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Macrobiotic Diet

What Should I Know About It?

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Updated May 16, 2014

What is the Macrobiotic Diet?

The word "macrobiotic" comes from Greek roots and means "long life". The macrobiotic diet and philosophy were developed by a Japanese educator named George Ohsawa, who believed that simplicity was the key to optimal health.

The diet Ohsawa recommended included ten progressively restrictive stages. The last stage of Ohsawa's macrobiotic diet consisted only of brown rice and water. Due to its extreme restriction, Ohsawa's version of the macrobiotic diet is no longer recommended by macrobiotic diet counselors.

Michio Kushi expanded on Ohsawa's macrobiotic theory and opened the Kushi Institute in Boston in 1978. Together with his wife Aveline, Kushi published many books on macrobiotics and was responsible for popularizing the diet in North America.

Why do People Follow the Diet?

Typically, people interested in the macrobiotic diet are seeking a healthy way of eating that integrates physical, spiritual, and planetary health.

The macrobiotic diet is a low-fat, high fiber diet that is a predominantly vegetarian diet, emphasizing whole grains and vegetables. In addition, the macrobiotic diet is rich in phytoestrogens from soy products.

Because low-fat, high fiber diets are often recommended for cancer and other chronic diseases, the macrobiotic diet has been used by people with these conditions. The phytoestrogen content may be protective and reduce the risk of estrogen-related cancers such as breast cancer. However, further research is needed to clarify whether the macrobiotic diet is effective in cancer prevention and treatment.

People with serious medical conditions such as cancer or AIDS should always seek proper medical care. Some people try the diet because they heard it can cure their disease, but reseach has not substantiated these claims.

What are the Guidelines of the Macrobiotic Diet?

  • Whole grains typically make up 50 to 60% of each meal. Whole grains include brown rice, whole wheat berries, barley, millet, rye, corn, buckwheat, and other whole grains. Rolled oats, noodles, pasta, bread, baked goods, and other flour products can be eaten occasionally.
  • Soup. One to two cups or bowls of soup per day. Miso and shoyu, which are made from fermented soybeans, are commonly used.
  • Vegetables typically make up 25 to 30% of the daily food intake. Up to one-third of the total vegetable intake can be raw. Otherwise, vegetables should be steamed, boiled, baked, and sauteed.
  • Beans make up 10% of the daily food intake. This includes cooked beans or bean products such as tofu, tempeh, and natto.
  • Animal products. A small amount of fish or seafood is typically consumed several times per week. Meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy are usually avoided. Fish or seafood are eaten with horseradish, wasabi, ginger, mustard, or grated daikon to help the body detoxify from the effects of fish and seafood.
  • Seeds and nuts in moderation. Seeds and nuts can be lightly roasted and salted with sea salt or shoyu.
  • Local fruit can be consumed several times a week. Includes apples, pears, peaches, apricots, grapes, berries, melons, and other fruit. Tropical fruit such as mango, pineapple, and papaya is usually avoided.
  • Desserts are permitted in moderation, approximately two to three times per week. Desserts can be enjoyed by people who are in good health. Emphasize naturally sweet foods such as apples, squash, adzuki beans, and dried fruit. Natural sweeteners such as rice syrup, barley malt, and amazake can be used. Sugar, honey, molasses, chocolate, carob, and other sweeteners are avoided.
  • Cooking oil is typically unrefined vegetable oil. One of the most common oils used is dark sesame oil. Other oils that are recommended are light sesame oil, corn oil, and mustard seed oil.
  • Condiments and seasonings include natural sea salt, shoyu, brown rice vinegar, umeboshi vinegar, umeboshi plums, grated ginger root, fermented pickles, gomashio (roasted sesame seeds), roasted seaweed, and sliced scallions.

Diet guidelines are individualized based on factors such as climate, season, age, gender, activity, and health needs.

What are the Strengths of the Macrobiotic Diet?

The macrobiotic diet emphasizes foods that tend to be lacking in the North American diet, such as fiber-rich whole grains, vegetables, and beans. It is low in saturated fat and high in phytoestrogens, which proponents believe may help to balance female hormones and help with menopause, premenstrual syndrome, and prevention against breast cancer and endometriosis.

In addition, the macrobiotic diet is low in meat, dairy products, and sugar.

What are the Precautions and Possible Side Effects?

The macrobiotic diet is considered by some nutritionists to be too restrictive and lacking in certain nutrients, such as protein, vitamin B12, iron, magnesium, and calcium. Lack of energy may result from inadequate protein.

Sources

Kushi M, Kushi A, Jack A. Macrobiotic Diet. Japan Publications, Inc. 1997.

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