What is the macrobiotic diet?
The earliest recorded usage of the term “macrobiotics” is found in the writings of Hippocrates. Translated literally, macro is the Greek word for “great” and bios is the word for “life.” Throughout history, philosophers and physicians from many parts of the world have used the term Macrobiotics to signify living in harmony with nature, eating a simple, balanced diet, and living to an active old age.
The modern practice of macrobiotics was started in the 1920s by a Japanese educator named George Ohsawa. Ohsawa is said to have cured himself of a serious illness by changing to a simple diet of brown rice, miso soup, and sea vegetables.
At the core of Ohsawa’s writings on macrobiotics is the concept of yin and yang. In Chinese philosophy, the opposing forces of yin and yang govern all aspects of life. Yin—representative of an outward centrifugal movement—results in expansion. On the other hand, yang—representative of an inward centripetal movement—produces contraction. In addition, yin is said to be cold while yang is hot; yin is sweet, yang is salty; yin is passive, yang is aggressive. In the macrobiotic view, the forces of yin and yang must be kept in balance to achieve good health.
Macrobiotics – yin and yang diet
The macrobiotic diet, therefore, attempts to achieve harmony between yin and yang. To this end, foods are classified into yin and yang categories, according to their tastes, properties, and effects on the body. The two food groups—grains and vegetables—that have the least pronounced yin and yang qualities, are emphasized in the macrobiotic diet. Eating these foods is thought to make it easier to achieve a more balanced condition within the natural order of life. Foods considered either extremely yin or extremely yang are avoided.
The standard macrobiotic diet recommendations are as follows:
- Whole grains—including brown rice, barley, millet, oats, corn, rye, whole wheat, and buckwheat—are believed to be the most balanced foods on the yin/yang continuum, and should comprise 50–60% of a person’s daily food intake. Although whole grains are preferred, small portions of pasta and bread from refined flour may be eaten.
- Fresh vegetables should comprise 25–30% of food intake. Daily consumption of any of the following vegetables is highly recommended: cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, bok choy, collards, mustard greens, turnips, turnip greens, onion, daikon radish, acorn squash, butternut squash, and pumpkin. Vegetables to be eaten occasionally (two to three times per week) include celery, iceberg lettuce, mushrooms, snow peas, and string beans. Vegetables should be lightly steamed or sautéed with a small amount of unrefined cooking oil (preferably sesame or corn oil).
- Beans and sea vegetables should comprise 5–10% of daily food intake. Especially recommended are adzuki beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lentils, and tofu. Sea vegetables, including wakame, hijiki, kombu, and nori, are rich in many vitamins and minerals, and are easily added at each meal.
- Soups and broths comprise 5–10% of food intake. Soups containing miso (soy bean paste), vegetables, and beans are acceptable.
- A few servings each week of nuts, seeds, and fresh fish (halibut, flounder, cod, or sole) are permissible. Brown rice syrup, barley malt, and amasake (a sweet rice drink) may be used as sweeteners. Brown rice vinegar and umeboshi plum vinegar may be used occasionally. Naturally processed sea salt and tamari soy sauce may be used to flavor grains and soups.
- Fluid intake should be governed by thirst. Only teas made from roasted grains, dandelion greens, or the cooking water of soba noodles are generally considered acceptable. All teas with aromatic fragrances or caffeine are avoided. Drinking and cooking water must be purified.
- To maintain proper yin/yang balance, all extremely yang foods and all extremely yin foods are avoided. All animal foods, including eggs and dairy products, are believed to have a strong yang quality. Extremely yin foods and beverages include refined sugars, chocolate, tropical fruits, soda, fruit juice, coffee, and hot spices. In addition, all foods processed with artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives must be avoided.
- All foods should be organically grown. Produce should be fresh and locally grown.
- Macrobiotic principles also govern food preparation and the manner in which food is eaten. Recommendations in this area include: avoid using a microwave oven to prepare food; cook rice in a pressure cooker; eat only when hungry; chew food completely; eat in an orderly, relaxed manner using good posture; and keep the home in good order, especially where food is prepared.
Why do people follow this diet?
The macrobiotic diet is appealing to health-minded individuals who are seeking a holistic approach to physical and spiritual well-being. Numerous anecdotal reports exist of medical conditions improving dramatically on a macrobiotic. In addition, some people with serious medical conditions, including cancer and AIDS, try this diet because they have heard it may help cure their disease. To date, such claims have not been substantiated by controlled research.
What do the advocates say?
Although the therapeutic benefits of the macrobiotic approach have not been studied extensively, proponents of the diet point to the results of a 1993 study involving patients with pancreatic cancer. In this study, 52% of those who followed a macrobiotic diet were still alive after one year, compared to only 10% of those who made no dietary changes.
In addition, the macrobiotic diet encompasses many of the dietary elements linked to a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease in other research. The diet is low in fat, high in fiber, and rich in cruciferous vegetables and soy products.
According to macrobiotic proponents, living within the natural order means eating only what is necessary for one’s condition and desires, and learning to adjust in a peaceful way to life’s changes. Learning the effects of different foods allows one to consciously counteract other influences and maintain a healthy, dynamically balanced state.
What do the critics say?
Many nutrition experts disapprove of the limited number of foods allowed on the macrobiotic diet, but concede that a moderate approach to macrobiotics poses no real harm. However, strict macrobiotic diets can be deficient in calories, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, and iron. As a result, this type of diet is not suitable for children or for pregnant or lactating women without appropriate supplementation.
Critics caution that claims that the macrobiotic diet can cure specific diseases—most notably cancer—are to this point unsubstantiated. Until more conclusive research is available on the health benefits of the macrobiotic diet, individuals with serious medical conditions should continue to seek the support of qualified medical providers in conjunction with any dietary changes.
Groups or books associated with this diet:
- The George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation (GOMF) 1999 Myers Street Oroville, CA 95966 (916) 533–7702 http://www.gomf.macrobiotic.net GOMF also publishes Macrobiotics Today magazine.
- Macrobiotics online, the official web site of the Kushi Institute http://www.macrobiotics.org .
- The Vega Study Center http://www.vega.macrobiotic.net
- Pocket Guide to Macrobiotics by Carl Ferré, Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1997.
- The Macrobiotic Way: The Complete Macrobiotic Diet & Exercise Book by Michio Kushi, Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group, 1993.
- An Introduction to Macrobiotics. A Beginner’s Guide to the Natural Way of Health by Carolyn Heidenry, Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group, 1991.
- Basic Macrobiotics 2nd ed. by Herman Aihara, Oroville, CA: George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation, 1998.
- The Cancer Prevention Diet: Michio Kushi’s Nutritional Blueprint for the Prevention and Relief of Disease by Michio Kushi and Alex Jack, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
- Diet for a Strong Heart: Michio Kushi’s Macrobiotic Dietary Guidelines for the Prevention of High Blood Pressure, Heart Attack, and Stroke by Michio Kushi and Alex Jack, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.