Blog Posts on Diet
- What Your Cravings Reveal: Part IV
- What Your Cravings Reveal: Part III
- What Your Cravings Reveal: Part II
- What Your Cravings Reveal: Part I
- Diet (or Lord, Help Me, What Do I Eat?…)
What Your Cravings Reveal: Part IV
Wrapping up our review of food cravings and the therapeutic indications and actions of the five flavors, here, we’ll discuss sour and bitter.
In my clinical experience, the most commonly craved flavors are sweet, salty, and spicy. These last two, sour and bitter, are much less common. However, they are associated with specific internal organ systems and have specific effects on the body, so they are very much worth mentioning and keeping in mind for health.
Technically, sour is associated with the Liver and Gallbladder systems. Physiologically, it is astringent and absorbs (which makes sense, if you think of the puckering reaction when you bite into something really sour, like a lemon.)
Medicinally, this flavor would be used for cases of excessive ‘leaking’ or loss of energy or resources, examples being certain types of diarrhea, seminal emission, or uncontrolled, excessive sweating. However, I rarely see an actual craving for this flavor for such conditions.
Incorporation of sour into one’s diet (in moderation and in relative balance with the other flavors) is important as it is the dietary representative of, and stimulates, the liver and gallbladder systems. As with the other flavors, too much sour negatively effects its associated systems, and this is especially important with sour.
Most of us tend towards obstruction and blockage of the liver system (think frustration, anger, irritability, depression, and the like). This is relieved not with sour, but with spicy, which moves qi and energy. Too much sour can actually astringe to the point of causing blockage. It is, therefore, best when combined with the other flavors, as is so often seen in popular dishes, such as all those that are based on “sweet and sour”.
Bitter is perhaps a little more popular, with cravings for dark chocolate and (black) coffee. (Hmm, what is it, exactly, that you crave when you are wanting some chocolate? It may be the sweet, maybe the creamy, or maybe that sweet combined with that bitterness…)
Bitter is associated with the heart system (perhaps you’ve seen the recent research on dark chocolate and heart health???), clears pathological heat, and may have either a drying or purging effect, depending on the source of the bitter.
The heart system is of the Fire Phase (the Five Phases or Elements being Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, and Fire) and is the seat of consciousness. It is said that each organ system is associated with a particular emotion, e.g. Liver – Anger, Lungs – Grief/Sorrow, and so on, but that it is the heart that actually experiences the emotions, as the seat of consciousness.
The heart, being of the Fire phase, and the actual experiencer of emotions, quickly tends to generate excessive heat, the flames of the fire burning fiercely. I believe this is especially common in modern society where it is so easy and accepted to have one’s emotions constantly stimulated; we tend to run a little manic, as a group.
Bitter coffee can drain some of that heat. Of course, this is far from appropriate therapy, as coffee also depletes our core reserves of energy (turning it into an immediately usable ‘burst’ of energy – hence the pick up effect – unless it just drains you, as is common with a small, but significant, portion of the population).
Interestingly, a lot of people combine their coffee with sugar and cream, i.e. substances that boost energy (sweet) and replenish yin-reserves (cream). All in all, the popularity of coffee, really, can be seen as a somewhat complex attempt at self-medication.
Now, as with all the flavors, if this occurrs on an infrequent occasion, thus indicating medicinal effectiveness (it makes the problem actually go away), then perhaps it is truly “ok” self-medication. However, if it occurs on a regular basis, without the underlying need subsiding, then the body’s real imbalance is not being addressed…
And if you’re paying attention, you may just catch this. You may notice, “Whoa – I drink coffee everyday – I need to drink coffee everyday!” At that point, you can investigate what’s really going on and provide for your body what it so deeply needs.
Lastly, bitter may also dry, where there is pathological accumulation of fluids or dampness (most likely a result of over-indulgence of sweet) and purge, where there is excessive accumulation obstructing the bowels and large intestine. It’s easy to see why bitter can be popular and so craved!
In closing, it needs to be stated that, though all the above is “true”, in that it reflects traditional Chinese medical theory, as has been tested through actual clinical use over thousands of years, it is one small part of the overall picture. ***Actual, real-world experiences are going to be much more complicated.
This is the danger of a blog. There simply is no way to cover even this small aspect of diet therapy comprehensively (and who would read it?). So, please, take all this information into consideration, but the “grain of salt” you should take it all with is that your personal, individual experience is, most likely, not going to match perfectly with what’s been written.
If you want to get a better handle on your specific issues, go visit a competent acupuncturist. This is, quite literally, what we do!
