Who doesn’t love a little sweet? Of the 5 flavors, I can safely say, sweet is the most popular. It is also the most abundant and naturally occurring flavor. Like sour, bitter, pungent and salty, sweet (blogs up soon) serves a purpose. But don’t run out and start doing sugar shots or dive into the local candy store. Sweet is a little tricky and is vastly overused in the forms of sugar or empty sweets. Too much sweet is detrimental to health so being able to recognize the sweet flavor that is healing is important.
In Chinese medicine the sweet flavor correlates to the Earth element organs of the Stomach and Spleen. This also includes the pancreas which falls under the rule of Spleen. These organs make up part of the Middle Burner or Middle Cauldron. It’s the soup pot that transforms the foods we eat into what will be the base for all your energy, growth and strength. We can’t discuss sweet without a bit a depth into Spleen and Stomach, but we are leaping ahead.
Sweet correlates to Earth and moves to the center
Thousands of real foods have a true sweet flavor and for good reason. Sweet stabilizes the center or core, creating and holding our very foundation both in body, mind and spirit. The Earth element is reflective of everything strong and sturdy, the center of the house, the integrity of the being. Its job is to take what you eat and turn that into energy. Big job, right? But where we have to pay attention is to whether we are getting in empty or full sweets.
Each element has a corresponding season. Earth is unique, in that it is the 5th season or Late Summer. It actually isn’t one time of year but the two week period surround each solstice and equinox. It’s the time of transition from one season to the next, a time of balancing and centering, so it makes perfect sense that the foods that support it are available all year long and store well. It’s the Goldy Locks season, where we don’t want extremes…nothing too hot, or too cold…but just right with a little cooling or heating as needed.
Empty to Full–sweet is identified on a continuum
Empty sweets spike the blood sugar and give little or no nutrients to the body–danger! Empty sweet includes: white sugar, processed grains like breads, cakes, cookies, crackers and pasta. Even if the cereal box says “whole grains” if the grains are lacking their fibrous coating and require no cooking…it’s been refined to some degree. Simply put, empty sweets are simple carbohydrates. These are short chains of carbohydrates that the body too quickly breaks down, triggering unstable insulin and blood sugar levels.
Full sweets create stability by taking longer to break down and providing nutrients back to the body. Full sweets include: all meats, all grains, all fruits, all winter squash, all mushrooms, all root vegetables and all lentils and legumes. Lentils sweet? Really, savor a lentil soup or salad by chewing or holding it your mouth for a at least 15 seconds. There is a lingering sweet undertone–it’s not the punch from sugar which is hundreds of times sweeter– but it’s there. Full sweets have long complex carbohydrate chains and are usually fiber dense (except meat) which the body loves to take its time to make into shorter chains. This process actually stabilizes the blood sugar and creates lasting, deep energy.
Back to the continuum sugar is at the empty end, honey and maple syrup creep towards the center, whole fruit (with its fiber) is near the middle, then come your starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, then comes the non-starchy vegetables. Finally, at the full end is all the meats, whole grains, less starchy roots and lentils.
Sweet enters the Stomach and the Spleen
The Yin/Yang pair of Stomach and Spleen is truly dynamic. The Spleen, though Yin, has mostly yang functions–and it does a great deal more in CM than in western medicine. The Spleen governs ‘transformation and transportation’–huh? Yang (fire) is required to turn (transform) what you eat into Qi, Blood and other vital essences. The Stomach, though Yang, has Yin functions specifically, it for ‘rots and ripens’ what you eat under the Spleen’s influence. How much energy you have of a day depends on what you eat and whether you can refine it adequately to make Qi, Blood, Fluid and other vital substances. If you don’t eat well…well….
The sound of Earth is singing
Earth element people have a distinctive sing-song voice. Out of balance and you will find the person to have an ingratiating tone that is syrupy sweet. The emotion for the season is worry–the habit of perpetually ruminating or over-thinking…uh oh…
Hold Please! Spleen keeps the muscles strong and organs in place
Muscle tone is under the rule of Spleen in CM. Appropriate amounts of sweet create strong firm muscles and the Spleen can properly ascend qi, or hold the organs in place. Excess empty sweets destroy these functions leading to soft, infirm muscles and prolapse of organs. Treat your Spleen nice…it likes physical exercise to keep the muscles strong. Whether you can bound up stairs is a direct reflection on how much qi you have successfully made. Time for a walk.
Excess Sweet creates dampness
Sweet is the flavor that is most out of balance in people’s diet, mostly but because we indulge in the empty sweet foods in the form of sugars, desserts, corn syrup, and refined carbohydrates. Americans have too rich a diet. This leads to dampness. When dampness resides we are murky, unable to focus and study. Damp excess leads to conditions including: excess mucus, phlegm, candida, chronic rhinitis, sinusitis, chronic sinus infections, allergies, asthma, diabetes, edema, candida and lack of energy. Continued excess will eventually lead to damage of Kidneys and bones.
The Sweet Scent
Those with Earth or sweet imbalances like diabetes, yeast, obesity and blood sugar swings may actually give off a very sweet, cloying scent like that of yeast or a bakery.
Because dampness is so prevalent a problem, let’s talk about what drains dampness. First, its tenacious so it takes diligence and tenacity to regain Spleen’s integrity. Second, it won’t happen if you don’t address the diet. Specifically cutting down the sweets, juice and refined carbs. Use the bitter and sour flavor to drain dampness. Foods that drain include: aduki, amaranth, barley, black beans, buckwheat, pea, rye, alfalfa sprouts, asparagus, green tea, celery, kelp, lettuce, seaweed, turnip, watercress. As mentioned, it’s tenacious but you’re worth the fight.
Sweet Foods–let’s review the groups
Empty sweet–limit these greatly
- white sugar
- refined grains–things made with flours, like pastries, pastas and breads
- brown sugar
- white sugar
- raw sugar
- fruit juices
Toward the middle of the spectrum we see honey, maple syrup and whole fruits. Honey, for example, provides some vitamins and nutrients to the body. Apples, in their whole, with peel are further towards a full sweet than apple juice or applesauce which are robbed of extra fiber.
Full Sweet Foods
Full sweet foods are everywhere–and they should make up the foundation of the diet. If you are eating real, whole foods, you are hard pressed to not run into it. Unfortunately, what I see most often is people skipping categories of foods. For example, some like to eat just greens and animal protein skipping over the squash, roots and lentil categories because of the carbohydrate conundrum. Lumping all carbohydrates into one category is dangerous, as mentioned above, the body needs the complex carbohydrates for lasting energy, healing and strength.
Winter squash–Neutral to warming in temperature the hard skinned winter squashes that are coming available now are the perfect Earth food. Young and old, well or ill, these are one of my top recommendations. Try pumpkin, butternut, delicata, hubbard, turban, acorn and spaghetti. Each is sweet and then might have a little hint of another flavor. For example: butternut and pumpkin are very sweet whereas acorn has just a hint of bitter too.
Lentils and legumes–Yep, everyone of them from slightly sour red lentils to the very sweet aduki and black beans. The more variety the better. Most lentils and legumes range in the neutral to slightly warming category.
Whole grains--Again, neutral to warming in temperature, all grains are sweet. Keep the grain intact or else it’s not whole… Teff and buckwheat are sweet and bitter while many of the rices are very sweet. Quinoa and millet have a kiss of sour.
Root vegetables– Beets, carrots, parsnips and potatoes are very sweet. Onions, radish and turnips add varying degrees of pungency to their sweetness. Garlic and horseradish are hot.
Whole fruit–Fruit is sweet and have varying degrees of sour or bitter. Berries are sweet and sour, apples sweet and slightly sour, bananas are very sweet. Be cautious with fruit as their sugar is very concentrated and rich. Try to eat the whole fruit with fiber intact and avoid fruit juices.
Most meats–Yes, meat is sweet. Just chew your meat of choice a little longer. The sweet is there, but it is subtle and bound to other flavors in a very dense form of food.
Nuts and seeds– All are sweet.
Herbs and spices–Most have the sweet flavor as their base. For example cinnamon, and nutmeg are sweet, pungent and hot. Mints and lemon balm are sweet, pungent and cooling. Even licorice has a sweet and bitter flavor.
Some leafy greens, algaes and seaweed–This is the one food category that doesn’t just scream with sweet flavors though a few like watercress, lettuces, spirulina, wheatgrass, and barley grass are sweet.
So have a little sweet, but keep it mostly to the full sweets, with a little treat here and there.