Chinese Medicine
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Nourishing the Earth Element: Food for the Spleen and Stomach



Each of the five elements have an associated flavor; for Earth it is sweet.

Is it no wonder? Think of the milk a mother produces for her young. Breastmilk is warm (coming from the source, of course) and sweet, like cereal milk. This is the ultimate Earth tonifiying food for babies, who are born with a completely immature digestive system and need all the easily assimilated nourishment they can get.

You won’t find dairy on top of the list of Earth tonifying foods, however! Yes, it is quite nourishing, but us adults don’t always need this level of building and easy digestibility. In fact, sweet and easily assimilated food of all sorts is a major contributor to insulin resistance. Maybe that is why most humans lose the ability to produce the enzyme to fully digest milk around the age of four or five (when human young were typically weaned); we just don’t need that level of sustenance any more, and our digestion has become strong enough to extract nourishment from all sorts of food.

Below are some nourishing Earth foods to add into your diet during the Earth season (late summer) or during the 15 days surrounding the change of seasons, or any time your Spleen and Stomach could use some support. Some are slightly sweet, some are orange, and all have a level of earthiness to them.

How to eat is as important as what we eat

The Earth organs, through their digestive processes, are at the heart of making vital energy for our entire being (read about their functions in the body here). To help the Spleen and Stomach function at their best, consider all aspects of eating, not just the food stuffs we put in our mouth.

Michael Pollen’s book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual is set in three parts: what to eat, what not to eat and (my favorite) how to eat. Attitudes and practices around eating is just as important, if not more important, than what we actually eat. Ideally, we eat with intention and enjoyment, and good digestion follows.

Pitchford touches on this, too. Why force yourself to eat a bowl of brown rice that you don’t like just because you think you should? That’s not healthy. And if you are going to eat a cookie even though you think you shouldn’t, enjoy it! Make it the best damn cookie experience you’ve ever had.

Remember that part of the Earth element is about being intentional, and doing so with eating adds to the nourishing experience.

How does being intentional and grounded around eating manifest for you? What are your favorite things about eating, and how can you bring that into your life more?

One thing that is important for me is eating at a table. When I take the time to clear off the kitchen table and prepare for the eating experience, I honestly feel happier and I swear I have better digestion. Add in a floral centerpiece, mood lighting, some soft music and a table cloth, and suddenly eating dinner is the highlight of my day. Afterwards the rest of my evening flows effortlessly to a close and I feel brimming with joy and appreciation for the food, home, family and friends that nourish me.

Regular eating times are also important for me. I follow my body and prioritize eating above all else. I show up for my meals, and my meals show up for me (in the form of providing nourishment).

Food for the Spleen and Stomach

Slightly sweet foods in moderation – Sweet in the Taoist tradition is completely different from sweet in our modern culture.  Refined or concentrated sugars are sweet indeed, but they are extremely sweet and thus damaging to the Earth organs.

Give Whole Grains a Chance: Whole vs Refined Grains

The sweet flavor here refers to the taste of highly nourishing and nutrient dense whole grains. Grains are slightly starchy and a good source of complex carbohydrates, and these qualities make them ideal for building strength.

Paul Pitchford gives much attention to the difference between the idea of grains in our modern culture compared to how they are used by traditional people. Grains have been essential ruined (this is my opinion, not Pitchford’s) by large-scale farming and the industrialization of formerly whole and simple food to “food products”. Highly processed cereal, girts, flours, white rice, and their boxed, bagged or frozen varieties are the grains we are used to consuming – and seeing.

Eating oat groats or wheat berries, or even brown rice, is such a radically different culinary and nutritional experience than eating their refined counterparts. And as the ultra-refinement of grains has been recognized – to a level of being the antithesis of life-giving – grains have bared the brunt of much criticism and fads that shun them. Perhaps copious amounts of white flour should be shunned, but let’s not apply that heavy hand to all grains, properly prepared and in their whole form.

“If prepared in balance with individual needs, grains satisfy hunger and taste, provide energy and endurance, calm nerves, and encourage deep sleep. They promote elimination, quick reflexes, long memory, and clear thinking.” (Pitchford)

Through soaking (which is like a pre-digestion process) 8-12 hours before cooking, grains support the digestive functions of the Spleen and Stomach. Ground whole grains in the form of are generally less supportive to the Earth element. Flour is more taxing to the digestive system to break down, but in moderation they may work for some people.

