessly – even including a green food of each flavor for a five flavored green feast! Other green vegetables: Lettuces, peas, celery, green beans
    • Sour, the flavor of Wood
      • Citrus: Lemons – From a Chinese perspective, most citrus have both sweet and sour flavors, but lemon is distinctly sour. Its nature is slightly cool, which makes it a great candidate for cooling summerheat – the old time tradition of lemonade has some basis after all! It also goes to the Liver and the Lung – given that the sour flavor astringes, it may be helpful in restraining Lung Qi as in a cough or restraining an overactive Liver. From a Western perspective, these fruits are a prime source of Vitamin C. Other citrus limes, grapefruit


About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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