TCM Nutrition - Five Element Theory

The eastern medical theory of the five elements provides a framework which aids one in making food choices that will be most beneficial to a person at a given time. To understand how the theory relates to nutrition, one must first understand the basic categorizations of the five elements.

Essentially, there are five elements, or factors, which have an inter-relationship which must be kept in balance. The Five Elements are: Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood. The chart below describes some of the common categorizations which fall under each element:




 
FIRE
EARTH
METAL
WATER
WOOD
Yin Organs HT &
PC
SP LU KD LV
Yang Organs SI &
TH
ST LI UB GB
Sense Organs Tongue Mouth Nose Ears Eyes
Colors red yellow white blue/black green
Sounds Laughing Singing Crying Groaning Shouting
Emotions Joy Worry or Pensiveness Grief or Sadness Fear Anger
Seasons Summer Late Summer Autumn Winter Spring
Environment Heat Dampness Dryness Cold Wind
Tastes Bitter Sweet Pungent Salty Sour

While the entire chart is helpful as a diagnostic and treatment tool, it is the "tastes", "seasons" and "environment" correlations which have the strongest relationship with nutrition. Before discussing how food fits into the theory, it is important to understand how the elements relate to one another.

There are two main relationships which you must be familiar with to understand the application of the five element theory. First is the Mother-Son relationship (also known as the sheng, generation, production or creation cycle) and the Grandparent-Grandchild relationship (also known as the ke, ko or control cycle).

These are presented below:

promotion cycle
control cycle

The Generating Cycle shows that Fire, for example, helps support Earth and the Control Cycle shows that Fire controls the growth of Metal. To understand how this might be applied, take a person experiencing problems with asthma. Asthma is a Metal (Lung) condition sometimes with an underlying psychological component of grief or sadness. From a TCM perspective, Asthma may present as a phlegm-damp condition. Following the five element theory, then, we see that the Earth (Spleen) may be weak (phlegm-damp coming from poor digestion, etc.) and not supporting Metal (Lung) resulting in an Asthmatic condition.

Above is just an example to show how the theory is applied, we will continue with this example as we incorporate food into the five element theory. The chart below describes some of the common foods which serve to nourish their respective element:

 
FIRE
(bitter)
EARTH
(sweet)
METAL
(pungent)
WATER
(salty)
WOOD
(sour)
Grains Amaranth
Corn
Millet
Barley
Rice Buckwheat Oats
Wheat
Rye
Legumes Red Lentil Garbanzo
Peas
Navy
Soy
Aduki
Black
Kidney
Pinto
Green Lentil
Mung
Lima
Nuts/Seeds Sunflower
Pistachio
Pine Nut
Pumpkin
Almonds Black Sesame
Walnut
Brazil
Cashew
Vegetables Beet
Dandelion Root
Okra
Red Bell Pepper
Scallion
Tomato
Cabbage
Carrot
Parsnip
Rutabaga
Spinach
Squash
Asparagus
Broccoli
Celery
Cucumber
Mustard Green
Onion
Radish
Kale
Mushrooms
Seaweeds
Water chestnut
Green Bell Pepper
Green Pea
Lettuce
String Bean
Zucchini
Fruits Cherry
Persimmon

Fig
Orange
Papaya
Pineapple
Strawberry
Apricot
Banana
Pear
Mulberry
Pomegranate
Raspberry
Watermelon
Avocado
Grape
Lemon
Lime
Plum
Cautions Chocolate
Sugar
Meat Eggs Cheese Soft Dairy

Using the above chart and our previous example of Phlegm-Damp type Asthma, the five element theory would suggest that we would want to eat foods which strengthen the Metal (Lung), Earth (Spleen) and Fire (Heart) Elements. From the chart we would choose a majority of our foods from the Metal grouping and an ample selection from both the Earth and Fire categorizations until our condition changes. An example of food choices, with functions from Paul Pitchford's "Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition", would be:

  • Brown Rice - increases qi, strengthens spleen
  • Navy Beans - sweet flavor, benefits the lungs and spleen (both aspects of the metal element)
  • Almonds - relieve stagnant qi of the lungs, transform phlegm
  • Mustard Greens - influence lungs, clear chest congestion, improve energy circulation
  • Onions - resolves phlegm and inflammations of the upper respiratory system
  • Radish - transforms phlegm
  • Pear - affects the lungs, eliminates phlegm
  • Avoid - dairy (which may add mucus/phlegm), meat (which may weaken the spleen) and sweeteners (which may weaken the spleen and contribute to dampness)

In general and lacking the in-depth discussion from Paul Pitchford's text and others, for example, it is most important to eat foods which follow the basic tastes which correspond to the element that you are trying to strengthen and avoid foods which weaken it. In this case you would want to eat foods which fall into the pungent, sweet and bitter categories and avoid foods which aggravate these elements - sugar, meat and eggs.

While the information presented here is intended to provide you with the basic theory, it is important to note that there are different food groupings which come not only from differing opinions but also complexities within the theory that leave a particular food open to interpretation. Other factors which influence the grouping of a food and your food choices are:

  • Therapeutic Actions:
  • Bitter (Fire) foods are generally cooling (yin) and encourage contraction and the descending of energy
  • Sweet (Earth) foods are generally strengthening (yang) and encourage energy to expand upward and outward
  • Pungent (Metal) foods are generally warming (yang) and encourage energy to expand and move outward
  • Salty (Water) foods are generally cooling (yin) and encourage energy to move in and down
  • Sour (Wood) foods are generally cooling (yin) and encourage energy to contract and collect
  • Temperature - Within each categorization foods have differing temperature qualities which, while generally good for that element, may not be used during certain seasons or conditions. For example, if you had a common cold (Metal, Lung) condition you would decrease your intake of some of the foods which are generally cooling within the Metal element such as the fruits.
  • Season - The current season will also play a role in which foods you may choose to eat. In the summer (fire, hot) we require more cooling foods and in the winter (water, cold) we require more warming, deeply nourishing foods.

These factors along with the categorizations are worked into a persons diagnosis and general constitution to establish food groupings which overall help to strengthen the individual. The rest of an individuals preferences such as eating organically grown foods or not, choosing to eat animal foods or not, etc. can then be factored in to decide your final food choices.