A holistic approach to nourishment includes much more than counting calories and grams or assessing chemical composition.
If you view food as medicine and a way of life, nutrition takes on a different meaning and purpose. Nourishing the physical being is only one aspect of the eating experience. When you expand your viewpoint, your relationship to food and eating becomes a reflection of how you live. Cravings, aversions and preferred eating environments provide messages on a deeper level. Food becomes a potential pathway for healing and self-exploration.
Eastern philosophy and ancient healing techniques demonstrate the principle of wholeness. Everything in the Universe possesses the primary forces of nature, all the way down to a single cell. There is interconnectedness, interdependence and balance. This article explores the five elements theory and the chakra system and applies their basic principles to nutrition in an omnidirectional, integrated manner.
The Universe is made of two primary forces, called yin and yang, according to Chinese philosophy. These forces represent opposing states that are continuously interchanging. The interplay of yin and yang manifests itself as the five elements that make up all things; this is referred to as the five elements theory (Reichstein 1998). It is symbolized as a circle and demonstrates the continuity of life, with each element being a phase in the larger movement and natural rhythms of the Universe (see Figure 1). The five elements—each with a unique nature and spirit—explain the primary forces that flow throughout the Universe and within us. As this energy of the Universe enters the human body at the crown of the head, it takes on an individual form that has been referred to as our life force energy, prana or qi (Pitchford 2002).
This life force forms currents that run through the body. Along the spinal cord, spinning vortexes called chakras receive, assimilate and express this Universal energy (Condron 2005). There are seven main chakras (see Figure 2), each one having a purpose, an elemental nature, a mental energy and a universal spiritual lesson. Every chakra vibrates at a specific frequency, which then activates specific physical organs, glands and nerve plexuses. Illnesses and body organs are associated with particular chakras and have a frequency or vibrational pattern. Each organ absorbs and processes particular emotional and psycho- logical energies. For example, our heart chakra’s vibrational frequency activates the functions of our heart and lungs, the thymus gland and the heart nerve plexuses. Physical challenges associated with the heart chakra include heart and lung disorders, circulation problems, asthma, palpitations, shortness of breath and anxiety (Dale 2007).
When we look at the human being as just a physical body of flesh and organs, our attention gets placed on only one aspect of our being. If we want to heal from an illness or explore preventive measures to age gracefully and live fully, it requires that we explore all aspects of who we are. Becoming mindful of both our energetic being and our physical being moves us closer to a state of wholeness.
Nutrition, from a Western perspective, concentrates on calories and chemical composition. How many calories are in that muffin? Is it fat-free? How many grams of protein are there? How many “points” is that? When we use an approach like this, we reduce the complexity of the human being to numbers on an Excel spreadsheet. And yet it’s been established that food goes way beyond the calorie and its chemical composition—as anyone who has struggled with weight or health issues knows. The human body does not work solely on the premise of “calories in, calories out.” When we focus on this singular variable, we lose sight of the true operations of the body, the intricate workings that are synergistically interlaced (Barnes, Prasain & Kim 2013; Liu 2004).
How do the colors, tastes and chemical composition of foods relate to the five elements theory and the chakra system? These two “systems” allow for all aspects of our being to merge. Within each element of ancient Chinese teachings, there is a correlation to color, taste, direction, emotions, personality, climate, season, life cycle, and specific organs and tissues, along with other factors (Reichstein 1998). In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), organs and tissues are not only viewed in terms of structural, anatomical and physiological function; they are also seen from a metaphorical perspective to include our emotional and spiritual selves. In ancient East Indian teachings, each chakra is a vortex of energy that houses mental, emotional, physical and spiritual energy—a space where our physical being unites with our soul (Condron 2005). Like the TCM elements , chakras correlate with colors, emotions, identity, personality traits, sacred truth, elements, glands, organs and physiological functions (see Table 1).
Red: The root Chakra
Red resonates with our first chakra, the root. This is the foundation that all other chakras build on, and it is the connection to the physical body. It provides us with an anchor to our family tribe, Earth and universal oneness. This is where we find stability, consistency and accountability. The root chakra is about meeting our survival needs in the physical world—we are our most primitive selves. When this chakra is balanced, we are grounded, we feel comfortable in our physical bodies, our immune system is strong, and we have a general feeling of security and trust. When this chakra is blocked, we may struggle with overeating, constipation, obesity, hoarding, rigid and inflexible thinking, poor boundaries, and feelings of unworthiness; we may be fearful of anything out of our routine. Associated physical illnesses may include inflammatory issues (ranging from arthritis to hypertension), autoimmune illness, lower-extremity bone and muscle issues, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and eating disorders.
