A macrobiotic diet is part of a philosophy of life that incorporates the ancient Oriental concept of yin and yang. The diet itself consists mainly of brown rice, other whole grains, and vegetables. It requires foods to be cooked over a flame, rather than by electricity or microwave.
In the macrobiotic diet, foods are selected for their metaphysical qualities rather than their nutritional value. The regime, which is high in whole grains, vegetables, beans, and soy protein, has many of the same benefits as a vegetarian or vegan diet. Numerous scientific studies have shown that a diet of this type can significantly reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and various cancers. The macrobiotic diet is rich in vitamins, high in dietary fiber, and low in fatty foods.
In addition to its holistic approach to nutrition, macrobiotics applies these beliefs to life in general. Its philosophy recommends the following behaviors:
- eating two or three meals a day
- chewing each mouthful of food approximately 50 times to aid digestion and absorption of nutrients
- avoiding food for at least three hours before bedtime
- taking short baths or showers as needed, with warm or cool water
- consuming only organic foods
- using cast iron, clay pots, or stainless steel cookware
- cooking frequently with methods that use liquids (e.g. pressure cooking, boiling, steaming, soups, stews) instead of dry cooking methods (baking, broiling)
- eating nothing that is commercially processed and contains food additives
- taking no dietary supplements
- using grooming, cosmetic, and household products made from natural, non-toxic ingredients
- wearing only cotton clothing and avoiding metallic jewelry spending as much time as possible in natural outdoor settings and walking at least 30 minutes daily doing such aerobic or stretching exercises as yoga, dance, or martial arts on a regular basis.
- Placing large green plants throughout the house to enrich the oxygen content of the air, and keeping windows open as much as possible to allow fresh air circulation.
- avoiding food preparation with electricity or microwaves, instead using gas or wood stoves
- avoiding television viewing and computer use as much as possible.
The macrobiotic diet assigns yin and yang energies to foods. Yin represents female or cool, dark, inwardly focused energy. Yang represents male orwarm, light, outwardly focused energy. In this ancient Asian philosophy, everything in the universe is assigned a yin or yang quality. For good mental and physical health and a harmonious life, yin and yang forces must be balanced. This balance must be reflected in the food the individual eats.
Because environmental yin and yang forces change with the seasons, with climate, and time of day, the diet must also change with them.
The macrobiotic diet consists mainly of foods in the middle, such as brown rice and other whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. The diet is flexible, and allows fish on occasion. Its flexibility enhances its appeal. The macrobiotic diet allows people to design their own food regimens based on their personal requirements, environment, and medical conditions.
One of the principles of the macrobiotic diet is that people should primarily eat organically grown foods native to their climate and area. The theory is that human health depends on the ability to adapt to changes in the environment.
When people eat foods from a climate that differs from where they live, they lose that adaptability. Proponents of the macrobiotic diet claim that as society has moved away from its traditional ecologically based diet, there has been a corresponding rise in chronic illness.
Therefore, for optimal health, the belief is that people need to return to a way of eating based on foods produced in their local environment, or at least grown in a climate that is similar to where they live.
Foods considered yang (contracted energy) last longer and can originate from a wide geographic area. Sea salt and sea vegetables are examples of yang foods. They can come from anywhere within the same hemisphere.
Whole grains and legumes are also yang, and can originate anywhere within the same continent since they keep for a long time. Fresh fruits and vegetables are considered yin (expansive energy). Since they have a relatively short shelf life, they should be chosen only from those types that grow naturally within one’s immediate area. According to macrobiotic beliefs, balance between yin and yang in diet and food helps achieve inner peace and harmony with one’s self and the surrounding world. Another aspect of the macrobiotic diet is that the type of foods eaten should change with the seasons:
- In the spring and summer, the food should be lighter, cooler, and require less cooking. This change is necessary because—according to the macrobiotic philosophy— the energy of fire is abundant in the form of sunlight and does not need to be drawn from cooked food.
- In the autumn and winter, the opposite is true.
