Are you wood, earth, or metal?
The ancient system of Chinese dietary theory and constitutions provides insight into modern health problems. Here's how to find foods that work for you.
Finding the right diet can be difficult. Much of the information on healthy food is contradictory, there are innumerable ‘specialised’ diets, and the ever-growing list of superfoods calls into question the point of eating ordinary carrots and parsley. With all this information overload, how do you know what will work for you?
Chinese dietary theory was born in simpler times. In the Warring States period (476-221 B.C.), scholars began to observe patterns and cycles in humans and nature as an interrelating system of five basic elements – wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Within each element was a multitude of related natural phenomena: from human personalities to the weather patterns, everything was connected. These observations paved the way for more complex assessments, and from this a framework for the holistic interpretation of health and disease was developed.
Several centuries later, this framework is still amazingly accurate. Using five-element constitutional theory you can understand your body type, and why certain foods, exercises, and even social situations do or don’t work for you. The five elements constantly change and transform into one another, striking a unique balance. In its simplest form, each element corresponds with a certain flavour, season, climate, emotion, and organ. In health it is important to have a good mix of all five flavours, with an emphasis on the flavour that corresponds to your constitutional element.
Appearance People with wood element constitutions have tall, slender, strong bodies. If they are suffering an imbalance they may have a greenish tinge to their complexion.
Personality These loud-voiced extroverts are ambitious and competitive, and disdainful of rules and authority. Their high-stress personalities are tempered by vision and hope. In their personal relationships wood types have a mix of spontaneity and imagination. Highly desirous by nature, their intensity can border on being aggressive.
Diet The wood element is associated with the liver and gallbladder, and the sour flavour. If you are a wood person you will thrive on a fresh, cleansing diet full of dark leafy greens, sprouts and young plants. You should eat lots of raw, cooling foods, such as salads and seaweeds, as well as chlorophyll-rich foods like green capsicum, peas, lettuce, spirulina, wheat or barley grass. The best grains for wood people are oats, wheat, and rye. Legumes should include green lentils, mung beans, and lima beans. Incorporate sour fruits such as citrus, grapes, and plums. Wood people benefit from dandelion, peppermint or milk thistle teas. Avoid soft dairy, refined food and oil, high-fat food, red meat, and intoxicants.
Exercise and relaxation As a wood element, aerobic exercise is your friend. It will help your exuberant energy flow smoothly and give you a sense of freedom and wellbeing. Visualisation is your best meditation technique. Feeling out of balance? Try writing, painting, or anything that expresses your creative imagination.
Body type These fast walkers are recognisable by their pointed chins, small hands and thin hair. When out of balance they have red cheeks and a flushed complexion.
Personality If you are a bubbly, excitable person who loves to socialise you are probably a fire person. Fire people are fun and charismatic. Enthusiastic about life, they’re quick to laugh, love to travel, and have a penchant for drama. In their personal relationships fire types need passion and excitement. They also highly value connection and intimacy.
Diet The fire element is associated with the heart and small intestine, and the bitter flavour. Fire people benefit from eating small, regular meals. Cooling, lightly cooked foods are particularly good, including steamed vegetables, spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, alfalfa, tomato, okra, red lentils, hiijike, and wakame. Good grains are amaranth and corn. Fire types need lighter meat like organic chicken, and seafood such as oysters and mussels. Cherries and persimmon, and nettle, raspberry leaf, and dandelion root tea are all favourable. Avoid sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, and spicy food as these increase heat in the body.
Exercise and relaxation Your routine should include quiet introspection. Yoga and tai chi help to calm your excitable fire. Become aware of where your skin stops and the outside world begins when you meditate. Flaring out of control? Reflexology can bring you back down to earth. Use Rescue remedy, journal writing, and quiet ‘me time’ to keep you flickering peacefully.
Appearance Earth people are soft-bodied with strong limbs, and have singsong voices. They put on weight easily. When out of balance, they manifest a yellowish, sallow tinge to their complexion.
Personality Earth types are nurturing and firmly grounded. Their strong sense of compassion and understanding supports their natural inclination for diplomacy. These sensual people are nourished by physical contact. In their personal relationships they are highly affectionate, connecting through touch, and are always up for a cuddle.
Diet The earth element is linked to the digestive organs, and the sweet flavour. Earth constitutions benefit from warm, cooked foods that are easy to break down. Complex carbohydrates such as well-cooked rice, millet, and barley should be the foundation of their diet, along with legumes and root vegetables, such as chickpeas, lentils, pumpkin, sweet potato, carrots, and small amounts of tuna, organic beef, and chicken. Ginger tea is good for earth people. The effect of cold foods, sugar, dairy, and refined foods is potentially disastrous for earth people: they weaken and clog the digestive system, and should be eaten in very small amounts. Ice cream should not be eaten at all.
