A healthier you is a happier you and a healthy body always begins with a healthy diet. With the media bringing awareness of health concerns that arise from poor diet, we try our best to abstain from processed, fatty, and greasy foods, or foods with harmful chemicals or additives and opt instead for smoothies and salads as this is implicitly and explicitly acknowledged as the universal definition of a healthy diet that works for everyone. In reality, each body is different and we all have different nutritional needs according to our body’s constitution. Therefore, eating according to your constitution is as important (if not more!) in contributing to a healthier you.
One important aspect of eating is the taste of food and it can be categorized into five flavours: sweet, bitter, sour, spicy and salty. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the intake of certain flavours can help the function of the five organs in your body to balance your health, treat different diseases as well as recover from some acute illnesses.
Functions of the different flavours
Each flavour has a distinct job within the body and is linked with one of five important organs to help the organ function when there are disorders:
Sour flavour (liver) calms the body
Salty flavour (kidney) moves stagnation
Spicy/pungent flavour (metal) expels wind/cold
Sweet flavour (spleen) tonifies the body
Bitter flavour (heart) clears heat
Therefore in TCM, when we crave certain foods especially during special situations involving stress, anxiety, insomnia, and menstrual cycles for females, it is more than just a craving: it is your body giving signs that there are imbalances in your body that needs to be addressed immediately.
Craving Salt? Kidney (Water Energy)
A block in energy flow or lack of energy to the kidneys can result in salt cravings. In TCM, some of the problems related to the kidneys are lower back/knee pain, early grey hair/hair loss, menstruation problem, sexual dysfunction, developmental problems, fatigue etc. Some people believe that we crave foods that are necessary to our bodies, but this is not always not true. If you crave salty foods and indulge in large amounts, your symptoms can actually worsen especially for those who are overweight or have high blood pressure.
What type of food is helpful?: Seafood such as prawns, kelp and seaweed, along with walnuts and goji berries in healthy amounts are all great to incorporate into your diet.
Craving Bitter? Heart (Fire Energy)
Even though bitter cravings are not as common, craving them can actually be a link to your heart health as well as signs of excess heat in the body. Excess heat is related to anger, emotional instability, anxiety, and even insomnia. Ingesting bitter foods can help to relieve fevers, drain dampness, induce bowel movement, improve digestion and fight infections to improve the overall flow of energy in your body. However, people with weak, thin, dry and cold constitutions should take caution and limit their intake of bitter foods.
What type of food is helpful?: Bitter melons or other bitter leafy greens, chard, dandelions, chamomile, alfafa, romaine lettuce and rye all help with this condition.
Craving Sour? Liver (Wood Energy)
In TCM, Our liver is strongly related to our emotions and an imbalance can cause anger/stress/anxiety, resulting in a craving for sour foods. A liver imbalance could also be causing you to crave fried, greasy, fatty foods. Some symptoms of an imbalanced liver energy can be irregular menstrual cycles, depression/anxiety, migraines/headaches, tinnitus , tight muscles etc.
What type of food is helpful?: Tomatoes, oranges, kiwifruits, vinegar can open up the liver qi and help circulation.
Craving Spicy? Lung (Metal Energy)
In TCM, the lungs help to defend against foreign pathogens/invaders/evil which can cause sicknesses in the body. These pathogens can come in physical forms such as bacteria and viruses, or in psychological forms such as grief and anxiety. Individuals who crave spicy food may be at the onset of catching a cold or may hold onto negative thoughts and brood over them, which is why eating spicy and pungent foods during the winter is especially helpful. Spicy food can help get rid of such pathogens and can also help our immune system against sickness.
What type of food is helpful?: Go for spearmint, rosemary, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, anise, pepper, cloves, fennel, spring onions, curry, chilli, and onions.
Craving Sweet? Spleen (Earth Energy)
In TCM, the spleen is one of the most important organs because it helps to filter your blood and plays a key role in the immune system. If you’re craving for sweet things, that means the spleen Qi(energy) is weak or there is some imbalance which may lead to dampness. This can also cause lack of energy, digestion problems like stomach or abdominal bloating especially after eating, irregular bowel movement, low appetite, sinus congestion, heavy and puffy extremities, poor quality sleep, brain fog etc. Since children are at the stage of developing their spleens, they have stronger cravings for sweets. Eating small amounts of healthy sweet foods can help children’s growth and development.
What type of food is helpful?: Cherries, carrots, figs, winter squash, sweet potatoes, nutmeg, yam, brown rice, dates, whole grains, cinnamon etc. (If you have spleen Qi deficiency or dampness, eat hot cooked food instead of cold raw food/salad).
In the same way that each organ has a function in our body’s systems, each flavour also functions in different ways. By having healthy amounts of each flavour, your body can maintain a balance which also helps to prevent future illnesses. So the next time you start craving specific foods, try to see which organ is demanding your attention!
Leema Malla, RAc, MBBS
Leema Malla (MBBS, S.R.Ac) is a registered acupuncturist who works at Complete Balance. She obtained her bachelor of Medicine and Surgery at Jiaotong Second Medical University and has participated in internship programs in China and Nepal to build up her professional experience and education. Since then, she has successfully treated patients with anxiety, infertility, migraines, acute/chronic pain, etc.