The time of day also plays an important role in the macrobiotic diet since it relates to atmospheric energy levels:
- In the morning, when upward energy is stronger, breakfast should include light foods, such as a whole grain cooked in water.
- In the evening, when downward energy is stronger, the meal can be larger.
- Lunch should be quick and light, since afternoon energy is active and expansive.
In macrobiotics, it is believed that the dietary standards that are effective for one person may not work for another. These standards may change from day to day. Therefore, this diet requires a change in thinking from a static view of life to a dynamic one. Many people are attracted to the diet because of claims that it can prevent or cure cancer. While no scientific studies support these claims, there are many people who believe the diet helped rid them of the disease when such conventional treatments as chemotherapy and radiation failed.
Others use the diet to help treat diabetes, hypertension, arteriosclerosis, and other forms of heart disease. Many of the diet’s supporters believe that these and other degenerative diseases occur because the body’s yin and yang are out of balance, and that a macrobiotic diet helps restore this balance.
The primary food in the standard macrobiotic diet is whole cereal grains, including brown rice, barley, millet, rolled oats, wheat, corn, rye, and buckwheat. A small amount of whole grain pasta and breads is allowed. Grains should comprise about 50% of the food consumed.
Fresh vegetables should account for 20–30% of the diet.
- The most highly recommended vegetables include green cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens, carrots, parsnips, winter squash, bok choy, onions, parsley, daikon radishes, and watercress.
- Vegetables that should be eaten only occasionally include cucumber, celery, lettuce, and most herbs.
- Vegetables that should be avoided include tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, spinach, beets, and summer squash.
About 10% of the diet should consist of beans and sea vegetables.
- The most suitable beans are azuki, chickpeas, and lentils. Tofu and tempeh are also allowed. Other beans can be eaten several times a week.
- Sea vegetables include nori, wakame, kombu, hiziki, arame, and agar-agar.
Another 10% of the diet should include soups made with regular or sea vegetables.
Other permitted items include:
- sweeteners such as barley malt, rice syrup, and apple juice;
- such seasonings as miso, tamari, soy sauce, rice or cider vinegar, sesame oil, tahini, and sea salt;
- occasional small amounts of seeds and nuts (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, and almonds);
- and white-meat fish once or twice a week.
Beverages allowed include:
- tea made from twigs, stems, brown rice, and dandelion root
- apple juice
- good-quality water without ice.
Items not allowed include: meat, dairy products, fruits, refined grains, anything with preservatives, artificial flavorings and colorings or chemicals, all canned, frozen, processed, and irradiated foods, hot spices, caffeine, alcohol, refined sugar, honey, molasses, and chocolate.
There are no specific procedures involved in preparing for the diet, except to change from a diet based on meat, sugars, dairy products, and processed foods, to one based primarily on whole grains, vegetables, and unprocessed foods. Some advocates of the macrobiotic diet recommend making the switch gradually rather than all at once.
The macrobiotic diet does not include many fruits and vegetables that are important sources of nutrients and antioxidants, such as vitamin C and beta carotene. If followed rigidly, the diet can also be deficient in protein, calcium, vitamin B12, folate, and iron.
Individuals accustomed to a diet high in fat can experience sudden and drastic weight loss if they switch to a rigid macrobiotic diet. In its original form, the macrobiotic diet required foods to be slowly eliminated from the diet until only rice and beans were consumed. Carried to this extreme, the diet lacks significantly in necessary vitamins and nutrients. A macrobiotic diet may worsen cachexia (malnutrition, wasting) in cancer patients. It is not recommended for people who have intestinal blockages, gluten-sensitive enteropathy (celiac disease), or cereal grain allergies.
Children, pregnant women, and individuals with intestinal disorders, hypertension (high blood pressure), kidney disease, or malnutrition should consult their physician before starting a macrobiotic diet. A diet should never be a substitute for receiving appropriate medical treatment.
There are no negative side effects associated with a macrobiotic diet in adults, other than such minor problems as dizziness in some people who experience rapid weight loss. Other, sometimes serious, side effects are possible if the diet is deficient in one or more vitamins or minerals.