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5 Senses = 5 Tastes = 5 Elements

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Cravings are natural. Why do they occur? How can I reduce them? What benefits do I get from the foods I crave? Is sugar an addictive substance? How do cravings relate to addiction?

There are five tastes as recorded in The Yellow Emperor, a famous Taoist and medical text written over 5,000 years ago. The five tastes are sweet, pungent, salty, sour and bitter. Each taste corresponds to a different organ system, pathology and element.

Each taste corresponds to a different organ system, pathology and element.

Sweet = stomach and digestive system = Earth
Bitter = heart and cardiovascular system = Fire
Sour = liver and nervous system = Wood
Salty = kidney and endocrine = Water
Pungent = lungs, lymph and immune system = Metal

For those of you who have a sweet tooth you may be wandering why it corresponds to the digestive system and the earth element. The digestive system is responsible for absorption and distribution of nutrients from food and is the source of much of our body's energy. When we lack energy it is natural to crave sweet foods, but the foods our body is really craving are foods like sweet potato, pumpkin, apples and corn, not chocolate. We have created super sweet foods that appeal to one's desire for energy and instant satisfaction, but these food types do not meet the body's needs. Consuming very sweet foods delivers only temporary satisfaction, because when sugar enters the blood stream rapidly it is removed just as rapidly by a hormone called insulin. This sugar is then put into storage in two ways, one as glycogen in the liver and the other as fat (and we all know where that likes to sit!). This is the nature of sugar and the addictive behavior it encourages. The storage that takes place not only leads to weight gain, but to many other problems relating to sluggish digestion and what we call in Chinese medicine damp accumulation.

In Chinese Medical and Nutritional therapy, sweet foods in the form of complex carbohydrates are central food for most traditional diets. Complex carbohydrates energize the body while nourishing and relaxing the brain and nervous function. Sweet is a harmonizing flavor as it reduces the harshness of stronger flavors such as bitter. Sweet also generates fluids or Yin and strengthen weakness or deficiency. However, sweet foods consumed in excess without the balancing characteristics of bitter foods such as dark leafy green vegetables can cause a build up of fluids and what we refer to in Chinese Medicine as Dampness.

The accumulation of dampness in your body is detrimental to your health as it promotes the build up of fluids and mucus and promotes the growth of pathogenic bacteria and candida (yeasts) in your digestive tract. Excess sweets act as inhibitors of calcium, an important mineral for muscle strength and bone density. Calcium absorption is particularly important for women in the pre and postmenopausal ages so here is another reason to reduce dependence on sweet foods. It is important to note that refined carbohydrates including predominantly wheat in the form of white breads, pastries and pasta act like sweets in the accumulation of dampness. Excess consumption of sweets and refined carbohydrates has been directly linked to many disorders including hypoglycemia, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and obesity.

So remember, when you get the craving for something sweet, what your body is really asking for is not sugar or refined wheat products but sweet vegetables and whole grains. So prepare ahead and give yourself a sweet potato. I have also seen many of the participants in our regular Detox retreats successfully get off their addiction to sugar, diet soda and even chocolate.


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Thank you Dr Ni for your perspective on cravings. I can have incredible sweet cravings some weeks and always feel that my body is wanting something that I am not giving it. I hope you will do more posts on how to beat a sugar craving. I'll get some sweet potatoes just in case. :) I just subscribed to your newsletter too.

September 6, 2009 - 6:36pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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