The Flavors of Five Element Theory

One of the more interesting facets of East Asian Medicine comes to us from Five Element theory. It describes how the flavor and color of food perform different functions in the body and correspond to the five major organ systems of East Asian Medicine (which do not always correspond exactly to the Western medical understanding of the organs by the same name). Each organ system corresponds to a specific flavor and color of food. For example, the Liver corresponds to sour taste and green color, so pickled cucumbers would have an effect on the Liver/Gallbladder system, and people with disharmonies in that system will often either crave or have an extreme aversion to sour foods and can even develop a sour taste in their mouth. On the other side of the coin, somebody who overdoes it and drinks a gallon of vinegar every single day risks damaging their Liver function. We'll run through each of the five major organ systems and give examples of foods that correspond to each. Food is always the very best medicine, so using these basic principles can have a powerful positive effect on your health.

Liver and Gallbladder: Green color and sour flavor

Beneficial foods include tart green fruits such as apples and grapes, vinegar (especially apple cider vinegar), broccoli, most greens (especially dandelion), scallion, fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi, pickles, olives, peppermint, strawberry, and basil. A tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, or a bit of lemon juice diluted in water in the morning is an excellent way to jump start your liver function.

Heart and Small intestine: Red color and bitter flavor

Beneficial foods include red beets, endive, kale, bitter melon, cherries, strawberries, red cabbage, red onion, red grapes, red beans, and even chocolate and coffee (in moderation). A bit of coffee in the morning can pep you up, and jumpstart your digestion by stimulating peristalsis in the small intestine. Just be careful not to overdo it; jitteriness, hyperactivity, and insomnia, all possible with overconsumption of coffee, are signs of heart fire! Watermelon is an excellent choice for cooling down the heart, and great to eat during summer heat waves when you have no a/c.

Stomach and Spleen: Yellow color and Sweet/Starchy flavor

Beneficial foods include most beans, sweet fruits, grains such as rice or oats (in moderation), chinese red dates, root vegetables such as sweet potato, radishes, golden beets, gourds and squash. Spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, and garlic have a warming effect on the spleen and stomach and can aid in digestion, but should be used in moderation during the summer and in heat conditions. Sweet cravings often accompany fatigue, as the spleen and stomach are directly responsive for turning food into qi. If they are unable to properly metabolize food, people will begin craving sugar, which is extremely energy dense and easy to break down, even if it's not very good for you. Whenever eating sweets, even a piece of fruit, try to also eat something high in fiber with it (I prefer psyllium husk), as fiber will enable healthier digestion of sugars.

Lung and Large intestine: White color, acrid/spicy flavor

Beneficial foods include spicy peppers (in moderation), horseradish, scallions (the white part), leeks, onions, almonds, pears, egg white, white sesame seeds, garlic, and ginger. Making a tea of ginger, garlic and scallions can help with a cold, and most of us have had the experience that spicy peppers and wasabi will cause the nose to run and clear out stuffy sinuses. A nice spicy bowl of Pho is my very favorite thing to eat for cold or flu. Such spicy foods should be used in moderation if you have a tendency to acne or rashes, a heat condition, or difficult digestion.

Kidney and Urinary Bladder: Black color, salty flavor

Beneficial foods include seaweed, seafood, blackberries, blueberries, black beans, bone broth, bone marrow, black walnuts, goji berries, black sesame seeds, and most meats in moderation. Lamb, beef, and chicken benefit kidney yang, while pork is more cooling and supports yin.