A macrobiotic diet is part of a philosophy of life that incorporates the ancient Oriental concept or theory of yin and yang. The diet itself consists mainly of brown rice, other whole grains, and vegetables. It requires foods to be cooked over a flame, rather than by electricity or microwave.
The term macrobiotics comes from two Greek words; macro (great) and bios (life). The macrobiotic diet is believed to have originated in nineteenth century Japan, with the teachings of Sagen Ishizuka, a natural healer. George Ohsawa (1893–1966), a Japanese teacher and writer, introduced macrobiotics to Europeans in the 1920s. Ohsawa claims to have cured himself of tuberculosis by eating Ishizuka's diet of brown rice, soup, and vegetables. The diet did not attract much attention in the United States until the mid-1960s, when Ohsawa's book Zen Macrobiotics was published and became a best seller, especially among the 1960s counterculture. The diet's popularity heightened in the 1970s when the macrobiotic philosophy was embraced by former Beatle John Lennon (1940–1980) and his wife, Yoko Ono (1933– ).
In the macrobiotic diet, foods are selected for their metaphysical qualities rather than their nutritional value. The regime, which is high in whole grains, vegetables, beans, and soy protein, has many of the same benefits as a vegetarian or vegan diet. Numerous scientific studies have shown that a diet of this type can significantly reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and various cancers. The macrobiotic diet is rich in vitamins, high in dietary fiber, and low in fatty foods.
In addition to its holistic approach to nutrition, macrobiotics applies these beliefs to life in general. Its philosophy recommends the following behaviors:
- eating two or three meals a day
- chewing each mouthful of food approximately 50 times to aid digestion and absorption of nutrients
- avoiding food for at least three hours before bedtime
- taking short baths or showers as needed, with warm or cool water
- consuming only organic foods
- using grooming, cosmetic, and household products made from natural, non-toxic ingredients
- wearing only cotton clothing and avoiding metallic jewelry
- spending as much time as possible in natural outdoor settings and walking at least 30 minutes daily
- doing such aerobic or stretching exercises as yoga, dance, or martial arts on a regular basis
- placing large green plants throughout the house to enrich the oxygen content of the air, and keeping windows open as much as possible to allow fresh air circulation
- avoiding food preparation with electricity or microwaves; using gas or wood stoves; and using only cast iron, stainless steel, or clay cookware
- avoiding television viewing and computer use as much as possible
The macrobiotic diet assigns yin and yang energies to foods. Yin and yang are opposite energies that are complementary and harmonious, such as day and night. Yin energies are directed outward while yang energies are directed inward. In this ancient Asian philosophy, everything in the universe is assigned a yin or yang quality. Balance, harmony, order, and happiness are achieved when the forces of yin and yang are in balance.
Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and hard cheeses are considered yang, while milk, cream, fruit juice, alcohol, and sugar are yin. The macrobiotic diet consists mainly of foods in the middle, such as brown rice and other whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. The diet is flexible, and allows fish on occasion. Its flexibility enhances its appeal. The macrobiotic diet allows people to design their own food regimens based on their personal requirements, environment, and medical conditions.
One of the principles of the macrobiotic diet is that people should primarily eat organically grown foods native to their climate and area. The theory is that human health depends on the ability to adapt to the changes in the environment. When people eat foods from a climate that differs from where they live, they lose that adaptability. Propronents of the macrobiotic diet claim that as society has moved away from its traditional ecologically based diet, there has been a corresponding rise in chronic illness. Therefore, for optimal health, the belief is that people need to return to a way of eating based on foods produced in their local environment, or at least grown in a climate that is similar to where they live.
Foods considered yang (contracted energy) last longer and can originate from a wide geographic area. Sea salt and sea vegetables are examples of yang foods. They can come from anywhere within the same hemisphere. Whole grains and legumes are also yang, and can originate anywhere within the same continent since they keep for a long time. Fresh fruits and vegetables are considered yin (expansive energy). Since they have a relatively short shelf life, they should be chosen only from those types that grow naturally within one's immediate area. According to macrobiotic beliefs, balance between yin and yang in diet and food helps achieve inner peace and harmony with one's self and the surrounding world.
Another aspect of the macrobiotic diet is that the type of foods eaten should change with the seasons. In the spring and summer, the food should be lighter, cooler, and require less cooking. This change is necessary because—according to the macrobiotic philosophy—the energy of fire is abundant in the form of sunlight and does not need to be drawn from cooked food. In the autumn and winter, the opposite is true.
The time of day also plays an important role in the macrobiotic diet since it relates to atmospheric energy levels. In the morning, when upward energy is stronger, breakfast should include light foods, such as a whole grain cooked in water. In the evening, when downward energy is stronger, the meal can be larger. Lunch should be quick and light, since afternoon energy is active and expansive.
In macrobiotics, it is believed that the dietary standards that are effective for one person may not work for another. These standards may change from day to day. Therefore, this diet requires a change in thinking from a static view of life to a dynamic one.
Many people are attracted to the diet because of claims that it can prevent or cure cancer. While no scientific studies support these claims, there are many people who believe the diet helped rid them of the disease when such conventional treatments as chemotherapy and radiation failed. Others use the diet to help treat diabetes, hypertension, arteriosclerosis, and other forms of heart disease. Many of the diet's supporters believe that these and other degenerative diseases occur because the body's yin and yang are out of balance, and that a macrobiotic diet helps restore this balance.
The primary food in the standard macrobiotic diet is whole cereal grains, including brown rice, barley, millet, rolled oats, wheat, corn, rye, and buckwheat. A small amount of whole grain pasta and breads is allowed. Grains should comprise about 50% of the food consumed.