Exercise and relaxation Exercise that encourages connection to the earth is wonderful for earth people. Try bushwalking, or anything that makes you feel closer to your natural environment. Meditation should focus on connecting yourself to your surrounding environment. Ungrounded in your life? Get your hands dirty in the garden or get a full-body massage.
Appearance Broad-shouldered, strong-bodied, and loud-voiced, people with a metal constitution are hard to miss. When out of balance, their triangular faces may have a greyish hue or be bright white.
Personality Metal people are perfectionists. Logical and detail-oriented people, their intellect gives them a dislike of small talk. Respectful and receptive, they find inspiration in personal relationships. They honour their partner and feel a deep connection to the quality and essence of their relationships.
Diet The metal element is associated with the lungs and large intestine, and its flavour is pungent. Metal types will flourish on a diet of protective, cooked, fibre-rich foods. Pungent foods include chilli, ginger, cabbage, and radish. Foods that renew metal are oats, carrots, apples, cherries, flaxseed, fenugreek, and kombu seaweed. Protective foods are dark-green and orange vegies, such as mustard greens, fennel, watercress, wheat or barley grass, pumpkin, kale, and broccoli. Drink teas of marshmallow root, mullein leaf, nettle, and yerba santa leaf. Avoid eating too much meat or dairy products, and definitely no cigarettes.
Exercise and relaxation Aerobic exercise is a must for metal people, particularly dancing and stretching. Allowing your body to move in a flowing, responsive way creates emotional and physical flexibility and freedom. Conscious breathing is the best meditation technique for you, focusing on the slow in and out movement of your breath. Rigid and imbalanced? Brush your skin daily with a natural bristle brush, or spend time listening to music.
Appearance Water people have round faces and bodies, and long spines. When out of balance they show dark under-eye circles and a slightly blue-black complexion.
Personality Deep-thinking eccentrics, water people are known for their strong will, cautious approach and incorrigible determination. They love a challenge but can hermit themselves away and turn into workaholics if they aren’t careful. Their personal relationships are based on trust and honesty, but their real power is in their watery depths.
Diet The water element is associated with the kidneys and bladder, and its flavour is salty. Water people benefit from a diet rich in warm, nourishing foods, including rice, buckwheat, tofu, black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, water chestnuts, potato, cinnamon, and black sesame seeds. Small amounts of organic chicken, eggs, and cheese, and seafood like salmon, trout, oysters and clams are advantageous. Teas made from rosehip, raspberry and blackberry leaves, and fennel seeds are good. Avoid raw foods, and foods that stress the adrenal system, like caffeine, amphetamines, and salt.
Exercise and relaxation With their long spines, water people benefit most from calming physical exercise that strengthens the backbone and aligns posture, such as yoga, Pilates, and swimming. Use guided imagery when meditating, and really focus on listening to your heart. Treading water? A foot massage will stimulate your kidney energy. Watery workaholics should try to get out and socialise, maintain a reasonable schedule, and avoid excess thinking.
Yin and yang
The qualities of food can be characterised in terms of yin and yang principles. Wood and fire are very yang, and have expansive energy. For balance they need foods with yin, cooling qualities, in which the body’s energy level or metabolism is lowered. The other three elements are yin, with contracting energy. They need balance from warming, yang foods.
So which foods are which? Cooling foods, including barley, cucumber, mung beans, watermelon, most fruits, and green tea, tend to have higher water content and thus encourage the restoration of water in the body. White meat and most seafood are more yin than red meat. Raw foods are cooling, while cooked foods are warming. The longer it takes to cook something, the more warming it will become. Plants that display cooler colours like greens and purples are more yin than yellow, orange and red plants. Yang foods, by contrast, heat up or increase body metabolism. Heating foods include ginger, garlic, pepper, onions, shallots, alcohol, coffee, black tea, trout, lamb, longan, dates, plums, pomegranates and cherries.
Everyone needs a balance of warm and cool. However, some diets should include more warming foods, whereas other need cooling down, and this is where your constitutional element comes in.
Eating with the seasons
Eating seasonal food, dieting or fasting to cleanse the body, and reserving certain foods for special occasions are practical concepts that have survived through the centuries and maintain relevance today. Eating with the seasons aligns your body with a natural cycle of fortifying and detoxing. Foods come into season at exactly the time we need them: for example, our natural inclination to eat lighter, fresher foods in spring happens at about the time little shoots of green leafy vegies poke their sleepy heads out of the earth.
Many holidays are based around seasonal food, and traditionally mix seasonal food and ‘sometimes food’, like sweets and cakes. Autumn harvest festivals saw people eating root vegetables and meats that fortified their bodies against the cold. The Christmas feast is notorious for large amounts of rich food, but here in Australia traditional English warming food has mostly been replaced by cooling foods like seafood and watermelon. Eating rituals have long incorporated the wisdom of eating seasonal food that prepares our bodies for the upcoming season.