Macrobiotics is all about eating in balance. This increasingly more popular diet was first developed by a Japanese philosopher called George Ohsawa. He believed in a holistic approach to health that incorporates many aspects of the lifestyle: from diet and exercise to meditation and even the ‘yin and yang’ energy of particular foods. He suggested that our health was directly linked and guided by nature and that eating and living in a way that harmonises with nature would create balance and harmony within our bodies.
Macrobiotics focuses on choosing organic, locally grown and seasonal produce. Generally, the macrobiotic diet is divided roughly as follows:
- Around 40-60 % of your food = whole grains such as brown rice, oats, barley or buckwheat
- Around 20-30% of your food = fruits and vegetables
- Around 10% – 25% = bean and bean products such as tofu, miso and tempeh as well as sea vegetables such as seaweed
Japan is famous for its pickles and fermented vegetables, nuts, seeds, and occasionally some meat or fish, and the locals often include those in moderation in their diet.
The macrobiotic diet also has lifestyle recommendations, including:
- Only eating when hungry and only drinking when thirsty;
- Chewing food thoroughly until it liquefies before swallowing;
- Avoiding microwave ovens and electric hobs;
- Only using natural materials such as wood, glass and china for cooking and storing food;
- Purifying water before cooking with it or drinking it;
- Avoiding flavoured, caffeinated or alcoholic drinks;
Some advocates of the macrobiotic diet claim that following the plan can help with chronic illnesses, including cancer. However, Cancer Research UK states that there is no evidence that the macrobiotic diet treats or cures cancer and warns that it can have harmful effects, so please do not treat any diet as a complete remedy.
How does Macrobiotics diet work?
Followers may adopt a macrobiotic diet in slightly different ways with some adhering very strictly to the rules on food preparation, cooking and eating, while others are more relaxed and only follow these rules in moderation.
For the seasons, hot weather is considered to be “yang,” and nature offers us “yin” foods like watermelon to help us cool off and stay hydrated. Cold weather is considered “yin” and we are offered “yang” root vegetables to help us feel warm, filled and grounded.
Yin energy describes foods that grow upwards and outwards, like leafy greens which grow in an upwards direction, and fruits which grow on taller plants like trees. Yin also represents foods that make us feel uplifted, so it also includes refined sugars and grains. When eaten in balance, you’ll feel awake, alert, and light in your body. In excess, you’ll experience a high followed by a crash (basically, high glycemic index (GI) foods will spike your blood sugar quickly and often cause that “sugar crash” later on).
Yang energy represents the opposite: foods that have centripetal energy that moves inwards and downwards. You can visually see this in foods like root vegetables which grow down into the ground and become pointed towards the ends (i.e. carrots, daikon, etc.). Animal products are also considered yang as they are concentrations of the nutrition consumed by the animal. When you have foods with more yang properties, you feel warm and relaxed. In excess, you can easily feel lethargic.
By eating a meal with foods that take both yin and yang into consideration, you’re feeding your body a wide variety of nutrition while also support its needs during that season.
Which foods are included?
Macrobiotic eating relies heavily upon consumption of whole, organic grains. Whole grains usually make up around 50 percent of each person’s daily food intake. Good examples are:
- bulgur wheat
- brown rice
- wild rice
Whole cereal grains are considered preferable to whole-grain pastas and breads. That said, these types of processed food are permissible in small quantities.
Vegetables should be locally-grown and, in season, should make up approximately one-third of your daily food intake. Vegetables you can eat daily include:
- green cabbage
- bok choy / pak choy
The rest of your daily food intake may include:
- soy products, such as miso
- sea vegetables, such as seaweed
- vegetable oil
- natural seasonings, such as naturally processed sea salt
Food preparation techniques, including steaming or sautéing, are favoured.
Soup made of the following ingredients can also be a daily staple:
- sea salt
- soy products, such as tofu and miso
Which foods should be limited or avoided?
Some foods can be eaten in small moderation, or a few times each week. These include:
- organic tree fruit and berries
The following organic foods are meant to be eaten very rarely, or only a few times each month:
Foods to eliminate include:
- certain vegetables, including potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes
- caffeinated and alcoholic beverages
- processed foods, such as white bread and store-bought cakes and cookies
- any food with artificial ingredients
- sodas, both diet and regular
- sugar and products containing sugar or corn syrup
- tropical fruits, such as pineapples and mangos
- hot, spicy food
- seasonings, such as garlic and oregano
You should eat in a focused, thoughtful, and slow manner without distractions, such as the television. You should only eat food to satisfy hunger, and you should chew it many times until it’s nearly liquefied. You should drink water or other beverages, such as dandelion root tea, brown rice tea, and cereal grain coffee, only to satisfy thirst.
What is in a typical macrobiotic meal?
Whole grains — brown rice in particular — is considered to be the most energetically balanced food item in macrobiotics, hence the most important starting point in a macrobiotic meal.
In addition to brown rice, a typical macrobiotic meal consists of other moderately balanced foods such as leafy greens, round vegetables (like pumpkin, cabbage and onion that are literally round in shape), root vegetables, beans, and miso soup. The best way to think of a macrobiotic meal is to think of a whole foods Japanese teishoku — the meals consist of a little bit of everything for balance in energetics, flavour, nutrition, season, and appearance.
The macrobiotic diet is not necessarily a vegetarian diet, although, most people who practice macrobiotics choose to eat vegetarian style because animal products are considered to be taxing to the digestive system since they take a longer time to digest. The least amount of stress you put on your digestive system, the more your body can restore digestive health.
People who are advocates of macrobiotics who consume animal products tend to stick to fish and seafood in small quantities. At the end of the day, the point is to eat in a way that is energetically balanced, so consuming “yin” vegetables to balance out the “yang” animal protein is the goal.
The bottom line
For those who can avoid nutritional deficiencies, macrobiotic eating can provide health benefits. You should never use it as a replacement for traditional medical treatments. People with specific medical conditions, such as cancer or obesity, should always get a doctor’s approval before starting. Those who are simply interested in pursuing better health may also benefit from a doctor or dietitian’s input before exploring the macrobiotics diet.