There are many reasons why it can be hard to eat a good healthy diet. Temptation is of course the number one. You see other people around you eating sweets, donuts, cakes and biscuits, drinking sugary drinks and you just want to join in too! It is natural to want to be able to have the same experiences as those around you, because it helps you feel as if you belong. Cravings are number two, probably. There is often a time when the only thing you really want is a crunchy, sugary fix and nothing else will do.
There are people who will say it is just a question of will power. If you just have the will power you can do anything. This is all very well but it comes from the “pull yourself together” school of helfulness. That is, unhelpful, unsympathetic advice that you just don’t have the power to take on board because things are out of balance.
People with some severe chronic diseases like diabetes or coeliac disease absolutely must stick with a restrictive diet or their health will deteriorate massively, but for some even the threat of osteoporosis or continuing irritable bowel is not enough to force the changes needed.
A friend of mine is an eye surgeon and she was telling me that more than half of her patients were diabetics, and she was treating them for diabetic retinopathy – a disease of the eye caused by high blood sugar levels. If blood sugar levels stay high for a length of time, the sufferer will go blind. If diabetics would only reduce their sugar levels and keep them under control by following the prescribed diet, she said she wouldn’t have many patients to treat. She also said that if she was told she would loose her sight if she were in the same position, she would definitely stick to the low sugar diet.
As most of us would agree, the threat of loosing ones sight ought to be a big enough motivator for healthy eating. Yet so many people still can’t resist the foods that are making them blind and my friend wondered why.
There is an answer in the ancient philosophy of Chinese 5 Element Medicine. This philosophy with over 2000 years of observation on life, explains how the human body is controlled by 5 governing and interrelated elements: Fire, Water, Wood, Earth, and Metal. Each element governs the actions of two or more major organs, so, for example, the lungs and large intestine are governed by the metal element. It may seem that these two organs are unrelated in function or appearance so why would they both come under the same governance? However, both organs are organs of elimination. The lungs rid the body of surplus carbon dioxide produced by the production of energy from food (and thereby regulate the pH or acid alkali balance of the whole body), and the large intestine eliminates solid food waste. Another part of the body, not always considered to be an organ, the skin, is also an organ of elimination as the body eliminates salts and other unwanted metabolic waste, via sweat, so it is also a Metal element organ.
As well as these organ and function correspondences in each element, there are emotional attributes too and the metal element is associated with the emotion of grief, or the need to let go – as we do to evacuate the bowels. There is a flavour associated with metal and it is pungent, so spicy foods can be supportive to the Metal element provided they are not eaten in excess.
However when we look at the Earth element, we can start to see why sugar and sweet foods are so hard to give up. The organs of the Earth element are the stomach and the spleen/pancreas. These organs are concerned with digestion, with taking in nourishment and breaking it down ready for use by the body later. The stomach secretes a protein digesting enzyme and hydrochloric acid which help to split large protein molecules into smaller ones ready for absorption, and the pancreas secretes many enzymes for the breakdown of protein, fat and carbohydrate foods groups. Once broken down, the now small food particles can be absorbed from the gut into the blood stream. These functions make nourishment available to the cells and organs of the body, as our food has to be processed in order to be useful. Just as the Metal element was about Elimination, the Earth element is about Taking Things In. The flavour associated with the Earth element is sweetness. This element also governs cycles such as menstruation, sleep, hormones, and our body clock. Yellow and orange foods and sweet foods nourish this Earth aspect of our being. The Earth element is the most important because it is the source of all the others.
If the Earth element is deficient or in excess all the functions associated with it could be affected. This will mean that we may not digest food well due to a lack of stomach acid or digestive enzymes, so we are not properly nourishing our body. But also, on completely different level, if we are stressed our digestion (Earth Element organs) doesn’t work very well and so our Earth Element mal-functions. Maybe you have noticed that food takes longer to ‘go down’ if you are stressed or you don’t feel like eating at all. The same also applies if we have poor relationships with those around us. To cut a bit of a long story short, if we are emotionally undernourished it is difficult to stick to a nutrition program that eliminates sugars which is the sweet flavour which supports a feeling of well being. We get cravings for sugar when we could really do with a cuddle or a sympathetic friend. Sometimes we have got so used to shutting other people out due to feeling unsafe or being emotionally abused that we loose the ability to accept emotional nourishment when it is offered. Part of emotional nourishment is the sense of touch which brings connection.
Many years ago I was asked to recommend a healthy diet and supplements to a young man with special needs at a home which was part of a special college. He had had a traumatic time during his early teens, often living on the street and having to go hungry. At first the treatments went well and he was responding nicely, but then after about 4 weeks everything, not just the diet but also his behaviour deteriorated dramatically. I asked the house parents if anything had changed recently and they said he was no longer receiving a weekly massage. It seemed as if the massage was fulfilling some deep need in him that allowed him to take in the nourishment that was offered in this caring community. But once the massage – and close touch connection, was withdrawn he relapsed again. His Earth element was just so undernourished that he could not take in other forms of nourishment like food and as a result he collapsed on many levels.
So to get back to the question, “Why can’t I stick to a healthy diet?”, perhaps it is because you need to look at other areas of your life first, to find support for the Earth element so it is strong enough to take in and process our food properly which will then support the rest of the body, and then to feed the will (will-power).
There are many ways to do this. The Earth Element likes routines and regular habits. Meals don’t have to be eaten at exactly the same time each day but a regular routine so that the body knows what is going to happen next is good. Do things that make you feel good. Go for walks in nature, barefoot is you can – you want to connect with the Earth if possible and this is grounding. Go to a comedy performance that will make you laugh or do fun things. Spend more time with the friends who are sympathetic and less time with those people who stress you out. Have long soaks in the bath with lavender oil or some other pampering bath gel. Book a series of massage sessions or healing sessions and turn up and relax. Avoid stressful films and TV series where there is violence and a sense of threat, instead watch things that make you feel positive. Wear some yellow clothing!
Once your Earth element is more nourished, you may have less sugar cravings and more ‘will power’ to do what you need to do to get healthy.
This theory may be the root cause of the success of slimming clubs, where the comradarie and support of fellow dieters, is as important or even more essential than the diet programme itself.
If you like this theory and want to know more than see Traditional Acupuncture: The Law of the Five Elements by Dianne M Connelly