Chinese Dietary Therapy: How Flavors Affect Our Body
Sometimes I will tell a patient to stop eating salads. WHAT?! But salads are healthy, right? Generally so, but daily salads are not the best choice for all body types. We have a general idea of which foods are full of nutrients to make our body happy, and those that are “empty calories,” not the fuel we want to sustain ourselves on for periods of time. This is not the entirety of the story. Chinese medicine (and many other traditional systems) has much more to add to the story of how foods affect the functioning of our body.
This can be the actual temperature of the food or drink (hot tea vs. frozen smoothie), its innate qualities (cucumber vs. chili pepper), or the way the food is prepared (raw salad vs. barbecued kebobs). Using the thermal quality of the food will help balance the body. This is why we crave watermelon on a hot summer’s day and why a hot stew is so comforting on a cold winter’s day. In this case, we are eating along with the seasons. Additionally, we may be more cold or warm in our body, or have specific conditions that are more one or the other that will respond to the types of foods we put in it. A person who is low in energy in their digestive organs (more “cold” in the stomach and spleen) will have a harder time warming up and digesting raw vegetables, which is why this person gets gas and stomach upset with the veggie platter at the office party. This is why not everyone will do well on smoothies and salads. In contrast, too much hot can also do damage. I probably don’t need to explain how one would feel after indulging in a weekend of alcohol and hot peppers.
There are five categories of flavor that correlate to the organs of the body as well as the seasons. When a system in the body is off kilter, we may crave this flavor. A little can help restore the balance, but overdoing it can lead to more damage. The spleen and stomach are related to the sweet flavor. In ancient days, this was more of a grain and root vegetable sweetness (whoopie pies weren’t invented yet!) So, someone spleen deficient (that guy avoiding the veggie platter) would do much better with some roasted yams and avoid sugary desserts. Too much sugar can generate dampness as it impedes the function of these organs, and we will see more buildup of phlegm or diarrhea. Late summer is the time of spleen and stomach, and we all benefit from enjoying sweet foods this time of year.
Salty flavors are associated with the kidney and bladder and the season of winter. These foods, like seaweed, fish, and miso, are loaded with minerals. This food is helpful to counteract the hardening of growths, lymph glands, and muscles. We know muscles will cramp up if we are lacking in calcium, magnesium, and potassium. The bladder and kidney organs are the regulators of fluid in the body and so their connection with over consuming salt is well understood in symptoms such as the elevation of blood pressure and edema.
Sour is linked to the liver and gallbladder. Lemon, vinegar, and green apples are examples of these flavors. This flavor stimulates digestion and gets things moving, which is very helpful for people who are stagnated in these organ systems. People who have energy blockages in their liver will be irritable, stressed, constipated, and experience headaches and muscle tension. Heat can build up as well. A helpful prescription here would be exercise, cooler foods like salad, and sour flavors to get things moving and remove the inflammation. Spring is the time linked to liver and gallbladder. As spring winds stir up symptoms of tension or joint pain, sour flavors will help ease the effect.
Bitter is associated with the heart and small intestine, the fire organs of Summer. We don’t eat a lot of bitter in our diets these days and would do well to switch out some of that excess sweet for more bitter. This flavor helps to dry and drain and remove obstructions in the flow of energy and fluids in the body. Kale and arugula are examples of bitter foods.
Finally, we have pungent, or we can think of as spicy. These foods are dispersing, stimulate digestion, and great if you have a lot of congestion. What gets things moving when we have a cold? Onions, peppers, and ginger! This is the flavor of the lung and large intestine. In the fall, one of the best things we can do for the immune system is to include pungent flavors into the diet.
The idea here is not to overdo it; balance is key. Someone who goes nuts with the onions will have lessening of their congestion, but their intestines may pay the price later. Within a meal, there can be harmony, too. Cold sushi always comes with a side of warming ginger. I tell patients who are cool, if they really want that salad, have a warm drink with it to offset the effects of the temperature. Chinese dietary therapy looks at each food in relation to its flavor, temperature, and organ that it affects. This is how we can put together a way of eating that is going to benefit how we feel, energetically and functionally, and is so much more than just calories and nutrients. Food is our medicine, our fuel, and our building blocks. Let’s all try to cherish it and respect it. Spending time each day to eat real food, and balancing the types of foods, will keep us happy and healthy for many years to come.
Dr. Kimberly Zurich is a Naturopathic doctor and board certified acupuncturist. She founded Infuse Health Clinic, where she helps people find peace from physical and emotional pain. For more information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit: