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What’s a Macrobiotic Diet?

What’s a Macrobiotic Diet?

For ages the term “macrobiotic diet” seemed to conjure up some cultish eating scheme that involved loads of kooky regimen and sacrifice. Fast forward to now–to a time when so many of us are making food decisions based on our health and the health of the planet–and “macrobiotic diet” seems like the most basic kind of “of course!” common-sense eating one could imagine. Macrobiotic philosophy has evolved over the years to better suit a wider audience and current times, and although there are still some restrictions, I bet it describes more of our eating habits than any of us might imagine.

The term “macrobiotics” comes from Greek macro meaning “large” or “long”, and bios meaning “life”–and was first coined by Hippocrates, the granddaddy of western medicine. Its most recent development stems from Michio Kushi who was inspired by philosopher-writer George Ohsawa. George Ohsawa published numerous works in Japanese, English and French, which combined the western traditions of macrobiotics with 5,000 years of traditional oriental medicine–he believed that simplicity was the key to optimal health. Imagine!

The original diet that Ohsawa proposed included ten progressively restrictive stages, culminating in the last phase of brown rice and water–I suppose that can be seen as pretty extreme, but considering some of the restrictive regimens people practice today it’s not that far out. Most contemporary macrobiotic practices don’t end on such a restrictive note–and aside from the extremity of Ohsawa’s last stage, the surrounding philosophies are smart and prescient.

Michio Kushi further developed Ohsawa’s theories and opened the Kushi Institute in Boston in 1978. With his wife Aveline, Kushi published numerous books on macrobiotics and made the diet popular in North America. The macrobiotic approach is based on the view that we are the result of and are continually influenced by our total environment, which ranges from the foods we eat and our daily social interactions to the climate and geography in which we live.

The basic macrobiotic tenets include eating more whole grains, beans and fresh vegetables, increasing variety in food selections and traditional cooking methods, eating regularly and less in quantity, chewing more and maintaining an active and positive life and mental outlook. I don’t know about chewing more, but all of the other practices sound like a win-win to me.

As established by Michio Kushi, the guidelines for people living in temperate climates outline basic dietary proportions along with healthier lifestyle habits. I love that they are not intended to define a hardcore specific regimen that one must stringently follow–Kushi recognized that people in different situations will have different needs.

Food Categories, Daily Proportions, General Guidelines from the Kushi Institute:

Whole Cereal Grains: 40-60 percent by weight
Organically grown, whole grain is recommended, which can be cooked in a variety of cooking methods.
Grains include: Brown rice, barley, millet, oats, corn, rye, wheat, and buckwheat. While whole grains are recommended, a small portion of the recommended percentage of grains may consist of noodles or pasta, un-yeasted whole grain breads, and other partially processed whole cereal grains.

Vegetables: Approximately 20-30 percent by weight
Local and organically grown vegetables are recommended, with the majority being cooked in various styles such as lightly steamed or boiled, sauteed with a small amount of unrefined, cold pressed oil, etc. A small portion may be used as fresh salad, and a very small volume as pickles.
Vegetables for daily use include: green cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, collards, pumpkin, watercress, parsley, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, dandelion, mustard greens, daikon greens, scallion, onions, daikon radish, turnips, burdock, carrots, winter squash such as butternut, buttercup, and acorn squash.
For occasional use in season (2 to 3 times a week): cucumber, celery, lettuce, herbs such as dill and chives.
Vegetables not recommended for regular use include: potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, spinach, beets, and zucchini.

Beans and Sea Vegetables: Approximately 5-10 percent by weight
The most suitable beans for regular use are azuki beans, chickpeas, and lentils. Other beans may be used on occasion. Bean products such as tofu, tempeh, and natto can also be used. Sea vegetables such as nori, wakame, kombu, hiziki, arame, dulse, and agar-agar are an important part of the macrobiotic diet as they provide important vitamins and minerals.

Soups
Soups may be made with vegetables, sea vegetables, grains, or beans. Seasonings include miso, tamari soy sauce, and sea salt.

Beverages
Recommended beverages include: Roasted bancha twig tea, stem tea, roasted brown rice tea, roasted barley tea, dandelion root tea, and cereal grain coffee. Any traditional tea that does not have an aromatic fragrance or a stimulating effect can also be used. When drinking water, spring or good quality well water is recommended, without ice.

Occasional Foods
Recommended fish include fresh white-meat fish such as flounder, sole, cod, carp, halibut or trout.
Fruit or fruit desserts, made from fresh or dried fruit, may be served two or three times a week. Local and organically grown fruits are preferred. If you live in a temperate climate, avoid tropical and semitropical fruit and instead, eat temperate climate fruits such as apples, pears, plums, peaches, apricots, berries and melons. Frequent use of fruit juice is not advisable.
Lightly roasted nuts and seeds such as pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds. Peanuts, walnuts and pecans may be enjoyed as an occasional snack.
Rice syrup, barley malt, amasake, and mirin may be used as sweeteners.
Brown rice vinegar or umeboshi vinegar may be used occasionally for a sour taste.

Recommended condiments
Gomashio, seaweed powder (kelp, kombu, wakame, and other sea vegetables), Sesame seaweed powder, umeboshi plums, tekka, pickles and sauerkraut made using sea salt, miso, or tamari.

Additional Dietary Suggestions
Cooking oil should be vegetable quality only. To improve your health, it is preferable to use only unrefined sesame or corn oil in moderate amounts.
Salt should be naturally processed sea salt. Traditional, non-chemicalized shoyu or tamari soy sauce and miso may also be used as seasonings.

Foods to Eliminate for Better Health
Meat, animal fat, eggs, poultry, dairy products (including butter, yogurt, ice cream, milk and cheese), refined sugars, chocolate, molasses, honey, other simple sugars and foods treated with them, and vanilla.
Tropical or semi-tropical fruits and fruit juices, soda, artificial drinks and beverages, coffee, colored tea, and all aromatic stimulating teas such as mint or peppermint tea.
All artificially colored, preserved, sprayed, or chemically treated foods. All refined and polished grains, flours, and their derivatives, mass- produced industrialized food including all canned, frozen, and irradiated foods.
Hot spices, any aromatic stimulating food or food accessory, artificial vinegar, and strong alcoholic beverages.

Macrobiotic Lifestyle Suggestions
Eat only when hungry.
Proper chewing (around 50 times or more per mouthful) is important for good digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
Eat in an orderly and relaxed manner. When you eat, sit with a good posture and take a moment to express gratitude for the food.
You may eat regularly two or three times per day, as much as you want, provided the proportion is generally correct and each mouthful is thoroughly chewed. It is best to leave the table satisfied but not full.
Drink liquids moderately, only when thirsty.
For the deepest and most restful sleep, retire before midnight and avoid eating at least 2 to 3 hours before sleeping.
Wash as needed, but avoid long hot baths or showers which deplete the body of minerals.
Use cosmetics and cleaning products that are made from natural, nontoxic ingredients. Avoid chemically-perfumed products. For care of the teeth, brush with natural preparations.
As much as possible, wear cotton clothing, especially for undergarments. Avoid wearing synthetic or woolen clothing directly on the skin. Avoid wearing excessive accessories on the fingers, wrists, neck, or any other part of the body.
Spend time outdoors if strength permits. Walk on the grass, beach or soil up to one half hour every day. Spend some time in direct sunlight.
Exercise regularly. Activities may include walking, yoga, martial arts, dance, etc.
Include some large green plants in the home to freshen and enrich the oxygen content of the air.
Open windows daily to permit fresh air to circulate, even in cold weather.
Keep your home in good order, especially the areas where food is prepared and served.
To increase circulation and elimination of toxins, scrub the entire body with a hot, damp towel every morning or every night. If that is not possible, at least scrub the hands, feet, fingers and toes.
Avoid using electric cooking devices (ovens and ranges) or microwave ovens. The use of a gas or wood stove is preferred.
Use earthenware, cast iron, or stainless steel cookware rather than aluminum or Teflon-coated pots.
Sing a song!

Read more: Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Food, Health, , ,

By Melissa Breyer, Senior Editor, Healthy & Green Living

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.

35 comments

+ add your own
1:10AM PDT on May 18, 2013

Thank you :)

10:18PM PDT on Mar 19, 2011

I meant,
Eat what you drink means do NOT swallow it right away.
Try it with your tea, and anything else!