Please let me know if you have specific questions or thoughts.
Eat well! OH – Almost forgot! If you want to learn more, I’ve listed some resources for Chinese medical diet therapy on my website. Please visit and let me know what you think!
Top of Page
What Your Cravings Reveal: Part III
The body is a complete, self-healing entity. It instinctively knows when it’s out of balance and what to do about it. (Our analytical minds quite often disallow connection with this instinct or argue and debate with it when it arises, but that’s a whole different story.)
Food cravings are a good example of this innate knowing and self-healing ability in action. One of my first ‘rules’ of diet therapy is to really pay attention to your appetite. When do you get hungry, and of paramount importance, here – What are you hungry for?
Cravings are, by definition, a strong desire for a certain type or flavor of food, and so the body is helping us follow the above rule. A craving is hard to ignore, which is all the more reason to give it that attention.
In this series of posts we’re borrowing from a hundred generations of clinical experience to help us heed the inner calling of our bodies to return to balance. Chinese medicine has collected a tremendous amount of information on health and healing, and diet is one of the most basic areas upon which its expertise can shed a lot of light.
Thus far, we’ve learned that sweetness is associated with the digestive system (specifically, the spleen and stomach), and that it strengthens and relaxes the body. Saltiness is associated with the kidney system which, from a Chinese medical understanding, has to do with our fundamental reserves and basic drive in life.
We covered how, when heeding our cravings, we should strive to consume flavors in naturally occurring states and in moderation (leaning towards too little, rather than too much).
The craving for spicy foods is quite prevalent, for reasons which will soon become obvious. Spicy, also referred to as ‘pungent’, corresponds with the lung and large intestine systems, and its effect in the body is to promote circulation of energy and blood, clear heat, and assist digestion.
From a Chinese medical viewpoint, stress, frustration, anger, irritation (as well as guilt and depression) are all due to energy obstruction (specifically, Liver qi stagnation) or the internal heat generated from such obstruction. As spicy flavors move energy and clear heat, it is pretty clear why such foods are so popular. We tend to be a bit stressed, as a society.
In addition, spicy aids in digestion. We also tend to eat too much at a sitting and eat poorly, resulting in very poor digestion. Instinctively, our bodies know that if it can get some spicy stuff in there, it’ll get help with trying to digest that huge meal. (Now, if we gave our full attention to our instincts, we wouldn’t over eat or eat inappropriately, but, again, another story for another time.)
It’s important to bring up that heeding cravings won’t completely ‘balance out’ bad dietary habits. Dousing that humongous burrito with hot sauce will aid in digestion, but it’s still gonna take a toll. And such minor alterations are definitely helpful, but if you’re steering your car towards the edge of a cliff, simply reducing the speed only buys you some time. Ultimately, you need to turn around… just sayin’.
It’s worth mentioning that spicy food that makes you break a sweat may just save you from a cold, if you can catch the cold in the very early stages, when you have chills and fever. If it’s gonna work it’ll have near-immediate effects. Worth a shot! In the next, and last, post, we’ll cover bitterness and sourness.
Top of Page
What Your Cravings Reveal: Part II
In Part I, we discussed how cravings for certain flavors are linked to the state of specific internal organ systems. Specifically, we talked about how the flavor of sweet corresponds to the digestive system and, in general, strengthens the body.
As with all the flavors, a little, naturally occurring sweet will tend to have the above effect. It is very easy to over do it, though, take in too much of the flavor, and have the exact opposite effect. In this way, foods are very much like medicines – The correct dose does as it should, but too much quickly causes harm (though, of course, the ‘harm’ caused by over consumption of a certain flavor is far less than with medications).
This can be difficult in modern society. We tend to ‘go big’. We concentrate our sweets and combine them into a single food. If a truly healthy amount of cake can be eaten, for example (the amount that will act as an energy tonic and not drain the system) then it is most likely a piece of a small piece of cake. It may, perhaps, literally, be just a ‘taste’.
An example from my personal life, I often keep a bar of dark chocolate in the freezer. Should I crave something sweet after a meal, I will break off a single square and have that. It tends to be exactly enough to satiate the craving without causing bloating, a sensation of fullness, or induce a ‘food coma’.
Additionally, just as the organ systems, themselves, do not function in a vacuum, flavors should always be eaten in combination with other flavors (as typically occurs in nature). For example, a good dessert is not dominated by sweetness, but is, instead, led by sweetness in concert with other flavors.
The next most common craving is probably that for salt or salty foods. Salty foods are most often desired for their effect on the kidney system.
It’s important to emphasize, here, when organs are mentioned in a Chinese medical context (eg. kidney, spleen, etc.), it is done in reference to a whole system, and not just the organ, itself.
This is extremely important to keep in mind when speaking with an acupuncturist. I will often refer to an imbalance within the heart system of a patient, despite the complete lack of any evidence of physical heart irregularities (eg. EKG readings are normal).
With cravings, please keep in mind that though a craving for salt does likely indicate an issue within the kidney system, it does not necessarily indicate any problems with the kidneys, themselves.
In fact – and this is a great advantage to having this information at your disposal – in a healthy person, cravings for certain flavors can be an early warning sign of imbalance within the associated system. Heeding such cravings can be an excellent, effective way to address health issues at very early stages, way before any ‘symptom’ may present from which an MD could actually derive a diagnosis.
Saltiness is linked with the kidney system. Within the Chinese medical categorization of the human being, the kidneys represent the fundamental energies and reserves of the being. They are the seat of basic physiological drive (something like metabolism, from a Western scientific standpoint), as well as mental and emotional willpower.
The kidneys are also our basic reserves of energy. Ideally, we live off the energy and resources from a healthy diet and correct breathing habits. Where we don’t, we tap into the kidney system.
When a person works hard, without adequate rest, over time they deplete the kidney system. In America, we tend to encourage such an excessive work ethic. In my professional opinion, a typical 40-hour work week most likely has a significantly detrimental effect on the worker’s kidney system. As the kidneys are the storehouse for energy and reserves of all the organ systems, weakness in the kidneys greatly predisposes one to a wide variety of other health issues.
It, then, makes perfect sense why salt cravings are so common. Even for those who don’t necessarily crave it, salt is often over consumed for simple ease of access.
This brings us to another important point with cravings. Should we follow them? I believe a good general rule is that, if a little will satisfy it, then, yes, eat some food in which that flavor naturally occurs.
However, if you find yourself gorging on foods or needing more and more, or if the craving persists over days and weeks, despite your eating habits, then professional attention is needed. Diet, alone, is not enough to right the imbalance in those cases.
This is why increasing sodium intake will not simply ‘take care’ of any kidneys issues you may be having. If you have become accustomed to adding salt to everything you eat, because you really crave it, a deeper issue is likely present and is going unaddressed. It is in these cases were Chinese medical treatment can truly prevent serious disease, by recognizing and addressing it before it progresses into full-blown pathology.
The reaming flavors of sourness, spiciness, and bitterness will be addressed over the coming days.
As always, let me know if you have specific questions, comments, or ideas.
Top of Page
What Your Cravings Reveal: Part I
I love this medicine. You probably already know that. I just can’t help talking about it, though. And for good reason (I believe). Chinese medicine is so wise! You know what I mean? It feels like this really old, well, Chinese guy that has seen sooooo much and knows a zillion things about everything. One example is the accumulated experience the medicine has about food cravings and how they relate to the sate of your internal organ systems.
Flavors are distinct and interesting enough to warrant a hypothesis that, maybe, they do something specific to the body. I mean, salty, sour, sweetness, these each elicit specific physical responses – puckering, salivating, etc. – as well as psychological, such as a feeling of comfort, security, or ‘ok’-ness. Surely, this isn’t random or meaningless…
Countless (literally) observations over hundreds of years, along with some wise theorizing and testing in clinical situations, has led Chinese medicine to the conclusion that no, such cravings are not random. They are distinct, and they do correlate with specific internal organ systems. An acupuncturist can, in fact, use cravings to help arrive at a diagnosis, and can even recommend eating foods of certain flavors for specific therapeutic effect.
Chinese medicine breaks flavors into five main groups: Sweet, Spicy, Salty, Sour, and Bitter. It then applies the theory of the Five Phases (aka Five Elements) to arrive at a list of correspondences, each flavor corresponding with a Phase, and each phase representing a different group of internal organ systems. Cravings (or, importantly, aversions) to any of the flavors indicates an imbalance in the corresponding organ system. Pretty simple, right?
The most popular crazing, the sweet tooth, corresponds with the digestive system and the ability to take in from the environment nourishment and deliver it to all parts of the being. Specifically, the sweet flavor strengthens the body.
So often, we get a craving for sweet immediately following a meal. This makes perfect sense, as digestion requires a tremendous amount of energy and we too often over eat, placing a huge burden on the digestive system. The body instinctively calls out for some assistance, a boost, to deal with the challenge. Hence, we start craving something sweet.
