In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), food is considered medicine. Herbal formulas mostly consist of food items like twigs, berries, nuts, fruit skins, roots, flowers, and animal products. Food also has qualities beyond the biochemical nature assigned by Western medicine and nutritionists. Food also has elements such as taste and temperature, color and texture. These qualities go to specific organs that identify with these elements and are absorbed and benefited by them.
Let’s explore five main food tastes (sweet, salty, sour, pungent and bitter), which organs they are associated with, and how food choices can affect your health and well being.
Sweet foods (such as yams, fruit, carrots, and honey) are associated with the spleen and stomach, the earth element, late summer season and the color yellow. Sweet foods help the digestive system transform and transport food. These foods tonify the body and harmonize other flavors in a formula. Sweet foods help improve energy, ease pain and relax tension.
Salty foods, such as seaweed, are associated with the kidneys and bladder, the water element, the color black and the winter season. Salty foods are said to soften hardenings and dissipate nodules like we see in lumps, masses and cysts. Salty food also helps with low back pain, knee soreness, fertility and has anti-aging properties.
Sour foods like lemon or vinegar are associated with the liver and gallbladder, the wood element, the color green, and the spring season. Sour foods are astringent and absorb, which means they hold in fluid and stop discharge, as in excess sweating and diarrhea.
Pungent foods – including garlic, ginger, mint, scallions, daikon and peppers – are associated with the lungs and large intestine, autumn, the color white and the metal element. These foods disperse moisture and promote circulation; they move stagnation. Pungent foods also open pores and promote sweating. They are used in colds to promote sweating and expel pathogens.
Bitter foods are associated with the heart and small intestine, summer, red and the fire element. Bitter foods dry dampness (excess mucus in the body), have a cleansing action, a descending action (so they promote urination), clear heat (symptoms like insomnia restlessness, palpitations, a red tongue, rapid pulse, and anxiety indicate heat), and edema.
Examples of bitter foods are kale, parsley, collard greens, endives, and sesame seeds.
How do I know what to eat?
It’s all about balance. It’s best to eat what’s in season and be in harmony with the rhythms of nature. It’s also a good idea not to overdo any one flavor. Too much sour in the diet hurts the liver and creates stagnation, in the same sense, too much cold-food hurts the stomach and affects the digestive fire resulting in bloating, gas, loose stools, and fatigue.
These symptoms, in turn, may make one crave sweets to counterbalance the deficiency in the stomach. When an herbal formula is created for a specific ailment, there is a balance of flavors so we don’t have an overabundance of one that can create a problem elsewhere. It’s best to visit a licensed acupuncturist to get a proper diagnosis and dietary recommendations designed for you.
In the meantime, stay in season with fresh market choices, have a variety of colors in your meals and experiment with a nice balance in food choices when cooking.