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Understanding Five Element Food Therapy One Bite at a Time

Posted Aug 14 2013 4:30pm

By Briana J. Sabaj L.Ac, Dipl OM.

I Love Food. Yum! Since becoming an Acupuncture student over 10 years ago, my relationship to food has done a complete 180°. I began learning about many facets of food I never knew existed! Based upon the Ancient Chinese teachings of Five Elements, food is used as therapy. To achieve optimal health, it is necessary to understand the basic energetic qualities and properties of food and how it works to affect change (good or bad!) within our organ systems. Wow! This element-based perspective on food was ultimately life-changing. 

One foundation of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based upon the ancient belief that the body is a microcosm of the macrocosm. Meaning, what happens within the universe, happens within us on a smaller scale. We are not separate from nature, we are nature. As such, our organ systems are connected to the Five Elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water) through taste, emotion, season, color, and many more characteristics. Here are some ways to identify which element is predominant:


  • Sour
  • Liver/Gallbladder
  • Resembles a tree! Long, sinewy, bony
  • Represents Anger
  • Green
  • Spring


  • Bitter
  • Heart/Small Intestine
  • Pointy nose, chin, and top of head; red complexion especially when angry.
  • Red
  • Summer


  • Sweet
  • Spleen/Stomach
  • Short body, neck, and fingers; strong muscles and thick body
  • Worried
  • Yellow
  • Indian Summer


  • Pungent
  • Lung/Large Intestine
  • Thin lips, eyelids, skin on hands; well defined features, slim body and white complexion.
  • Grief/Sadness
  • White
  • Autumn


  • Salty
  • Kidney/Urinary Bladder
  • Face is round, large and fleshy; often a double chin. Big eyes, thick eyebrows and thick hair. Black tint in complexion.
  • Fear
  • Black
  • Winter
The quality and quantity of food influences a person’s energy and vitality. Each individual has unique patterns of strengths and weaknesses, which necessitates unique nutritional requirements. According to TCM, food should be prepared and eaten within property guidelines as well as according to the individual’s constitution, presenting condition, and lifestyle.


    Sour and/or Green Foods: Sauerkraut, pickles, apple cider vinegar, green apples Bitter and/or Red Foods: Kale, dandelion, arugula, beets, hot chiles, cayenne, coffee Sweet and/or Yellow Foods: Yams, squash, lentils, sweet apples, oats, millet, Pungent and/or White Foods: Radishes, cauliflower, cilantro, fennel, dill Salty and/or Black Foods: Fish, seaweed, black beans, black sesame seeds, walnuts


    Hot/Warm: Cayenne, Cloves, Ginger, Garlic, Cinnamon, Basil, Mustard Greens, Horseradish Cold/Cool: Apple, Pear, Carrots, Celery, Cucumbers, Kale, All Citrus, Kelp, Squash

Our individual traits and patterns tend towards one element over the others. Though, when one element is imbalanced, the others will be imbalanced, as well. Our organ systems are in constant ebb and flow, thereby creating a ripple effect of balance or imbalance. I do my best to assess the health of all my organ systems, to create optimal health.

Earth Imbalance: I’ve often called myself a ‘sweet-aholic’ due to a lifetime of sweets and carbs overindulgence. As a result, my Spleen/Stomach organs were stressed, weak, and imbalanced. Because my digestion was weaker, it led to many issues throughout the years, from mild food allergies, PMS, emotional issues, to pregnancy complications. My poor nutritional choices weakened my daughter’s constitution, from when I was pregnant. Realizing diet was the only way to help repair and rebuild my family’s digestion, we diligently began using food as therapy.

Foods to Eat: Easily Digestible-bland foods (not tasteless!) warming foods to aid digestion, lightly steamed veggies, bone broths, occasional well-cooked meat.

Foods to Avoid: Difficult to digest -sugar, wheat, dairy, spicy, heavy greasy and fried foods, etc.

Understanding the different body types and food properties based on ancient Five-Element theory will provide a great foundation for a healthy life! We must reconnect with nature to understand how food can inevitably create or destroy our health.  Start Here by learning the key herbs and medicinal plants recommended for the most common women’s health issues today in our Herbal Medicine program!

As an acupuncturist, Briana Sabaj, feels that to reach optimal health, one must treat the whole person, from root to branch. Her passion is to help others reach this, using Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Healing Touch Therapy, and Acutonics. When not at work, you can find her in the mountains of North Carolina, with her family. Please visit Or contact Briana at, Skype: bjsabaj.



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