The ability to receive nourishment extends beyond the physical body, as well. We are nourished by experiences and interactions with the world around us, just as much as the food we ingest. It is consistent with basic Chinese medical theory that one would crave chocolate with emotional upset. The sweetness offers a basic comfort, a certain emotional ‘nourishment’ that, perhaps, we just lost in a break-up (and the bitter flavor, as in dark chocolate, effects the heart system).
Just as there are physical nourishment needs, there are certain corresponding emotional needs, as well, and one cannot substitute one for the other. We have a term ‘emotional eating’ where we know we aren’t actually hungry, but the act of eating somehow approximates another, non-physical need. This makes sense, from a Chinese medical viewpoint, as there is definitely a close relationship between taking in food and ‘getting what we need’, even when it’s not food that we always ‘need’.
It should be noted that all flavors have therapeutic effect when taken in natural, moderate doses (I think we know this, instinctively, but, perhaps, choose to ignore it.) It’s important we pick naturally occurring flavors and eat them in moderation. (What’s ‘moderation’, you ask? The amount that gives you the intended effect without negative side effects – A little feels good. Too much causes physical and emotional consequences.)
More on sweet later, as well as the other flavors…
Top of Page
Diet (or Lord, Help Me, What Do I Eat?…)
I speak quite a bit about diet on my website www.DenverChineseMedicine.com. Here, I’ll try and keep it really simple and universally applicable (HA! wish me luck)
So I’m not gonna tell you what to eat (title, schmitle). Instead, I’m gonna give you some basic advice on reading clues your body will give you as indicators as to whether what you do eat is actually working out for you. (I advise listening to your body above *any* book or guru, as long as you listen closely enough.)
The biggest clue is how you feel immediately after eating. Simple, right? But how many consider it ‘normal’ to feel tired after a meal? Well, sure, it may be ‘normal’, but it isn’t natural.
Food is one of the primary ways of getting energy, energy to do everything you do. If you’re tired after a meal, you clearly did not get energy from it. Therefore, something you ate, or possibly the amount, was unhealthy for you. A meal should leave you feeling 1) energetic, and 2) optimistic and excited about life. Seriously.
Next, what do you want to eat? Before eating, take a moment to tap in, pay attention to, what you feel like eating. Think about flavors – sweet, salty, spicey, sour, etc. Think about texture – crunchy, chewy. etc. Think about color. Think about heaviness, something light, something thick and rich.
Tune in, and then go with it. Note – keep it real. If your body has a natural craving for sweet, is it really looking for a Coke? Does it really want a piece of cake? Really? Pay attention. Strive for naturally occurring flavors and textures. (Your body, being a natural product, it is designed to interact with other naturally occurring things, like foods.)
Also, only eat enough of whatever you crave to satisfy the craving. If you do go for the cake, don’t blindly devour the whole piece. Eat and chew with mindfulness. Only eat what you truly want to eat.
Next, wait until you’re hungry. Again, the body has built-in mechanisms to achieve health and happiness. That is it’s design – to be healthy and happy. Appetite is an indicator that your body is ready, prepared, to eat and digest (a *huge*, energy-demanding task).
Eating when not hungry means your body is not prepared to digest, so, no surprise, you don’t digest very well, which means 1) you don’t get everything out of the food that you could, and 2) you actually consume energy (for digestion) that was not there (you weren’t hungry). Instead of getting energy from the food, the whole purpose of eating, you are actually using up more energy. And keep in mind, you’re not getting everything out of the food that you would if you were actually hungry, so the whole thing is double (triple? quadruple?) whammy…
Lastly, no matter what, enjoy whatever you’re eating. The more you enjoy it, the more you’ll digest and get out of it. And if you don’t, can’t, enjoy it, you probably shouldn’t be eating it and would get more out of something different. By paying attention, you just improved your diet.
Besides, we can’t always control what we eat. We go out with friends; We’re invited over to a friend’s house; We’re left with a bare ‘fridge and pantry… Whatever. Do what you can to do the best with what you have – Enjoy it the best you can.
Lastly (actually lastly, this time), chew more. Simple. Chewing is huge in digestion, and we mostly don’t do it enough. The food should almost disappear in your mouth without swallowing; it’s weird. (This is one of my biggest ‘cheats’ – When I eat something I know I probably shouldn’t, I’ll just chew the hell out of it – Give myself the best possible chance of digesting it.)
Give ‘em a shot. They’re relatively easy. And give it a couple weeks of honest effort – I bet you’ll notice a change (or your money back).
Top of Page