Foods that nourish and heal the root chakra help us to stay centered and grounded. Vibrating at the slowest frequency, the root chakra provides a feeling of stability and even heaviness. Nutrients that support the growth and maintenance of our physical structure and help us feel the essence of Earth are the most nurturing for this chakra. Foods rich in protein—along with bone, blood and immune-supportive nutrients— are most fitting. Craving protein, especially animal flesh, is a draw to the root chakra. Animals are instinctual; they are focused on survival and carry specific vibrational energies. When we are ungrounded, there is a tendency to crave protein, especially animal meat. Once we feel a sense of stability, it is advantageous to seek plant-based protein sources to become more open to new experiences (Azadbakht & Esmaillzadeh 2008; Ley et al. 2014; Pan et al. 2011; Steffen et al. 2005).
Rich plant-based protein sources include legumes, tempeh, cooked bitter greens, quinoa and almonds (see Table 1). Root vegetables add strength and stability and provide the minerals, antioxidants and fiber essential to overall physical health and a strong immune system. Additional foods that resonate with the root chakra include red-colored foods such as tomatoes, raspberries, apples, cherries, beets, red grapes and radishes.
Orange: The Sacral Chakra
Orange resonates with our second, or sacral, chakra. The sacral chakra, correlating with the water element, symbolizes the flow of energy and movement, emotion and sexuality. This is the energy center of relationships, emotional integrity, pleasure and the ability to flow gracefully with change. When the sacral chakra is balanced, we are creative, emotionally expressive, intimate and resilient. When its energy flow is disrupted, it manifests as reproductive disorders, urinary and kidney dysfunctions, low-back pain, promiscuity or frigidity, controlling and manipulative behavior, and poor social skills.
Foods that nourish and support the sacral chakra emphasize flow and movement. Our relationship to food and other people is also involved; one way to nurture this chakra is to create meals and share them with others. Foods with high water content, along with foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, tropical fruit and orange-colored foods are the most beneficial. Water is an essential part of our cells, tissues and organs and participates in many chemical reactions. Water is a universal solvent, a transport vehicle for nutrients, and a cleansing agent; it also maintains our body temperature (Haas 2006). To maintain flow through the sacral chakra, it’s important to stay hydrated (by consuming enough water) and also to eat high-water foods such as fruits. Omega-3 fatty acids help control inflammation and are essential to many physiological processes (Kelley et al. 2009; Micallef & Garg 2009; Swanson, Block & Mousa 2012). Salmon, halibut, yellowfin tuna, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and cashews are fat sources the body seeks. Tropical fruits symbolize pleasure, so adding some pineapple, mango or coconut can contribute a sense of playfulness. Orange-colored foods that support the sacral chakra include carrots, butternut squash, oranges, apricots, papaya, sweet potatoes and cantaloupe.
Yellow: The Solar Plexus Chakra
Yellow resonates with the third chakra, the solar plexus. As we move up the chakras, observing the corresponding elements, we move from earth (root chakra) to water (sacral chakra). The third chakra combines matter and movement to create the transformative energy of fire. The root, sacral and solar plexus chakras represent our physicality. The upper chakras become less physical and more spiritual.
The solar plexus is the seat of our will, where we develop our sense of self. It is the home of our personal power, intuitive guidance and the courage to express who we are. When our solar plexus is balanced, we have strong self-esteem and respect. We are reliable, act responsibly, and are balanced and playful. When our solar plexus is blocked, we struggle with manipulative behavior and fears of rejection; we may become overaggressive or overcompetitive, or we may “give away” our personal power and decision making to others. Physical challenges include weight gain, chronic fatigue, diabetes and digestive dysfunction.
Naturally occurring carbohydrates nourish the third chakra. These include fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. Although sometimes given a bad rap, carbohydrates are essential for providing energy and fuel for the body, specifically the brain; they also assist in regulating blood sugar levels, cholesterol and digestive health (Haas 2006). Quality carbohydrates include plant-based nutrients called phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties (Eliassen et al. 2012; Esmaillzadeh et al. 2006; Liu 2013). Consuming foods rich in fiber—such as squash, broccoli, cauliflower, lentils, berries and beans—on a daily basis will nurture the solar plexus chakra (Slavin & Lloyd 2012). Yellow-colored foods resonate with this chakra and include summer squash, lemons, chickpeas, bananas, millet, quinoa and pineapples. Indulging cravings for processed sugars and artificial sweeteners may deplete solar plexus energy, resulting in difficulties coping with stress and in feelings of powerlessness over certain foods.
Green: The Heart Chakra
Green resonates with the fourth chakra, the heart. The heart houses our spirit, is home to all emotions and has an intelligence system that is electromagnetically stronger than our brain and nervous system (Dispenza 2007). Here we find love, forgiveness, compassion, acceptance and gratitude. When the heart chakra is balanced, we are loving, peaceful and open to intimacy. When we are surrounded with love, we find inspiration, motivation and the space to heal. When there is an imbalance in this chakra, we may be overeager to please; be fearful of intimacy; struggle with anxiety; and find ourselves isolated or in codependent relationships. Physical challenges correlating with the fourth chakra include heart and lung disorders, circulation problems, asthma, thymus gland dysfunction, shortness of breath, palpitations and anxiety.
