The “Elemental Diet” – a brief look at the approach to nutrition for optimum health from a Traditional Thai Medicine Theory point of view

I hate doing cardio at the gym. This much I have in common with 95% of my clients. However, in the ultimate effort of turning a negative situation (cardio) into a positive one, when I really think about it, the time that I am forcing myself to spend sweating on a pushbike going nowhere is actually one of the few opportunities that I have to read a book without stealing precious time away from other Reading a book at the gym while doing cardioimportant tasks. Apart from the rower most other cardio machines are great for this purpose: plonk the book or tablet (as in my case) on the little ledge at the front of the settings screen and you are ready to go.

By the way, this tactic works better when doing steady cardio, if you are doing HIIT it’s unlikely to work as most of your resources will be devoted towards completing the sprints in a safe and efficient manner and you won’t be able to concentrate on the book.

One of the books that I managed to read in this way is “Seven Peppercorns” which has nothing to do with Fitness Makeovers™ but contains some surprising gems of knowledge with regards to nutrition for optimum health from the point of view of Traditional Thai Medicine. As a Thai Yoga Massage practitioner I couldn’t resist buying it as it provides answers to the many questions I had about my chosen style of holistic treatments and it helped me understand better the framework from within which Thai Massage evolved into the beautiful healing art that it is today. Even after reading the book I am still scratching the surface and, in fact, have more questions, but at least I know a little bit more.

SUPER QUICK INTRO TO THAI ELEMENTAL MEDICINE

Cover of "Seven Peppercorns" - click to buy on Amazon

Click the image to purchase this book on Amazon

Quoting directly from the book: “Traditional Thai Medicine has five different roots: Medicinal Sciences, Physical Therapies, Spirit Medicine, Divinatory Sciences, and Buddhism (which can be seen as the mental health root). These roots are bound together by two common threads: Buddhist concepts and view, and Thai element theory. (…) it is the basis upon which all traditional Thai medical diagnosis and treatments are founded”.

According to this theory there are 5 elements that make up everything in our world: our bodies, the trees, the earth, the sea and our thoughts. These elements are: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Space. It’s believed that ‘it is the balance, or imbalance of these elements that is the root cause of all health and disease’.

In a nutshell, according to Traditional Thai Medicine (but other cultures have also similar theories) the 5 elements that make up our bodies are:

  • Earth represents solidity and its qualities are that it’s hard, stable and heavy. Earth is tangible, it has mass. The function of the Earth element is to provide support like a skeleton or a building. In our bodies Earth is everything that has mass, like bones, the organs, the skin and the nails. The element of Earth is closely linked with the element of Water without which it would crumble.
  • Water is also a tangible element. It literally represents everything that has fluidity within us: blood, sweat, tears, synovial fluids. Water brings cohesion to our bodies and keeps us supple and moist.
  • Fire is heat or the lack of. It’s bright, reactive but it’s also dry, rough, mobile, causes aging, emotions and fever among others. It’s associated with the sense of sight, with digestion and with the urge to move as well as with the articulation of ideas. For those of you who are into numerology it is associated with the number 4. Whereas the previous two elements are tangible Fire is more similar to a metabolic process rather than a physical part.
  • Wind is movement. This includes breathing, speaking, running, gesticulating, and so on. It’s light and dry, cool, abrasive, subtle. Like Fire, Wind is also considered to be a metabolic process more than a physical element although it’s associated with the sense of touch. It’s the lightest of all the elements and it’s therefore the easiest to throw out of balance.
  • Space is the hardest element to grasp: it’s emptiness, it’s the atmosphere but also the empty spaces within our bodies. Its nature is to be expansive and it can be used to relate to our minds: are the open and ready to receive or are they full of thoughts, feelings and ideas? The element of Space relates to our bodies via the orifices by providing the gateway between the environment inside and outside of the body.

CORE ELEMENTAL CONSTITUTION AND DIET

Now that we have set the scene we can get to the juicy bits leading to the “Elemental Diet”. Please remember that this is just a “curiosity exercise” for fun and it’s not meant to be the next fad diet or fitness program. Got it? OK, here we go…

When it comes to physical appearance and diet we only look at the first 4 elements listed above: Earth, Water, Fire and Wind. Each one of us tends to have a constitution that expresses one or two of these elements more than the others. This “core elemental constitution” affects us in every respect: physical appearance, predisposition towards certain diseases and even character traits. Depending on which element is dominant within us we can follow some basic nutrition principles that will serve us best.

Earth, Wind, Fire and Water

As a general rule, it is recommended to always eat quality unprocessed foods preferably organic, seasonal and whole foods, home cooked whenever possible. It’s best to eat when you are hungry and before you become famished and stop when you feel satisfied but before you are full. Food should be well cooked and warm as raw and cold foods can be hard on the digestive system. You could make some distinctions based on the weather: when it’s hot eat sweet, bitter and astringent foods, when it’s cold choose hot pungent, sour and astringent foods and when it’s rainy or stormy go for aromatic and warming foods (things like cinnamon). Don’t eat after 7pm. Good sleep is always recommended as is exercise although not the intense cardiovascular variant as it’s seen as being too strenuous on the heart. Truth is that’s exactly one of the reasons why we do it, to train the heart but hey, on bad days I’ll go all Thai from now on and skip cardio! Now let’s take a look at each element and see what specific advice is available for them.

Earth element

“Earth people” in Thai tradition are very similar in physical appearance to what we would call endomorphs, i.e. strong and muscular or heavy set, big boned and will have a squareness of shape. Mentally, “Earth people” tend to be grounded, resistant to change, not keen on travel but with a balanced and compassionate disposition.

Earth people will do well on a balanced diet with plenty of organic produce that is nourishing and well cooked. As long as they follow the general rules they will be fine.

Water element

“Water people” tend to have a voluptuous figure and healthy complexion. Like the Earth people they also tend to have a large frame, with a steady stride. They can have a tendency to being overweight but they are usually known for their beauty. Water people can have slow digestion and when injured they are also slow to heal. This general slowness in the movement of fluids leads them to retain toxins for longer and therefore be prone to illnesses. Mentally, water people “tend to be easy-going and flexible with an inner sweetness. They are often intuitive” and have a natural talent for the arts. Very emotional they can find it difficult to embrace new ideas quickly.

Coffee is a big no-no for Water people who should also avoid having cold foods like fruit and yogurts for breakfast and concentrate on warm foods instead. Raw foods are also not good for them as is consuming meat and sweets. The best foods are cooked vegetables, rice and pungent spices. Engaging in active exercise with lots of big movements will be beneficial.

Fire element

“Fire people” tend to have slightly reddish or tan complexions. Red heads will undoubtedly have fire as their dominant element. Physically they are average build but strong and athletic, their eyes are clear and sharp. Mentally they can be very intelligent and articulate, driven, good leaders even when they lean towards being selfish. They can also be short tempered and aggressive.

Spicy foods are not that good for fiery people who should lean towards eating cooling foods. Three large meals are better than smaller ones as long as their digestive system is firing on all cylinders. Black coffee is best avoided as is alcohol. Bitter foods such as rucola, radicchio and mustard greens are great. Moderate exercise in cool surroundings is beneficial.

Wind element

“Wind people” tend to be similar in appearance to what we refer to as “Endomorphs”: with light thin bodies that can be either very tall or very short. They also tend to have dark complexion, smaller eyes and find it difficult to stay warm. Like their Fiery counterparts, they can be very intelligent especially academically and quick learners, however their communications can be superficial and “flighty” quickly jumping from one subject to the next. They can be anxious, nervous, creative but also overstimulated.

The best foods for Wind people are those that are highly nutritious and with aromatic spices. Plenty of oils and healthy fats are good, as well as good quality dairy products. It’s best to eat several smaller meals throughout the day than just two or three larger ones. Food should be either steamed or otherwise well cooked. They should avoid raw foods as well as engaging in extreme dietary restrictions.


What surprised me the most as I read the book was that it actually included a whole section about nutrition and exercise. I bought it because I wanted to learn more about the philosophy behind Thai Yoga Massage as a bodywork art and discovered just how “wholistic” this medicinal system is not focusing on symptoms of disease but instead taking care that all the “systems” within the body are in balance and what to do to keep them that way. Fascinating.

None of the above classifies as “new and revolutionary” information but it provides perhaps an additional framework from which we can review our eating and exercising habits when we don’t seem to achieve results in a timely manner. Could it be that by making a few simple changes according to what we think (there is no testing as such involved, it’s more down to intuition) is our core elemental constitution we will see a difference?

As a final thought, I found all the comments about eating whole and unprocessed foods preferably organic rather interesting. I am sure this part is heavily influenced by modern times as I doubt very much there were things such as glyphosate at the time of the Buddha, however it’s funny that in the XXI century we spend so much time reading and discussing the virtues of organic food as if it was a novelty when it really was the only way of life for so many thousands of years.

Oh! And what about the “Seven Peppercorns”? Well, apparently if we swallow 7 black fat juicy peppercorns first thing in the morning we will enjoy better digestion, less wind and less stressful thoughts during the day.

I think my primary elemental constitution is predominantly fire with some wind and a splash of water. What’s yours? Let me know in the comments below. 🙂

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