Can a food’s healthful properties be determined just by looking at it? Could the color of your food tell you which organ it is good for?

A few weeks back Renegade Health did a post explaining how the look or shape of certain foods could be extrapolated to understand which body part it benefited. Take for example carrots, sliced horizontally they look like eyes and are known to help maintain eye health. Apparently this theory is known as the “Doctrine of Signatures.” Other examples include

  • Walnuts – Brain
  • Celery stalks – Bones
  • Tomato – Heart
  • Sweet Potato – Pancreas

Well, I thought I’d take that same broad concept but look at it from the Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective of food colors and associated health benefits.

Chinese 5 Element and Food Associations

In the 5 Element Theory, everything is categorized according to the 5 primary elements of earth, water, wood, fire, metal. Likewise, foods are categorized according to the Chinese 5 Element Theory and thus associated with color, Zang organs and meridians. Although categorizing according to 5 Element Theory may see rather arbitrary, this is fundamental to Chinese medicine (including food therapy), and you’ll see the applications are actually quite intuitive.

In the Chinese 5 Element Theory, there are 5 each of

  • Elements (metal, wood, water, fire, earth)
  • Colors (red, green, yellow, black, white)
  • Seasons (summer, late-summer (rainy season), autumn, winter, spring)
  • Zang Organs (heart, kidney, lung, spleen, liver)
  • Tastes (bitter, salty, sour, spicy (astringent), sweet)

Each of those is defined by, and associated with, the the underlying element; that is fixed. Thus:

  • Metal – Lung – Pungent – White
  • Wood – Liver – Sour – Green
  • Water – Kidney – Salty – Black
  • Fire – Heart – Bitter – Red
  • Earth – Spleen – Sweet – Yellow

Just knowing that you might already be able to make some assumptions about which types of foods are going to target and help which parts of the body.

On to the specifics…

White – Lung meridian

  • Invigorates Qi
  • Smoothing of skin
  • Silver/white fungus is known to clear chest mucous and expel cough
  • Ex: coconut, water chestnut, radish

Green – Liver meridian

  • Appearance of fresh, active, bright, and beautiful
  • Makes skin soft
  • Eliminates inflammation
  • Ex: green vegetables

Black – Kidney meridian

  • Strengthens kidneys
  • Delays graying of hair
  • Delays aging
  • Ex: black sesame, black bean

Red – Heart meridian

  • Increases passion and enthusiasm
  • Improves appetite
  • Makes skin smooth and promotes epidermal cell regeneration
  • Ex: tomato, watermelon juice, carrot, red bean

Yellow – Spleen/Pancreas meridian

  • Nourishes the brain and improves intelligence
  • Protects vessels
  • Delays aging
  • Ex: Soybean, soymilk, peanut, banana, walnut

Although the specifics of what each color works to benefit somewhat overlap and are not super clear, thinking about food colors in the broader concept of the Zang organ and meridian they help is easier.

So for example, for nourishing the heart eat more red foods, or for strengthening kidneys choose foods black in color, while green vegetables help to detox the liver and thus improve function.  I don’t think anyone would argue with the liver detox and anti-inflammatory effects of green veggies.

Another popular method to understand food properties and their benefits in Chinese medicine is by taste: which of the 5  tastes dominates a given food will determine which Zang organ and meridian it helps.

What do you think?  Is there some merit to this concept? Leave a comment below and let us know if you’ve heard of either of these food-bodily benefit associations and if you’ve used them in selecting your own foods.