Updated: Aug 21, 2021
Back when I was in college, I took a "Medical Anthropology" class. While I was already interested in nutrition at the time, my knowledge was limited to that of Western medicine's food pyramid and books that I found in the library from the health food boom of the 60s and 70s. This class broadened my scope of how food is perceived in other cultures. I found Chinese theory particularly fascinating. I realized, they understand food-body-spirit relationships on a whole other level!
The Five Elements Theory
The five elements are metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Chinese culture use this five elements theory for a lot of things, from the interaction between internal organs to politics, and Chinese medicine to cooking and food.
It’s just like finding the perfect balance yin and yang, it's about trying to find the perfect balance between the five elements. There are two main relationships between these five elements. One is called “mutual generation” and the other one is called “mutual overcoming.”
Examples of mutual generating:
Wood made Fire stronger.
Fire made Earth (ash).
Earth contained and bore Metal.
Metal improved the quality of the Water.
Water helps the Wood grow.
Example of mutual overcoming:
Earth can stop Water.
Water can stop a Fire.
Fire can melt Metal.
Metal can cut Wood.
Wood can consume Earth.
To give an example from nature, a plant (wood) grows when it is given water. When burnt, wood gives birth to fire, and the burnt ashes subsequently return to the earth.
The Five Elements in Chinese Cuisine
Chinese herbalists and doctors believe that to properly treat a patient, you must know the state of the five elements in their body. Any deficiency or an excess of an element can lead to illness.
The five elements also represent our five main organs: lung (metal), liver (wood), kidney (water), heart (fire), and spleen (earth). The five elements also represent five different colors: white (metal), green (wood), black/blue (water), red (fire), and yellow (earth).
In Chinese medicine and cooking, it’s believed that if you are weak or ill in certain parts of your body or organs, you should consume certain colors/elements of food to help you feel better and improve your health. For example, if you have health problems with your kidney, you should eat more food that’s black/water in color, such as wood ear, seaweed, and black sesame.
Chinese people believe consuming food that is red in color is good for your heart, small intestine, and brain.
Foods that fall into this category include carrots, tomato, sweet potato, strawberry, chili, red beans, red pepper, goji berry, apple, brown sugar, and anything else that is a shade of red.
If you consume green-colored food, it’s good for your liver, gallbladder, eyes, muscle, and joints.
The list of green foods could be endless. Some of the main ingredients used in Chinese food include mung bean, green onions, wasabi, and all the green vegetables and fruits.
According to this theory, yellow food is good for your digestive system and spleen.
Again, yellow is a common color in food. You can eat things like sweet or baby corn, yellow sweet potato, oats, pumpkin, butternut squash, yellow pepper, soybeans, egg yolk, ginger, orange, lemon, pineapple peanut, walnut, honey, and more.
If you eat white-colored food, it is supposed to benefit your lungs, large intestine, nose and respiratory system, and skin.
Common white foods include rice and noodles, both of which are staples in Chinese cuisine. The list also includes daikon, onion, garlic, bamboo shoots, milk, tofu, soy milk, Asian pear, banana, almond, white sesame and more.
Black and blue foods are reportedly good for your kidneys, bones, ears, and reproductive organs.
Black or dark blue foods aren't as numerous, but the list includes some great options. Look for ingredients like seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, eggplant, black beans, raisins, blueberry, black sesame, tea, and more.