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« Back to Chinese Medical Theory and Diagnosis Questions

Q: I always crave sweets and chocolate while my husband will always choose salty foods like potato chips over candy. Why do we crave certain flavors and what does it mean from a Chinese medicine point-of-view?

A: Acufinder Poll Results, Spring 2006

What flavor do you crave, most often?


Sweet (941 votes) - 60.59%
Salty (405 votes) - 26.08%
Sour (56 votes) - 3.61%
Spicy (125 votes) - 8.05%
Bitter (26 votes) - 1.67%


Within the umbrella of Traditional Chinese Medicine is the area of Chinese nutrition which is a healing system all its own.

To answer your question of why people crave certain flavors like “sweet” or “salty”, I must first give you a brief background on the area of 5 element theory in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

We as practitioners of TCM use this theory along with Chinese nutrition to help us treat a wide range health conditions.


Five Elements

The 5 elements are wood, fire, earth, metal and water.
Each of these elements is associated with an organ combination and pattern of energy flow in the human body:
  • Wood with the liver and gallbladder
  • Fire with the heart and small intestine
  • Earth with the spleen and stomach
  • Metal with the lung and large intestine
  • Water with the kidney and urinary bladder
Then each of those elements has a taste or flavor corresponding to it which has an important effect on their respective organ combinations: For example the “sweet” taste corresponds to the earth element which acts on the spleen and stomach organ combination. This relationship between flavors and internal organs is important because they affect the body in different ways. In moderation, the “sweet” taste is harmonizing, uplifting and promotes healthy digestion. But if the “sweet” foods are used too often it will have adverse affects on the body creating dampness making the spleen and stomach sluggish and not able to function optimally. This usually shows up in digestive problems, fatigue and water retention.

Another example the “salty” taste or flavor corresponds with the water element which acts on the kidney and urinary bladder organ combination. “Salty” foods have a softening effect which is good for breaking down masses, cysts and hardening of the muscles or glands. It also moistens the intestines which can relieve constipation. Salty flavors help with vomiting or hiccupping by moving the energy downward and inward. But, used in excess can cause muscles to be weak, bones to be brittle, emotional depression and circulation problems.

Flavors and their related Organ & Element:

  • Sour & Acidic - Liver/Wood
  • Bitter & Sharp - Heart/Fire
  • Sweet - Spleen/Earth
  • Pungent & Spicy - Lung/Metal
  • Salty - Kidney/Water
We as practitioners of Traditional Chinese medicine use Chinese nutrition and the energies, tastes and flavors of food to generate and restore harmony and balance in the body. Your own internal “compass” acts the same way. When you are feeling blue, tired or stressed your cravings for sweets increases to elicit a shot of energy and bring you comfort. Simple sugars, carbohydrates and fats will do just that; make us feel better for the moment. When we are anxious and heated we crave foods which will cool us down and relieve the anxiety to regain harmony within. Salty foods unless they are from the sea like seaweed and kelp will also be combined with fat and protein which will elicit a feeling of calmness and comfort for a period of time.

As your practitioner I would use your “sweet cravings” or “salty cravings” as part of my analysis of your pattern to piece together your diagnosis according to Traditional Chinese medicine theory. I would check if there were more symptoms you were experiencing that related to the organs associated with those flavors such as the spleen and stomach and the digestive system or the kidney and urinary bladder and its related patterns. Consumption of foods with those tastes might benefit their related organ combinations to regain harmony and homeostasis within the body eliminating the cravings altogether.

Thank-you for your inquiry, I hope you will visit a practitioner of Chinese Medicine!

About our Ask-the-Acupuncturist Expert:

Linda Read-Shelby, L.Ac., MSOM is a licensed acupuncturist.  Her practice is located in Woodland Hills, California.