5 Element Theory

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An ancient Chinese belief system that says we are surrounded by five energy fields: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Keeping all of the elements in balance promotes harmony in our surroundings and in ourselves.

Based on ancient Chinese philosophy, the 5 Element Theory relates all energy and substances to the elements—fire, earth, metal (or air), water, and wood. Each element is associated with a direction of the compass and a season of the year, with late summer as the fifth season. In the creation cycle, one element gives birth to the next and nourishes it through the flow of energy.

1. Fire

Fire is associated with twelve noon and the summer season. The related organs are the heart and small intestine. The related emotion is joy. Fire vegetables are asparagus, Brussels sprouts, chives, dandelion, scallions, and tomatoes. Coffee and tobacco are also fiery. Fire creates circulation in the body.

2. Earth

Earth is associated with the afternoon and the late summer season. The stomach and pancreas are the active organs, and sympathy and worry are the correlated emotions. Chard, collards, parsnips, spinach, squash, and sweet potato are the earth vegetables. The taste of earth is sweet, and other earth substances are carob, honey, maple syrup, and sugar. The related bodily function of earth is digestion.

3. Metal

Metal is associated with the evening and the autumn season. The lungs are the active organs. The emotion is grief. Cabbage, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, daikon, and radish are the metal vegetables. Peppermint, spirulina, tofu, and tempeh also belong to the metal family. Respiration is the related bodily function.

4. Water

Water is associated with night and the winter season. The active organs are the kidneys and the bladder. The emotion is fear. Beets, burdock, sea vegetables, and kale are water vegetables. Miso, salt, and tamari are also water foods. Elimination is the bodily function.

5. Wood

Wood creates fire, which creates earth, which creates metal, which creates water, which creates wood. In the destruction cycle, wood injures earth, fire destroys metal, earth controls water, metal attacks wood, and water injures fire. Wood is associated with the morning and the spring season. It is associated with the liver and the gallbladder and the emotions of impatience and anger. Wood vegetables are artichokes, broccoli, carrots, string beans, zucchini, sprouts, parsley, and leafy greens. The effect of wood on the body is purification.

By eating foods associated with each of the elements, you can promote balance in the body. Knowing which foods, seasons, emotions, and bodily functions are associated with which element can make you a master of balance. Say, for example, it’s the middle of winter, and you are feeling constipated and tight. It’s the water time of year, so increasing sea vegetables with water energy and drinking more water could help. Or say you are craving coffee and cigarettes, which both belong to the fire element. You could deconstruct those cravings and ask yourself, “Where else can I add fire, passion, and joy into my life?” You might also increase the fire vegetables, like green leafy vegetables, in your diet. Chances are your craving for coffee and cigarettes would subside.

According to 5 Element Theory, the way you cook changes the energy of your food. Stir-frying and deep frying give food a wood energy. Grilling and barbecuing add fire energy. Boiling imbues food with water energy. Baking creates a metal energy. And steaming brings about an earth energy. If you are interested in exploring this theory further, use the chart with the elements and components of each element clearly listed. In your food journal, you can record what you eat from each element every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This will help you see your natural tendencies and find balance. If you notice that you are eating mostly earth foods, it may help to increase wood foods because wood holds down the earth.

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