10:10PM PDT on Mar 19, 2011

Thnak you, very interesting, and I am convinced that it is very healthy as weel.

Few comments, now.
I belive in locavorism, ie eat local products. This converges with the eleimination (or minimiszation) of tropical food, but it implies not to eat Japanese products.
When you eat local products, you reduce CO2 emssions need to transport the food on thousands of miles, and you gain an greater natural resonnance between your body enery and the food enerngetic pattern.

As for chewing, maybe 50 times is a bit too much, but chewing makes a BIG difference. It brings you more in the here and now, in the fact of eating, and thus it completely balances the nervous and energetic emotional system while you provide your body with gross energy. That's excellent. Of course, the key is that it actually predigests all the food, espeically carbohydrrats, and it cuts down proteins etc, so the whole digestion process is smoother and more efficient. You get the juice of your food.
Tich Nath Hahn (the great Zen master) says,
Drink what you eat,
Eat what you drink
Drink what you eat means, chew chew until it is liquid.
Eat what you drink means, chew the liquids as well, a bit, or rather, do swallow them right away, especially if they contain nutriments, sugar, etc, as this will also help digest them.
I apply this advice from time to time, and it is a great piece of advice!
Thank you

2:41AM PDT on Mar 18, 2011

Gracias!

11:46PM PDT on Jun 14, 2009

thanks...
Kabin
Konteyner

8:33PM PDT on Mar 29, 2009

very rude since we are the world's most caring group in the whole world. try to be a little less
arrogant, and you may see that we are trying to learn. I want to get well, and I thought that I may get some tips. Sorry you are so easilty offedned, but i am just tryint to stay alive, after a sever accient.

3:10PM PDT on Mar 29, 2009

There is no s on the end of my name. The name is Spear.

I did not accuse you of arrogance at all; I merely quoted Ohsawa. Of course I have no idea about your history, education or anything else about you -- anymore than you know mine. No one knows your Truth but you, Sir. That is why I invited you to break bread, but you seemed to have slammed the door rather soundly on my invitation, and in so doing, got the final word -- perhaps as you hoped. Again, I say "Peace." May you continue to be well and guide others to health, too, if that is your intention.

2:51PM PDT on Mar 29, 2009

Dear William Spears:

Facts are not your forte. Nor science. Nor integrity.

You wrote: " It is clear that MB never worked for him, or worse, it left him hurting."

You have no idea of my personal or medical history (just as you have no knowledge of my education or experience or my knwledge of TCM, which has its array of quacks, just like you). You accuse me of arrogance. What an astonishing irony.

1:38PM PDT on Mar 29, 2009

Now it is clear that Mr. Jaffee is not merely very angry, he may just be as mad as a hatter (mercury poisoning or just a bit too much time behind the looking glass?) His absurd and pointless argument over Yin and Yang is only slightly more laughable than his persistence to have the final say in what is right and wrong -- something left for each individual to determine, not him, me or anyone else. It is clear that MB never worked for him, or worse, it left him hurting. But this is hardly the fault of a philosophy that works for so many people, but rather probably comes from what George Ohsawa pointed out was the real cause of all sickness: arrogance. At this point, since he is increasingly more livid with each comment, debating the merits of a dietary approach that he disdains and I've followed for 35+ years serves no one, although it may be a boost for his sagging ego. I'd venture to guess no one is reading this anymore anyway, save the two of us, and I've got better things to do. Should he ever come East, or if I'm in Oregon, perhaps we can "break bread." I'll take the Yin piece (I mean, er, um...the Yang one....) Oh, never mind -- he'd probably never dine with a lowly sophist. Peace, LJ.

12:48PM PDT on Mar 29, 2009

To William Spears:

This message system mutilated the last paragraph of the message I posted a few minutes ago.

This is what this message system put: “If a “medicine” rests on errors of physics and chemistry, as does Macrobi-exposure is not reductionism. It is debunking.”

This is the actual text of what I wrote: “If a “medicine” rests on errors of physics and chemistry, as does Macrobiotics, extensively, then it is worse than mysticism, as is your string of nonsense suggestions. Error-exposure is not reductionism. It is debunking.”

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