Vol. 2, # 50
December 24, 2005

Q: What is the macrobiotic diet? - Layperson

A: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." Macrobiotics is used by its practitioners as a tool that allows one to learn to live within the natural order of life. Throughout history, philosophers and physicians from many parts of the world have used this term 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.

Japanese philosophers and physicians inspired the Japanese philosopher Georges Ohsawa (1893-1966) to finally formalize this methodology. Among them chronologically were Kaibara Ekiken, Andou Shoeki, Mizuno Nanbaku, and Sagen Ishizuka and his disciples Nishibata Manabu and Shojiro Goto.

Macrobiotics was brought to Europe from Japan by Ohsawa, after spending much time with Nishibata Manabu, (who taught extensively in Paris), and subsequently to North America in the late 1960s by his pupils Herman Aihara, Michio Kushi and Aveline Kushi among many others. Before the word Macrobiotics became global in usage it was known as the Unique Principle (a direct translation of its name in the Japanese language).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.

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.

The macrobiotic diet emphasizes adopting one's diet as seasons and environments change. In spring and summer food that requires less fire in cooking should be eaten. Only in colder months, when food is used as a source of heat, should fire be used in cooking. Therefore, people who live in hot places should eat foods that require little or no cooking. Only in very cold climates should foods like meat, that must be thoroughly heated, be eaten.

 Furthermore, macrobiotics urges an increased intake of vegetables that are in season. General macrobiotic recommendations encourage chewing all food until it is a liquid. Cold drinks should be avoided. Each meal should be ended when one is 80% full which is believed to ensure a body weight that is 20% less than the average recommended weight. Mental and spiritual health should be maintained through meditation, breathing exercises, and regular physical activity.

When you change to a more healthful way of eating you may experience some physical and mental reactions during a short transition period. The times vary but can last from three to ten days, and sometimes for up to four months. Such physical and mental reactions have various symptoms, but none of them have any harmful or lasting influence.

Don't worry if you experience these reactions. They are usually desirable, since most of them are either symptomatic displays of the recovery process, or the elimination of accumulated toxins from the body.

  • General fatigue
  • Aches and pains
  • Fevers, chills, and coughing
  • Abnormal sweating and frequent urination
  • Skin discharge and unusual body odors
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Decrease in sexual desire and vitality
  • Temporary cessation of menstruation
  • Mental irritability
  • Disturbed sleep

These symptoms vary from person to person, depending on individual constitution and condition, and usually require no special treatment, naturally ceasing as the body makes functional adjustments and begins to work better. In the event that the symptoms are severe, modify your diet to include 10 to 30 percent of your previous foods. This may mean including one to two pieces of fruit each day if you were a big fruit eater, or two to four ounces of milk if you were a heavy milk drinker. This will slow the discharge process. When you are stable and feel better, eliminate these recent additions and clean up the diet again.

The transition symptoms are of short duration especially if the condition of our digestive system has not been affected by any sickness and we have not had unhealthy dietary habits in the past. More pronounced reactions occur if someone has used drugs or medications and has received surgery especially if organs have been removed.

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.

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.People seeking a healthy way of eating that integrates physical, spiritual, and planetary health are interested in the macrobiotic diet. The macrobiotic diet is a low-fat, high fiber diet that is a predominantly vegetarian diet, emphasizing whole grains and vegetables. In addition, the macrobiotic diet is rich in phytoestrogens from soy products.

Because low-fat, high fiber diets are often recommended for cancer and other chronic diseases, the macrobiotic diet has been used by people with these conditions. The phytoestrogen content may be protective and reduce the risk of estrogen-related cancers such as breast cancer. However, further research is needed to clarify whether the macrobiotic diet is effective in cancer prevention and treatment.

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.

Some followers try to extend the diet into a macrobiotic lifestyle. People who practice a Macrobiotic lifestyle believe they try to observe yin and yang in everything they do. They strive for balance and happiness in their daily lives and living in harmony with nature and their physical surroundings.

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.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are a distinct possibility, particularly with the extreme versions of the diet. Studies of children consuming a macrobiotic diet revealed growth retardation in 6- to 18-month-olds, lack of energy, and deficiencies of protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, and riboflavin. Researchers also found that the breast milk of mothers on a macrobiotic diet contained abnormally low levels of vitamin B12, calcium, and magnesium.

Today, some nutritionists and doctors continue to claim that the macrobiotic diet is "nutritionally deficient". Such claims are totally unscientific. They are based on misconceptions rather than fact.

A common misconception is that the macrobiotic diet does not provide enough calcium because it does not include milk and dairy foods.

The diet is actually very rich in calcium as it includes:

  • Seeds, including sesame seeds which has about 14 times more calcium than milk.
  • Seaweeds, which typically have 7 to 14 times as much calcium as milk.
  • Green leafy vegetables, which are also rich sources of calcium.

The calcium in these foods are also more readily absorbed by the body than the calcium in milk. Plus, these foods do not create problems normally associated with milk and dairy foods - prolems such as increased risks of female-type cancers among women, respiratory problems like asthma and allergies.

Another common misconception is that vegetarians - many macrobiotic followers are vegetarian although the diet includes fish and seafood - do not get vitamin B12 becaues this vitamin is found "only" in meat products.

Firstly, it is not true that B12 can only be found in meat products. This rare vitamin is actually produced by molds, fungi and bacteria. It can be found in several vegetarian foods, including fermented foods such as soy sauce, miso and beer.

A particularly rich source of B12 is tempeh, made from fermented soy beans. In nutrition circles, it is believed that horse meat contains the most B12. Yet nutritional analyses of tempeh - made naturally rather than in super hygienic factories - show that they contain 6 times more B12 than horse meat.

Another study links macrobiotic diets with an increase in iron-deficiency anemia, noting that impaired psychomotor development due to iron deficiency has been reported in infants fed a macrobiotic diet. Researchers have also linked macrobiotic infant diets with an increase in rickets, a disease of weakened bones and skeletal deformities associated with vitamin D and calcium deficiencies.

In short, if the macrobiotic diet is followed and monitored for nutritional deficiencies, it is a very healthy diet.

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.


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DISCLAIMER:  The information in this column, is NOT intended to diagnose and/or treat any health related issues and is provided solely for informational purposes only. Consult the appropriate healthcare professional before making any changes to your healthcare regime. Even what may seem like simple changes in the diet for example, can interact with, and alter, the efficiency of medications and/or the body's response to the medications. Many herbs and supplements exert powerful medicinal effects. Neither the author, nor the website designers, assume any responsibility for the reader's use or misuse of this information.

© 2002 Nature's Corner