Fresh vegetables should account for 20–30% of the diet. The most highly recommended vegetables include green cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, carrots, parsnips, winter squash, bok choy, onions, parsley, daikon radishes, and watercress. Vegetables that should be eaten only occasionally include cucumber, celery, lettuce, and most herbs. Vegetables that should be avoided include tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, spinach, beets, and summer squash.
About 10% of the diet should consist of beans and sea vegetables. The most suitable beans are azuki, chick-peas, and lentils. Tofu and tempeh are also allowed. Other beans can be eaten several times a week. Sea vegetables include nori, wakame, kombu, hiziki, arame, and agar-agar. Another 10% of the diet should include soups made with regular or sea vegetables.
Other permitted items include sweeteners such as barley malt, rice syrup, and apple juice; such seasonings as miso, tamari, soy sauce, rice or cider vinegar, sesame oil, tahini, and sea salt; occasional small amounts of seeds and nuts (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, and almonds); and white-meat fish once or twice a week. Beverages allowed include tea made from twigs, stems, brown rice, and dandelion root, apple juice, and good-quality water without ice.
Items not allowed include meat; dairy products; fruits; refined grains; anything with preservatives, artificial flavorings and colorings or chemicals; all canned, frozen, processed, and irradiated foods; hot spices; caffeine; alcohol; refined sugar, honey, molasses, and chocolate.
There are no specific procedures involved in preparing for the diet, except to change from a diet based on meat, sugars, dairy products, and processed foods, to one based primarily on whole grains, vegetables, and unprocessed foods. Some advocates of the macrobiotic diet recommend making the switch gradually rather than all at once.
The macrobiotic diet does not include many fruits and vegetables that are important sources of nutrients and antioxidants, such as vitamin C and beta carotene. If followed rigidly, the diet can also be deficient in protein, calcium, vitamin B12, folate, and iron. Persons accustomed to a diet high in fat can experience sudden and drastic weight loss if they switch to a rigid macrobiotic diet. In its original form, the macrobiotic diet required foods to be slowly eliminated from the diet until only rice and beans were consumed. Carried to this extreme, the diet lacks significantly in necessary vitamins and nutrients.
A macrobiotic diet may worsen cachexia (malnutrition, wasting) in cancer patients. It is not recommended for people who have intestinal blockages, gluten-sensitive enteropathy (celiac disease), or cereal grain allergies. Children, pregnant women, and persons with intestinal disorders, hypertension (high blood pressure), kidney disease, or malnutrition should consult their physician before starting a macrobiotic diet.
There are no negative side effects associated with a macrobiotic diet in adults, other than such minor problems as dizziness in some people who experience rapid weight loss.
Research & general acceptance
Like many alternative therapies, the macrobiotic diet is controversial and not embraced by allopathic medicine. Most of the controversy surrounds claims that the diet can cure cancer. These claims stem from anecdotal reports and are not substantiated by scientific research. The American Medical Association opposes the macrobiotic diet. The allopathic medical community is also concerned that people with such serious diseases as cancer may use the diet as a substitute for conventional treatment.
Scientific studies in the United States and Europe have shown that a strict traditional macrobiotic diet can lead to a variety of nutritional deficiencies, especially in protein, amino acids, calcium, iron, zinc, and ascorbic acid. These deficiencies can result in drastic weight loss, anemia, scurvy, and hypocalcemia. In children, a strict macrobiotic diet can cause stunted growth, protein and calorie malnutrition, and bone age retardation.
Training & certification
No special training or certification is required. There are, however, several institutes in the United States that offer courses in the macrobiotic philosophy and diet.
Aihara, Herman. Basic Macrobiotics. Oroville, CA: George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation, 1998.
Dente, Gerard, and Kevin J. Hopkins. Macrobiotic Nutrition: Priming Your Body to Build Muscle and Burn Body Fat. North Bergen, NJ: Basic Health Publications, 2004.
Kushi, Michio, and Alex Jack. The Macrobiotic Path to Total Health: A Complete Guide to Naturally Preventing and Relieving More Than 200 Chronic Conditions and Disorders. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2004.
Kushi, Michio, and Stephen Blauer. The Macrobiotic Way: The Complete Macrobiotic Lifestyle Book. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Penguin Putnam, 2004.
Kushi, Michio. The Macrobiotic Approach to Cancer: Towards Preventing and Controlling Cancer With Diet and Lifestyle. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Penguin Putnam, 2003.
Bliss-Lerman, Andrea. Macrobiotic Community Cookbook. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Penguin Putnam, 2003.
Pitchford, Paul. Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2002.
"The Balance of Macrobiotics." Natural Life (January-February 2003): 9.
Kushi, Lawrence H., et al. "The Macrobiotic Diet in Cancer." The Journal of Nutrition (November 2001): 3056S-64S.
Kushi, Michio, and Alex Jack. "Cancer, Diet, and Macrobiotics: Relieving Cancer Naturally." Share Guide (September-October 2002): 18–19.
"Macrobiotic Diets Can be Healthful, but Not a Cancer Cure." Environmental Nutrition (November 2002): 7.
Priesnitz, Wendy. "Macrobiotics for Health." Natural Life (January-February 2004): 18.
George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation. P.O. Box 3998, Chico, CA 95927. (800) 232-2372. <http://www.gomf.macrobiotic.net>.
Kushi Foundation and Institute. P.O. Box 7. Becket, MA 10223. (800) 975-8744.
Macrobiotics Online. [cited June 14, 2004]. <http://www.macrobiotics.org>.
Macrobiotics Today. P.O. Box 3998, Chico, CA 95927. (800) 232-2372. <http://www.gomf.macrobiotic.net/Newsletter.htm>.
Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.