The macrobiotic diet eating and lifestyle philosophy, which has been around for centuries, is believed by some experts to improve many modern ailments.
The macrobiotic diet has been around in some form for hundreds of years. The name is derived from Greek — makros meaning long, and bios meaning life. Over the years, the diet has evolved and been interpreted in a variety of ways. The most common version was popularized by Michio Kushi and his wife, Aveline, who pioneered macrobiotic education in the United States after emigrating from their native Japan following World War II.
The couple helped create the organic and natural food revolution when they opened the Erewhon Trading Company in Boston, Mass. The Kushis also promoted holistic healing and other sustainable ways of life, and started the East West Foundation and Journal, the One Peaceful World Society, and other organizations. They also founded the Kushi Institute, headquartered in Becket, Mass. Students come to the institute from around the world to attend residential-style programs and study the macrobiotic approach to health and healing.
According to the Kushi Institute website: Macrobiotics is a system that can be used to create extraordinary health through using both traditional wisdom and modern knowledge to ascertain the underlying causes of an individual’s current health challenges, and make adjustments to their food and lifestyle choices that support health improvement. Not simply a “diet,” macrobiotics recognizes the profound effects food, environment, activities, and attitude all have on our body, -mind, and emotions.
The macrobiotic diet itself is essentially vegetarian, emphasizing organic, locally grown, whole or naturally processed foods. Seasonings, flavorings, and condiments are heavily Asian influenced. It isn’t a weight loss diet per se, but if you follow it you’re likely to lose weight. The macrobiotic diet doesn’t require counting calories and doesn’t provide prescribed menus. What you eat is dictated by your health and how you feel.
What you’ll eat
Whole grains. Daily portions of foods are measured in percentages by weight, with the majority of your food coming from the whole cereal grain category (40 to 60 percent). In addition to grains such as quinoa, barley, brown rice, oats, rye, and buckwheat, a small portion of the recommended percentage can comprise noodles or pasta, un-yeasted whole grain breads, and other partially processed whole cereal grains.
Vegetables. Vegetables should make up 20 to 30 percent by weight of your daily diet. If possible they should be organic, locally grown, and in season. Most vegetables are consumed cooked, although 2 to 3 times per week you’re allowed cucumber, celery, lettuce, and herbs. Nightshade vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers) are avoided as are spinach, beets, and zucchini.
Beans and sea vegetables. This category should be 5 to 10 percent of your daily diet. Recommended are azuki (or adzuki) beans, chickpeas, and lentils, with others allowed occasionally. Tofu, tempeh, and other soybean products are widely used. Because of their rich vitamin and mineral content, sea vegetables (various types of seaweed) are an important part of the macrobiotic diet.
Soups. The above foods can be combined into various soups that can be seasoned with miso, tamari, or natural soy sauce, and sea salt.
Beverages. Any traditional teas that do not have an aromatic fragrance or a stimulating effect can be used, and cereal grain coffee is also allowed. Water should be spring water or good well water, without ice. Fruit juice and alcohol is not recommended.
Occasional foods. Fish is allowed several times a month. White-meat fish — such as flounder, sole, cod, halibut, or trout — is recommended.
Fruit can be eaten two or three times a week, but it should be local. In other words, if oranges or pineapples don’t grow where you live, don’t eat them.
Lightly roasted nuts and seeds are allowed occasionally. Sweeteners can be rice syrup, barley malt, amasake, and mirin. Some vinegars are also allowed. Cooking oils should be unrefined and vegetable only. Sesame or corn oil are recommended. Salt should be naturally processed sea salt.
Specific condiments are also recommended and include pickles and fermented foods like sauerkraut, various seaweed powders, miso, and Japanese salt plums (umeboshi plums).
Foods to minimize or eliminate. To improve your health, the macrobiotic diet recommends eliminating meat, poultry, animal fat, eggs, dairy products, refined sugars, chocolate, vanilla, molasses, and honey. You should eliminate anything artificially colored, preserved, sprayed, or chemically treated, including refined and polished grains, flours, or mass-produced food such as canned, frozen, and irradiated foods. Also avoid strongly spicy or aromatic food.
Disease prevention and reversal
Some people promote the macrobiotic diet as a way to avoid or heal disease because it has been shown to favorably affect cholesterol levels, blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and, because of its anti-inflammatory properties, possibly cancer. Some research has demonstrated positive health outcomes from following the macrobiotic diet, but the studies were small or not well structured, and more research is needed. One concern about relying on the diet exclusively to address disease is that many people who are undergoing cancer or other treatments have additional dietary needs that may be difficult to meet if they follow a restrictive diet.
More than a diet
One of the goals of the macrobiotic diet and lifestyle is to gain balance. To help achieve that, attention is paid to the way food is grown and prepared because it is believed that this affects its energy. When you eat food, it is thought that the energy of the food is transferred to you, which affects how you feel.
Additional recommendations that are part of a macrobiotic lifestyle include only eating when you’re hungry, proper chewing to aid in digestion, daily exercise, exposure to sunlight and fresh air, avoiding long baths or showers that deplete the body of minerals, and avoiding electric and microwave ovens and aluminum or Teflon-coated cookware, among others.
The lack of calorie counting and attention to healthful, real, whole food make this diet appealing, but the limitation or elimination of certain foods, restrictions about how food is prepared, and other constraints of macrobiotics may make it time consuming and hard to follow for some people, especially if you’re not a fan of scratch cooking.
There have also been concerns that following very strict forms of a macrobiotic diet could lead to deficiencies of protein, calcium, iron, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin D, A, and omega-3 fatty acids in some people, particularly children. You can meet dietary guidelines following the macrobiotic diet, but you must practice careful planning and effort.
April 10, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN