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A macrobiotic diet is a strict whole-foods pesco-vegetarian (a diet that includes fish but no meat or poultry) diet. It is appealing to health-minded people who are practicing a holistic approach to physical and spiritual well-being. It focuses on balancing yin and yang foods, which are described below. There have been numerous anecdotal reports of the macrobiotic diet curing people of cancer or other serious diseases, but very little scientific evidence exists.
- 50 to 60% of your diet should be whole grains, 25 to 30% vegetables, 5 to 10% miso and bean soups, and 5 to 10% beans and sea vegetables.
- Avoid very yin or very yang foods (see description below).
- The diet includes other principles like eating only when hungry, chewing food completely, and keeping the kitchen tidy.
Best bets: Brown rice, barley, whole wheat, fresh broccoli, cauliflower, butternut squash, chickpeas, tofu, sea vegetables like kombu and nori, and vegetable soups. A few servings of nuts and seafood per week are allowed.
More about this diet
The earliest recorded usage of the term “macrobiotics” is found in the writings of Hippocrates. Translated literally, macro is the Greek word for “great” and bios is the word for “life.” Macrobiotics is used by its practitioners as a tool that allows one to learn to live within the natural order of life. 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 was started in the 1920s by a Japanese educator named George Ohsawa. Ohsawa is said to have cured himself of a serious illness by changing to a simple diet of brown rice, miso soup, and sea vegetables. At the core of Ohsawa’s writings on macrobiotics is the concept of yin and yang. In Chinese philosophy, the opposing forces of yin and yang govern all aspects of life. Yin—representative of an outward centrifugal movement—results in expansion. On the other hand, yang—representative of an inward centripetal movement—produces contraction. In addition, yin is said to be cold while yang is hot; yin is sweet, yang is salty; yin is passive, yang is aggressive. In the macrobiotic view, the forces of yin and yang must be kept in balance to achieve good health.
The macrobiotic diet, therefore, attempts to achieve harmony between yin and yang. To this end, foods are classified into yin and yang categories, according to their tastes, properties, and effects on the body. The two food groups—grains and vegetables—that have the least pronounced yin and yang qualities, are emphasized in the macrobiotic diet. Eating these foods is thought to make it easier to achieve a more balanced condition within the natural order of life. Foods considered either extremely yin or extremely yang are 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 yin/yang continuum, and should comprise 50 to 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 to 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, turnip greens, onion, daikon radish, acorn squash, butternut squash, and pumpkin. Vegetables to be eaten occasionally (two to three times per week) include celery, iceberg 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 to 10% of daily food intake. Especially recommended are adzuki beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lentils, and tofu. Sea vegetables, including wakame, hijiki, kombu, and nori, are rich in many vitamins and minerals, and are easily added at each meal.
- Soups and broths comprise 5 to 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 (a sweet rice drink) 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, dandelion greens, or the cooking water of soba noodles are generally considered acceptable. All teas with aromatic fragrances or caffeine are avoided. Drinking and cooking water must be purified.
- To maintain proper yin/yang balance, all extremely yang foods and all extremely yin foods are avoided. 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.
- All foods should be organically grown. Produce should be fresh and locally grown.
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; cook rice in a pressure cooker; 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.
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The information presented in Aisle7 is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires June 2015.