A Balanced Diet from the Chinese Medical Perspective, Part Two: Five Elements Theory and Deficiency/Excess

A Balanced Diet from the Chinese Medical Perspective, Part Two:

Five Elements Theory and Deficiency/Excess

             While there are a number of superficial similarities between the Chinese medical concept of a proper diet and the Western, the theories behind them are vastly different.  Both emphasize a balanced diet containing small amounts of meat, lots of vegetables, and grains, but that’s where the similarity diverges.  Yin Yang Theory and Five Elements Theory tend to both be applied to medicine, diet, martial arts and exercise. They are central to the internal martial arts and consciously or unconsciously shape Asian culture.

The first aspect of the Chinese concept of food combination is that when taken all together the meal should be neutral or only slightly heating or cooling.  Many of the things that are eaten in an American diet involve combinations of foods that are all heating or are all cooling.  In the long-term, this causes an imbalance that leads to ill health.  Thus properly combining your foods can lead to promoting your health or can cause deterioration of your health.

While this concept is different from the Western viewpoint it actually has certain similarities.  The Chinese believe that you need to carefully balance your foods and that this leads to good tasting dishes which promote health.  The problem of course for most Americans is that they have no idea which foods are heating or cooling, let alone how they apply to the five elements.  Some are obvious and others are not.  Some make no real sense at all without the extensive study that their medical system put into it, and a few you have to take on faith.

While in the West there has been quite a bit of research showing that eating particular foods can worsen a health condition or make it better, this research is largely ignored.  The average citizen in America has no idea that there has been research showing that broccoli and tomatoes will decrease the size of a prostate cancer tumor or that artichokes flush the gallbladder, preventing stones from developing.  Most people are entirely unaware even of the research that has shown that eating either five green leafy vegetable servings or five servings of yellow vegetables a day of the seven that are recommended will decrease your chance of getting any kind of cancer by 75%.  In Asia, however, a great deal of emphasis is placed on diet both for preventing and curing disease.

So your basic meal consists of one meat, two or more servings of vegetables, one to three servings of rice or pasta, and spices which complement the flavor and energetic qualities of your food to bring about a mostly neutral result with it more heating in the winter, more cooling in the summer, and somewhat neutral in spring and fall.  In addition, you would tend to eat foods that are appropriate to the particular season based on Five Elements Theory.  So it would be good to eat more bean sprouts, for instance, in the spring.

Each food has its own temperature related to it as well as one or more elements associated with it.  Fish, for instance, is a cooling meat.  For more on this subject, see my previous blog entry: A Balanced Diet from the Chinese Medical Perspective: Part One: Yin Yang theory.

One aspect is the division of all conditions into either excess or deficiency.  This derives from Yin Yang Theory.  From a Western perspective, you might liken this to the Western concepts of thyroid health.  If you have an overactive or hyperthyroid condition that would be a yang excess or yin deficiency or both.  If you have an under-active thyroid or hypothyroid, then that would be a yin excess or yang deficiency or both.  So what you’re looking for is a properly functioning thyroid or relative balance.

That being said, you would never look at thyroid function or any specific organ in Chinese medicine.  Instead, it operates off of a functional system based on the five elements.  Those elements are metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. Each one represents a different principal.  Fire would be metabolic fire; for instance, it would most closely be associated with the endocrine system.  Wood is associated with growth, and water is associated with bodily fluids including but not limited to tears, saliva, urine, and lymph.  If you’re interested in learning more about the five elements system as it relates to medicine, I would recommend Ron Teegarden‘s books Chinese Tonic Herbs and The Ancient Wisdom of Chinese Tonic Herbs, as well as The Web That Has No Weaver and Between Heaven and Earth.

Yin Yang Theory applies to every element and can lead to deficiency or excess in each element.  In addition, there are five types of disorder: heat, cold, dampness, dryness, and wind. Heat is characterized by feeling hot, fever, rash, and any other symptoms of heat.  Cold is characterized by having a low temperature, feeling cold, shivering, and other such symptoms.  Dampness may be characterized by excessive weight, congestion, runny nose, cancer, and edema; thick mucus indicates extreme dampness, etc.  Dryness is characterized by such conditions as diabetes where the organ is not producing excretions; this would include mucus, saliva, and similar bodily fluids, usually characterized by dryness of the mouth, lips, tongue, and in severe cases it can involve the lungs.  Wind factor may accompany any other and is characterized by rapidly changing symptoms.  It is often associated with viral infections.  Once again, those are heat, cold, dampness, dryness, and wind and they can be found in pretty much any combination.

Your diet is considered part of the medical theory, and lifestyle is considered the first preventative measure for disease.  Therefore it is good to have foods that are representative of each of the five elements.  The five elements consist of water, would, fire, Earth, and metal.  They each have a yin and yang to them and are associated with certain internal organs, but as it is a functional relationship several of them may apply to different aspects of the same organ.

  • To nourish water, which is associated with the kidney, you would want foods with a salty flavor, and you would need to consume water and organ meats such as liver, kidney, or heart and “black foods” like eggplant, black sesame seeds, water chestnuts, and black walnuts, and other foods such as watermelon, seaweed, and raspberries;
  • For wood, which is associated with the liver, you would need to consume sour and woody foods such as bamboo, mung beans sprouts, green peas, string beans, and avocado;
  • For fire you want to consume foods which are bitter and red such as tomatoes, as well as scallions, beets, and dandelion root;
  • Earth is associated with the spleen and is stimulated by sweet and pungent foods such as carrots, spinach, pumpkin, papaya, pineapple, fig and squash; and
  • Metal, which is associated with the lungs and the color white, and is stimulated by foods that are pungent or spicy such as asparagus, broccoli, almonds, cucumber, mustard greens, apricots, bananas and pears.

Each element is associated with a particular taste, and the tastes have specific therapeutic characteristics:

  • Salty foods (associated with Water) are generally cooling or yin.  They encourage energy to move in and down;
  • Sour foods (associated with Wood) are generally cooling or yin.  They encourage energy to contract and collect;
  • Bitter foods (associated with Fire) are generally cooling or yin.  They encourage contraction and the descending of energy;
  • Sweet foods (associated with Earth) foods are generally strengthening or yang.  They encourage energy to expand upward and outward; and
  • Pungent foods (associated with Metal) are generally warming or yang.  They encourage energy to expand and move outward.

With this small amount of information, you can start to balance your diet from a Chinese perspective.  While this is far from a complete list, it does give you a basic background.

Copyright © 2013 Julian Thomas Reid III

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