How food affects the body: A TCM perspective
By Tania Grasseschi
One of the foundational principles underlying Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is that of the five elements – Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood. Each of these elements corresponds to different organs, different seasons and different flavours, as well as many other connections.
Balance is key
Every item of food you consume can be helping you to heal and grow stronger or can be feeding your imbalance and making you sicker. In Traditional Chinese Medicine food can be categorised by its flavour and its temperature. A perfect meal contains a balance of the five flavours to nourish and support your whole body, as well as a balance of temperatures based on the season and your body type.
How digestion works within the TCM framework
The Earth element corresponds essentially to the digestive system. As such it is responsible for nourishing your body by transforming the food you eat into qi and blood and then transporting them around your body.
Think of the Stomach as a pot sitting over a flame boiling away and the steam rising from it as the essence of the food you have eaten that is used to nourish your body. If the flame is weak, you have digestive problems, the food can’t be properly ‘cooked’ and digested. If too much cold, raw food is put into the pot the boils goes down and it takes a lot of energy to bring it back up to a boil which leaves little energy left to nourish your body.
While there may be more nutrients in raw food if you are sick or exhausted, very young or very old, or recently had a baby your digestive systems will not be working as well as it should, making it harder to access the nutrients in raw food. This is why Chinese medicine strongly encourages eating lightly cooked food rather than raw food so that you can more easily access the nutrients you need.
How flavours affect the body
Each flavour can benefits a different element or organ when taken in moderation or can damage the organ when taken in excess.
- Sweet — Naturally sweet foods like pumpkin or sweet potato can nourish you and your digestive system but too much sugar can lead to a build-up of phlegm in your body.
- Salty — Adding a little good quality sea salt to your winter stews and casseroles can nourish your kidney, adrenal, energy but too much, or poor quality salt, can lead to fluid retention.
- Pungent — When you have a cold the pungent flavour, like spring onions, can help cut through the phlegm in your lungs and help you release your cold while too much can be drying and draining.
- Sour — The sour flavour is said to nourish your liver and help you stay calm. It is also astringent so reduces sweating, diarrhoea, or urination but too much can lead to constipation.
- Bitter — The bitter flavour is said to support your heart in moderation but in excess can be drying which can damage the cooling calming effect of the yin in your body. Coffee is bitter and acts as a vasodilator in moderation, 1 cup per day, but in excess it can raise your blood pressure, as your damaged yin can no longer anchor your hot yang.
How temperature can rebalance the body
The five different temperatures (hot, warm, neutral, cool, and cold) can be used to rebalance your body if you are too hot or too cold as well as supporting you through the different seasons.
- If you feel cold — If you feel the cold throughout the year then the best way to warm up is by consuming warming foods such as ginger or cinnamon and cutting out cold raw foods.
- If you feel too warm — If you are trying to cool yourself down, try some peppermint tea or mung bean soup as well as avoiding too many chai teas and curries.
How to approach seasonal eating
By eating foods that are grown locally and therefore seasonal you have a better chance of supporting your health throughout the year. Here’s what I would recommend for summer vs. winter.
- Summer — In Summer, it is best to eat cooling (not cold) foods in summer and use shorter cooking times and lighter cooking methods with less salt and seasoning.
- Winter — In winter, eat warming (not hot) foods with longer cooking styles and richer flavours by using more seasoning including warming spices.
So if you feel that your digestion is not working as well as it should, have a closer look at the nature and flavour of the foods you are eating so you can bring yourself back into balance.
The perfect place to start is with an Acupuncture or Tui Na (Chinese massage) appointment. Our practitioners can help to strengthen your digestion so that you can have more energy to accomplish all you desire.
Tania Grasseschi has a Health Science degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as a Diploma in Wholefood Counselling. Her work at Oriental Wisdom has her focusing on Women’s and Children’s health and using Food as Medicine. She has been a contract academic at Endeavour College of Natural Health since 2015.