3 grain apple cereal2

Here’s my new favorite grain recipe. Make a double batch and share jars of the goodness with friends.

Slow Cooker Apple Vanilla Hot Cereal 

  • 1/2 cup steel cut oats
  • 1/4 cup quinoa
  • 1/4 cup barely
  • 3 cups almond milk
  • 2 cups coconut water
  • 2 chopped apples
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup

Add all ingredients to a slow cooker, and cook on low for 6-8 hours, stirring occasionally and adjusting liquid water. Serve warm hot drizzled with coconut milk, with cinnamon and maple syrup added to taste. When reheating, cook with a tablespoon or two of water to thin, as it thickens a bit while stored in the fridge.

Although I love grains, I have found that I can’t eat them and them alone for breakfast. I have a high metabolism and need a bit more fat and protein. So I have my bowl of hot cereal (or just plain oatmeal – my absolute favorite) in the afternoon or as a midnight snack.

3 grain apple cereal1

Rice, wheat, barley, corn, quinoa, amaranth, rye, spelt and oats are good examples of sweet grains to tonify Earth. Grains are the backbone of nourishing the Spleen and Stomach, and are traditionally eaten as a staple in the form of porridges and congees, added to soups and broths and served as a bed for other foods. Other sweet earthy foods such as yam, sweet potato, squash and potato may be considered a staple as well.

Other Earthy Foods

Fruit is sweet, of course, but isn’t considered as tonifying as the grains. This is partly because the sweetness of fruit is quite concentrated and thus may damage the Spleen, and partly because some fruits have many flavors are thus associated with other organs. For example, citrus has a tendency to be sour as well as sweet and is associated with the Wood element and the Liver.

Here are some fruit that are particularly Earthy: Apples, apricots, cherries, figs, dates, grapes, papaya, peach, strawberry.

Let us not forget that vegetables can be sweet, too! Sweet and Earth tonifying vegetables include: beet, carrot, Swiss chard, cucumbers, eggplant, mushrooms, cabbage, parsnip, turnip and rutabaga (and the squash, potato and yam as mentioned above).

Many nuts are quite earthy. Sweet nuts include: chestnut, almond, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, coconut and walnut.

Add in legumes to the diet, as all beans and lentils are considered at least slightly sweet, mung and adzuki beans in particular.

Most meat is considered sweet, too. If you eat animal products, consider very small amounts of organic, free range or wild meat of fish. The emphasis is on those well cooked grains, with meat as a small side if used at all.

Eating Seasonally for Late Summer

Flavor is just one aspect of the element-inspired cuisine, seasonal food and the doctrine of signatures are other aspects to keep in mind.

Ripe produce around the season of late summer will vary according to location, but generally this includes corn, carrots, tomatoes, stone fruit, apples, cucumbers, figs, tomatillos, green beans, and zucchini. Many root veggies are beginning to be ready to harvest, grains are coming in, while the tender fresh greens and peas of spring and early summer are over.

The doctrine of signatures for Earth-inspired eating points to rounded or compact layered veggies, like onions, carrots, artichokes, and some brassicas like cabbage, bok choy, romanseco and Brussel sprouts. Fungi are a great earthy food, too.

The color of the Earth element and its organs is yellow, so you’ll see golden hues of yellow, orange and brown associated with tonifying Earth through food. Time for pumpkins, squash, yams, carrots and beans and grains of the same color, too.



Reichstein, Gail. Wood Becomes Water: Chinese Medicine in Everyday Life.

Maciocia, Giovanni. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine.

Pitchford, Paul. Healing with Whole Foods.


  1. Grace says

    This is not for publication but rather a request for advice. I have been diagnosed with hemangioma of spleen ( pain from spleen radiates to ribs at left side). I do not want to lose my spleen. Is there anything I can take naturally to help cure/improve my situation?

  2. Pingback: Earth Element: The Nurturing Spleen and Stomach & their Functions | Get Healthy World

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