If we take a look at the big picture on nutrition, food and relationship to eating, the human body looks like a miniature version of the universe.
For instance, the qualities and changes in the seasons are reflected in our inner workings. Just as the weather can be hot or cold, cloudy or clear, so can our inner environment. We’ve all experienced our internal thermostat running hot or having trouble shaking the chills. Our minds and thought processes are clear and focused one day, cloudy and incoherent the next.
Traditional Chinese Medicine addresses these realities with the Five Elements Theory, which describes the changes continuously occurring within our bodies and correlates those changes with the seasons.
The Five Elements Theory illustrates the patterns of change in life demonstrated through five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water that create, influence and nourish one another. A balance among these elements allows patterns of life to flow gracefully.
By supporting and inhibiting one another, the elements stay in balance. For example, water irrigates the land so wood can grow, which then feeds fire. Fire melts metal to mold it, and metal cuts through wood.
The elements also correlate to stages of life, specific organs, emotions, colors, times of day, weather and the cycles of the seasons.
If we observe a tree through the seasons, we witness the continuity of life. In spring, when energy draws upward, the tree starts budding and blooms into full foliage; in summer, it bears fruit. As autumn arrives, leaves and fruit begin to fall as the tree’s energy returns to its roots for winter.
Humans also experience a cycle of growth and renewal every year. Fortunately for us, Mother Earth provides the foods our bodies naturally need during each season. The five elements and their interplay with the seasons illustrates how this works, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Spring correlates with wood, signifying creation and new beginnings. This phase is associated with the climate of wind, the functions of the liver and gallbladder, sour flavor and the opposing emotions of patience and anger.
Spring has a cleansing aspect, clears out the old and making room for the new. Nutritional strategies to assist cleansing and strengthen the liver include foods with sour and pungent flavors. Sour foods include lemons, limes, vinegar, grapes and mangos. Pungent sources are onions, garlic, ginger, leeks, scallions, cloves and fennel.
The most beneficial foods to select for spring emphasize the plant kingdom with a strong concentration on dark, leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables such as arugula, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage and kale, which contain various health-promoting compounds.
Fire is the symbol of transformation, when nature is at its peak of growth and we are full of enthusiasm and passion. Fire is associated with change, the season of summer, hot climate, the heart and small intestine. It is also associated with the opposing emotions of joy and hate.
Summer creates a hot, dry climate. Bitter foods with contracting and cooling qualities penetrate the heart and support the liver, making them an essential flavor of the season. Foods with bitter flavors include romaine, endive, Swiss chard, asparagus, celery and quinoa. Summer is the time to cool and hydrate with watery fruits like watermelon, plums and cherries as well as beans of a cooling nature, such as kidney beans.
The fire element has a strong influence on the heart, suggesting an effort to choose heart-healthy foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, pumpkin seeds and walnuts.
The earth element is the primary stabilizing force of all elements. Earth provides a state of a reliable, consistent belonging that anchors us as we navigate through life.
Earth’s organs are the spleen and stomach which are essential to digestive health and overall vitality. Foods that strengthen and heal digestive systems include probiotics, such as bananas, raw garlic and seaweed.
Metal correlates to autumn, a time to begin turning inward. Metal is associated with dry climate, lungs and the large intestine, pungent flavor, the spirit of free will and the opposing emotions of courage and grief.
Nutritional strategies for autumn target moistening and clearing the lungs, adjusting to cooler, windier temperatures and supporting the digestive system. Warming or cooling pungent foods are the autumn food choice. Cooling pungent foods include peppermint, radishes, turnips. Warming pungent foods include garlic, onion, cinnamon and basil.
During the driest season, foods with moistening qualities include barley, mushrooms, almonds and cooked pears. Consider a dietary pattern with generous amounts of root vegetables, including beets, carrots, parsnips, squash and yams. Soups and stews are great during the autumn.
Water, signifying wholeness, is associated with winter, cold climate, salty flavor, the kidneys and bladder, and the opposing emotions of calmness and fear. Winter is a time for rest, repair and energy conservation.
Salt has a downward and inward movement, penetrating the kidneys and bladder to regulate water metabolism and alleviate the dryness that can cause muscle, joint and mental inflexibilities. Sources of salt are seaweed, barley, sardines and tamari soy sauce.
Foods that are energetically warming at the coldest time of the year include black beans, pumpkin, tempeh, winter squash, oats, quinoa, kale and grass-fed, pasture-raised beef.
This is the time to incorporate some animal-based food into the diet such as fish. This is the perfect time of year to roast root vegetables with rosemary or dill, slow-cook a pot roast or simmer a vegetarian chili.
The external world and our inner worlds are mirrors of one another. Ask yourself, what season is it? Is it windy, cold, humid or dry? Then ask, what is my internal weather? Am I feeling overheated, dry or cold? What nutritional strategies can I adapt to align myself with nature and find balance within? Exploring the Five Elements Theory is the beginning of making food choices that best serve and nourish us at any given moment in time. It is the start of using nutrition as a pathway to healing and longevity.Resource: IDEA Fitness Journal