The Macrobiotic Diet

Introduction

The macrobiotic diet emphasizes whole grains, vegetables, and soy products, and restricts meat, dairy products and processed foods. This diet is low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and high in fiber, and, consequently, may decrease the risk of heart disease and cancer.

However, a macrobiotic diet can be deficient in several important nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and iron, and is, therefore, not recommended for children, adolescents, or pregnant or lactating women.

History

The earliest recorded use of the term “macrobiotics” is found in the writings of Hippocrates. "Macro" is the Greek word for "longest," and "bios" is the Greek word for "life." The term "macrobiotics" refers to a way of life using the longest possible view, or more specifically, a way of life that is in harmony with the infinite order of the universe.

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 is said to have originated in Japan at the turn of the twentieth century, when two Japanese educators, Sagen Ishitsuka, M.D. and Yukikazu Sakurazawa, cured themselves of serious illnesses by adopting a simple diet of brown rice, miso soup and sea vegetables.

After regaining their health, Ishitsuka and Sakurazawa (known in the West by his pen name George Ohsawa) worked to integrate Eastern and Western philosophy and medicine to form the dietary and lifestyle principles of what is now known as macrobiotics.

Popularity

Macrobiotics is practiced throughout the world by many people who are seeking a holistic approach to physical and spiritual well-being. In addition, some individuals with serious medical conditions including cancer, AIDS, and cardiovascular disease, have adopted a macrobiotic way of life, instead of following conventional treatments.

In 2000, a study of alternative treatments used by cancer patients reported that using unconventional treatment approaches, including macrobiotics, sometimes improves quality of life by reducing stress, decreasing discomforts associated with the disease, and giving patients a sense of control. (Sparber, 2000)

Principles

The practice of macrobiotics is rooted in the acknowledgement of the changing nature of the universe and an understanding of the concept of yin and yang.

Michio Kushi, a well-known author of several books on the principles of macrobiotics, writes, “Everything in the universe is eternally changing, and this change proceeds according to the infinite order of the universe. Opposites attract each other to achieve harmony, the similar repel each other to avoid disharmony. One tendency changes into its opposite, which shall return to the previous state... These cycles occur everywhere throughout nature and the universe.”

In Eastern philosophy, the “opposites” that Kushi speaks about in the paragraph above are the opposing forces known as yin and yang. Yin, representative of an inward centripetal movement, produces contraction, while yang, representative of an outward centrifugal movement, results in expansion. In addition, yin is said to be cold while yang is hot; yin is sweet, yang is salty; yin is passive, yang is aggressive.

The forces of yin and yang are also present in the foods we eat. Although all foods have both yin and yang qualities, some foods are extremely yin, while others are extremely yang. In the macrobiotic view, to achieve optimal health, the forces of yin and yang in a person’s body must be kept in balance.

The macrobiotic diet, therefore, attempts to balance the forces of expansion and contraction in the foods we eat. To this end, foods are classified into yin and yang categories. Foods in the middle of the yin/yang continuum are to form the bulk of the diet, while foods considered either extremely yin or extremely yang are to be 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 ying/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 and turnip greens, onion, daikon, acorn squash, butternut squash, and pumpkin. Vegetables to be eaten occasionally (2-3 times per week) include celery, 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, hiziki, kombu, and nori, are rich in many vitamins and minerals and should be 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 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 or dandelion greens are acceptable. All beverages containing caffeine must be avoided. Drinking and cooking water must be purified.
  • All foods should be organically grown. Ideally, only fresh (as opposed to frozen) and locally grown fruits and vegetables should be eaten.

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; 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.

Research

Advocates of the macrobiotic diet point to a case-control study published in 1993 involving patients with metastatic prostate cancer. In this study, patients who ate a macrobiotic diet lived longer than patients who made no dietary changes, 177 months compared to 91 months. In addition, the patients following the macrobiotic diet reported an improvement in quality of life. (Carter, 1993)

Although only a small amount of clinical research has been conducted to measure the benefits of the macrobiotic way of life, the macrobiotic diet encompasses many of the dietary elements that are associated with a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. The diet is low in saturated fat and cholesterol, high in dietary fiber, and rich in cruciferous vegetables and soy products.

Foods Emphasized

Whole grains, such as brown rice, barley, millet, oats, corn, and rye, comprise the bulk of the Macrobiotic Diet. The diet also emphasizes the consumption of vegetables, especially cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, bok choy, collards, and mustard greens. Beans, tofu and sea vegetables should be eaten on a daily basis, and a few servings each week of nuts, seeds and fresh fish (halibut, flounder, cod, or sole) are permissible. All foods should be organically grown, and, ideally, only fresh (as opposed to frozen) and locally grown fruits and vegetables should be eaten.

Foods Avoided

To maintain proper yin/yang balance, it is necessary to avoid all extremely yang foods and all extremely yin foods. 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.

Nutrient Excesses/
Deficiencies

Individuals following a macrobiotic diet may have inadequate intake of several nutrients, including calories, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, and iron. In children, such dietary deficiencies may cause slow growth, muscle wasting, poor mental function, and/or inadquate bone development.

Who Benefits

Due to the emphasis on vegetables, fruits and whole grains, the macrobiotic diet contains a large amount of dietary fiber and is rich in many important vitamins and minerals. This diet also restricts the intake of saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, alcohol, and processed foods, all of which are known to negatively impact health.

As a result, it is likely that anyone eating a typical American diet could improve their overall health by adopting a carefully planned macrobiotic diet. In addition, a small amount of clinical research indicates that the macrobiotic diet is beneficial for people with cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Who is Harmed

When compared to conventional nutritional recommendations, a strict macrobiotic diet is quite limited in the variety of foods that are allowed (e.g., a macrobiotic diet does not allow the consumption of meat or dairy products), and, as a result, might be deficient in calories, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, and iron. Because of these potential deficiencies, this type of diet is not suitable for children or for pregnant or lactating women.

Menu Ideas

The following menu ideas are taken from The Cancer Prevention Diet by Michio Kushi, and are representative of the types of macrobiotic meals that might be eaten by individuals in relatively good health. Cancer patients, and others with specific medical concerns, would be required to adjust these basic meals (by adding more yin or yang foods) to make them suitable for their condition.

Breakfast

  • Vegetable Miso Soup
  • Soft Brown Rice with Kombu and Shiitake Mushroom
  • Bancha Tea

OR

  • Soft Brown Rice with Winter Squash
  • Rice Kayu Bread
  • Bancha Tea

Lunch

  • Udon Noodles and Broth
  • Steamed Brussel Sprouts
  • Garden Salad
  • Bancha Tea

OR

  • Whole Oats with Barley and Chickpeas
  • Steamed Kale
  • Fresh Cantaloupe
  • Grain Coffee

Dinner

  • Whole Wheat Lasagna with Tofu Filling
  • Boiled String Beans with Onions
  • Steamed Watercress
  • Bancha Tea

OR

  • Baked Cod with Ginger Sauce
  • Millet
  • Boiled Carrots and Onions
  • Steamed Parsley
  • Blueberry Pie
  • Roasted Barley Tea

Resources

The following books provide information on the macrobiotic lifestyle:

  • Pocket Guide to Macrobiotics. Carl Ferre. Crossing Press, 1997.
  • The Macrobiotic Way: The Complete Macrobiotic Diet & Exercise Book. Michio Kushi. Avery Publishing Group, 1993.
  • An Introduction to Macrobiotics. A Beginner’s Guide to the Natural Way of Health. Carolyn Heidenry. Avery Publishing Group, 1992.
  • The Cancer Prevention Diet: Michio Kushi’s Macrobiotic Blueprint for the Prevention and Relief of Disease. Michio Kushi and Alex Jack. 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. Michio Kushi and Alex Jack. St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

The Kushi Institute, located in Massachusetts, provides on-site training in macrobiotics. For more information, view the official web site of the Kushi Institute at www.macrobiotics.org.

References

  • Carter JP, et al. Hypothesis: Dietary management may improve survival from nutritionally linked cancers based on analysis of representative cases. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 1993; 12:209-226.
  • Dagnelie PC, et al. High prevalence of rickets in infants on macrobiotic diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1990; 51(2):202-208.
  • Dagnelie PC, et al. Macrobiotic nutrition and child health: results of a population-based, mixed-longitudinal cohort study in The Netherlands. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1994; 59: 1187S-1196S.
  • Dangelie PC, et al. Stunting and nutrient deficiencies in children on alternative diets. Acta Paediatr Scand Suppl 1991; 374:111-8.
  • Kushi M, Jack A. . .
  • Louwman MW, et al. Signs of impaired cognitive function in adolescents with marginal cobalamin status. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2000; 72(3):762-9.
  • Parsons TJ, et al. Reduced bone mass in Dutch adolescents fed a macrobiotic diet in early life. Journal of Bone Mineral Research 1997; 12(9): 1486-94.
  • Sparber A, et al. Use of complementary medicine by adult patients participating in cancer clinical trials. Oncology Nurses Forum 2000; 27(4):623-630.
  • Specker B. Nutritional concerns of lactating women consuming vegetarian diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1994; 59: 1182S-1186S.
  • van Dusseldorp M, et al. Risk of persistent cobalamin deficiency in adolescents fed a macrobiotic diet in early life. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1999; 69(4):664-671.

This page was updated on: 2001-05-07 04:09:44
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation