The Macrobiotic Diet is much more than just a weight loss plan. It is a way of life where followers are guided to adopt a new way of life that integrates physical and spiritual health. The name of the Macrobiotic Diet is derived from the Greek word “macro” meaning large or long, and “bios” meaning life. So – a diet designed for a long life. The term “macrobiotics” was first used by Hippocratus, the father of Western Medicine, to describe people who were healthy and long-lived.
George Ohsawa, a Japanese philosopher, developed the original Macrobiotic Diet and philosophy. He took his teachings over to the United States in the 1950s. Michio Kushi, one of Ohsawa’s pupils later refined and popularized this diet. The Kushi Institute was opened in Boston in 1978. Kushi and his wife, Aveline Kushi, published a number of books on the Macrobiotic Diet.
Followers of the Macrobiotic Diet believe there is a strong relationship between food and the mind, body and spirit – and that our lives really are affected in many ways by what we eat, when we eat, and how we eat. The nutritional approach this diet is based on is in essence a low fat, high fiber diet; emphasizing locally grown whole grains and vegetables with plenty of beans and soy products. The basic vegetarian diet is supplemented by small amounts of fish, nuts and fruit. Macrobiotics discourages the use of processed or refined foods and clearly identifies refined sugar as one of the major culprits in the modern diet.
The Macrobiotic Diet goes as far as to prescribe different foods for different seasons, and for different times of the day. Food must be chosen to ensure a balance between yin and yang as per the eastern philosophy. Yin foods are described as cooling and include most fruit and vegetables. Yang foods are regarded as warming foods and include most animal products, fish, coffee, chocolate, ham and wine. Sweeter food generally holds more yin energy, while salty food contains the yang. Extremes to both sides (yin and yang) are to be avoided and foods must be selected from the middle range. Even though it is a largely vegetarian lifestyle, Macrobiotics also allows for fish and some animal products, and is therefor described as a “flexitarian” lifestyle.
Of course it doesn’t stop there. The Macrobiotic Diet is also very prescriptive with regards to followers’ behavior around food and how it must be prepared. Certain methods of cooking are prescribed for yin foods (light sauteing or steaming for example) while yang foods are baked stewed or roasted. Foods are divided into different categories based on the following characteristics: sour, salty, sweet or bitter. Instructions are also issued on how and when to eat, and how to ensure that food is thoroughly chewed before eating.
Low fat, high fiber diets are often recommended for cancer patients, a way of eating the Macrobiotic Diet lends itself to easily. Soy products are rich in phytoestrogens, which may also help reduce the risk of estrogen-related cancers, such as breast cancer. These factors, together with the emphasis on spiritual well-being make this diet very attractive to many people battling debilitating diseases.
One of the main goals on this diet is to become sensitized to the effect of different foods on your general health and spiritual well-being, rather than to simply follow a prescriptive diet. The purpose of the dietary guidelines provided is to help people develop that sensitivity to the requirements of their own bodies. Dietary guidelines are based on a number of factors including climate, season, age, gender, activity and individual health requirements. Commonly included guidelines can be summarized as follow:
- One to two bowls of Miso Soup (made from fermented soy beans) per day are almost always on the menu.
- Whole grains such as brown rice, barley, rye and so forth make up 25 to 30% of each meal.
- Vegetables are included in large quantities and account for about 30 to 40% of the total daily calorie intake. Some vegetables are excluded; most notably the nightshade vegetables (e.g. tomatoes, avocados, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, beets and spinach) are to be avoided as they are considered to be extremely yin. One third of the vegetables must be eaten raw.
- Beans (including bean products such as tofu) account for about 5 to 10% of the daily food intake.
- Small amounts of fish and seafood may be consumed several times per week. Most other animal products such as meat, poultry and dairy are generally avoided.
- Fruit may be included several times a week, specifically those that fall in the middle yin range such as apples, peaches and berries. Tropical fruit such as papaya, pineapple and mango are not recommended as part of this weight loss and management plan.
- Nuts and seeds are included in moderation.
- While some provisions are made for desert they tend to be limited to naturally sweet foods such as fruit or dried fruit. Sugar, honey and most forms of sweeteners must be avoided. Rice syrup and barley malt may be used to sweeten food.
Is it a healthy diet? Yes. Most people will benefit from a well-planned Macrobiotic Diet, but it is important to stress the fact that it must be customized for you by a nutritionist (or someone very knowledgeable in nutrition), to ensure that the diet provides sufficient nutrients to your body. Areas of concern for the Macrobiotic Diet include insufficient quantities of protein, Vitamin B12, iron, calcium and magnesium. The holistic approach to weight loss and management and the fact that it is not so much a diet as a lifestyle change also count in its favor. Macrobiotics is most certainly not the easiest diet to stick to, especially if you still want to eat out and don’t have a lot of time for preparing meals. If you are highly motivated though and dislike animal products; this may be a good diet for you.
As a note of interest: Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna are two of the more famous Macrobiotic Diet followers, although recent reports indicate that Gwyneth may have abandoned the lifestyle.