When we move into the upper chakras, it is not only the chemical composition, flavors and energy vibrations that matter, but also how we share our experiences. Have you ever experienced food tasting better, not with any change to the actual recipe ingredients, but because it was made with love? By your mother, for example? Foods that feed the heart chakra include cruciferous vegetables, such as collard greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and bok choy (Bosetti et al. 2012; Keck & Finley 2004). Bitter leafy greens—such as romaine, escarole, kale, dandelion and mustard greens—“penetrate” the heart and have detoxification qualities. Foods that are bitter and pungent help clear the sinuses and stimulate the lungs. Pungent foods include scallions, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, fennel and peppermint. Green-colored foods that resonate with the heart chakra’s vibrational frequency include artichokes, asparagus, avocado, peas, kiwi and limes.
Blue: The Throat Chakra
Blue resonates with the fifth, or throat, chakra, our center of self-expression—considered the gateway between our inner and outer worlds. This is where we speak the truth and share our authenticity with the world. The fifth chakra is the center of choice, demonstrating that every option has personal, social, community and global energetic consequences. When our throat chakra is balanced, we navigate through life with integrity and a strong sense of communication and creativity. When it is blocked, we are afraid to show our individuality, and live in shame; we lie and have trouble communicating—whether through excessive talking or fear of speaking. Physiological areas and issues associated with the throat chakra include the face, thyroid gland dysfunction, chronic neck problems and hypothalamus disorder.
Eating with the throat chakra in mind includes using our physical senses—listening to the body, and being aware of eating patterns and individual needs. Even though there are certain meals we enjoy, it’s beneficial to consume a variety, not only for nutritional diversity, but to enhance our senses. Foods that support this chakra are soothing to the throat and help make speaking and self-expression easier; examples include soups, sauces, juices and high-water-content foods, all of which are quite nourishing. Because the throat chakra is linked to the thyroid gland, sea plants that are rich in iodine are beneficial (Mohamed, Hashim & Rahman 2012; Namvar et al. 2013). These can come in the form of nori rolls, miso soup with hijiki seaweed, or an arame salad.
Purple: The Third-Eye Chakra
Purple resonates with the sixth, or third-eye, chakra; the center of perception, insight and imagination. This is where our visualizations and thoughts begin—and will later manifest in physical reality. When this chakra is balanced, our intellectual abilities are strong; we are intuitive and imaginative; and we seek the truth through conscious living. When the third-eye chakra is blocked, we overanalyze, are filled with self-doubt, and experience physical effects in the eyes, pituitary gland, pineal gland and nervous system. Imbalances show up as delusions, obsessions, nightmares, poor memory, and difficulty being imaginative or visualizing future possibilities.
In the throat chakra, we start to become aware of our dietary choices. As we move up to the third-eye chakra, our relation- ship to food is not just about our physical senses but also about intuitive eating. It is where we pay attention to the body’s way of communicating its needs. With imagination, dreams and visualizations occurring at this chakra, it is where stimulants such as caffeine and chocolate can have a place. Chocolate, a common craving, replenishes a depleted third eye in times when we overthink things. But many people rely too heavily on stimulants. While caffeine can bring focus, if used in excess it leads to an overactive mind and makes relaxation difficult.
Spices—particularly pungent ones such as chili, curry, cardamom, ginger, pepper and turmeric—support the third-eye chakra. Foods that nourish the brain, such as omega-3 fatty acids, assist in maintaining a balanced state of mind (Gomez-Pinilla 2008). Purplish-red foods—such as red grapes, blueberries, blackberries, figs, plums and pomegranates—also support the sixth chakra.
When exploring this chakra, we pay attention to the body’s messages about food. Are we overanalyzing calories, grams or our weight? Are we noticing that the foods we consume are affecting our bodies? We can practice noticing how we feel after eating particular meals, especially our favorites.
White: The Crown Chakra
White resonates with the seventh, or crown, chakra, which represents the connection to the divine. The crown is about purpose, connection, seeing the bigger picture and recognizing the “silent witness.” When this chakra is balanced, we are open-minded and aware; we feel soulfully connected. When it is blocked, we feel a loss of connection to the world and those around us. Imbalances may be experienced as over intellectualizing, needing to be right, and clinging to rigid belief systems that block newness. Physical manifestations include migraines, brain tumors and cognitive delusions. When it comes to eating for the seventh chakra, the focus is on showing gratitude for food, either through prayer or eating rituals. Fasting is also an element of the crown chakra, not only for detoxification processes, but also to recognize who we are beyond our physical body.
Through this brief overview of the chakras, we can see how interconnected everything is. Each aspect of our being—body, mind and soul—plays a part in our experiences. By referencing the five elements theory and the chakra system, we see an opportunity for a personal journey using nutrition as a pathway. If we have a basic understanding of the chakras, we can correlate our eating choices with the energy center that is being highlighted at that moment in our life. We can then make food choices that will provide us with the specific nourishment our physical and emotional/mental being needs in that circumstance.