Macrobiotic Diet Food Basics

The human body needs carbohydrates, proteins, fats/oils, minerals, vitamins, enzymes and water to perform optimally. How are bodies get all of these necessities plays an important part in our health. A Macrobiotic diet emphasizes one way to utilize healthy food optimally.

The macrobiotic diet is part of an overall health and wellness philosophy originating in the Far East. It is believed to help men and women achieve a natural balance in their lives, allowing them to live longer and more actively. The term macrobiotics was first used by the Ancient Greek philosopher, Hippocrates, and literally means "great life." Proponents of the macrobiotic lifestyle emphasize living close to nature and consuming a simple and natural diet.

In the 1920s, the Japanese philosopher, George Ohsawa created the first macrobiotic diet. In an attempt to cure himself of disease, Ohsawa began consuming a strict diet, made up of brown rice, sea vegetables, and water. Ohsawa soon believed that this diet helped to cure him of his disease, and began creating ten different versions of his macrobiotic diet, which focused on consumption of whole grains, low-fat foods, and certain fruits and vegetables.

George Ohsawa’s macrobiotic diet is based on the Japanese concept of yin and yang. This concept dictates that all parts of life are governed by two oppositional forces, known as yin and yang. In order to maintain a natural balance in life, these two forces must be kept in balance, particularly through diet.

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

The macrobiotic diet focuses on eliminating foods that have large amounts of either yin or yang in them, in favor of foods with more balanced levels of these two forces. All foods are classified according to their taste and texture: yin foods tend to be more sweet, while yang foods tend to be salty. Followers are then asked to eat only those foods that have the greatest balance of yin and yang.

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 50–60% 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 25–30% 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 5–10% 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.
  • 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.
  • Soups and broths comprise 5–10% of food intake. Soups containing miso (soy bean paste), vegetables, and beans are acceptable.
  • 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.

Food to Avoid:

Many of the foods that you likely love are strictly forbidden on the macrobiotic diet. This is because they are too high in either yin or yang properties, and therefore will throw your natural balance off course. In particular, you should try to stay away from:

  • processed foods
  • refined foods (like sugar and white flour)
  • animal products, including red meat, poultry, dairy products, and cheese
  • chocolate
  • soda
  • caffeinated products (especially coffee)
  • tropical fruits

Are there health benefits associated with macrobiotic diets?

Proponents of macrobiotic diets claim that it can prevent and cure disease, including cancer, although there is no firm scientific evidence to prove that a macrobiotic diet can cure or treat cancer. Since the diet consists largely of whole grains, cereals, and vegetables, those who follow this eating plan may experience some of the health benefits that are associated with eating low-fat, high fiber foods.

Are there risks associated with macrobiotic diets?

If not properly planned, macrobiotic diets can lead to poor nutrition. The macrobiotic diet is not recommended for pregnant women or children and may not provide sufficient protein and nutrients for others.

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