Ancient Chinese philosophers looked to the natural world to find a way of describing how we are similar, yet unique. They discovered that pretty much anything in the world could be broken down into five energy types, which they called the Five Elements.
From a Chinese medicine perspective, food cravings are often related to an imbalance in energy within these 5 elements. Each element – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water – is associated with specific organs. When there is an imbalance, it can affect your organs and eventually, if not corrected, surrounding organs as well. Even a seemingly unhealthy craving, such as one for pizza, can point to a real need. (In that case, for more whole carbs and high-quality fat in the diet!) Cravings let us know what our body is in need of, so I would recommend giving in to your cravings, within reason, but ask yourself what you’re really craving and pick the healthiest version of it. (That being said, if your cravings are out-of-control an acupuncture treatment can often really help.)
If you find yourself craving sweets
Sweets are connected to the Earth element, which most directly affects the spleen and stomach organs. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the spleen and stomach are in charge of receiving, processing and extracting nutrients from the food we eat, and then distributing it properly throughout the body to ensure it is properly fueled and in good working order. When they are not working well, one may notice gastrointestinal discomfort, excess worry, and even easy bruising of the skin.
Healthier Alternative: Try to substitute with fruits like black, blue, and strawberries which are also antioxidants. You can substitute cacao or carob for chocolate.
If you’re craving salt
A craving for salty food could be a way of the body telling us that the Water element is out of balance. The organs directly associated with this element are the kidneys and the urinary bladder. The kidney is symbolic of where we come from, our pre-natal essence. It is also connected to the emotion of fear. When weakened, we may see the pain in the knees/low back and issues with being overly and/or irrationally fearful. Salt is an important mineral for our body but we can control the amount and quality of salt we use for balancing this element.
Healthier Alternative: Look for foods that will support your kidneys like kidney beans or seaweed.
If you’re craving sour food
Craving sour foods, such as lemons, shows there might be an imbalance in the Wood element. This directly affects the liver and gallbladder organs. The liver ensures the smooth flow of Qi (or energy) in the body which in turn is a major factor in stress management. The need for something sour may be telling us that our liver energy is stuck and in need of some calming/moving.
Healthier Alternative: Sour foods, like lemons, are actually fine in moderation!
If you’re craving bitter tastes
Craving bitter-tasting food/drink is relating to the Fire element, which is associated with the heart and small intestine. The heart relates to our spirit; when it is out of balance, we may see insomnia, heart palpitations, nervousness, and anxiety, just to name a few.
Healthier Alternative: Digestive bitters have been used for hundreds of years as a tonic, but it’s a taste that’s often missing from the modern diet. Try adding some bitter leafy greens to your diet.
If you’re craving some heat
When spicy cravings happen, it could very well be linked with the Metal element. Metal is related to the lung and large intestine. These are important in respiration and elimination of waste from the body. If the body is dealing with cold-causing congestion, for example, the spicy flavor will help to reduce the congestion and clear nasal passages to restore free breathing.
Healthier Alternative: If you find yourself putting hot sauce on everything, you may want to try cutting back or opt for foods that have less heat like ginger or garlic.