The macrobiotic diet is an eating plan said to enhance health and promote longevity. Predominantly vegetarian, it’s focused on whole grains, legumes, and vegetables. Not only used to boost physical health, but the macrobiotic diet is also said to improve spiritual health as well as have a positive impact on the environment.
Originally developed by a Japanese educator named George Ohsawa, the macrobiotic diet was popularized in the 1970s by Michio Kushi (a student of Ohsawa and founder of Erewhon Natural Foods and Boston’s Kushi Institute). The word “macrobiotic” has Greek origins and translates as “long life.”
What the Diet Involves
Low in fat and high in fiber, the macrobiotic diet emphasizes choosing plant foods over animal products and processed foods. Many adherents to the macrobiotic diet follow an individualized meal plan based on factors like climate, season, age, gender, activity, and health needs.
Ohsawa’s version of the macrobiotic diet involved ten progressively restrictive stages, with the final stage consisting only of brown rice and water. However, this approach is no longer recommended by most proponents of the macrobiotic diet.
Here’s a look at the key components of the macrobiotic diet.
1. Whole Grains
In most cases, whole grains like brown rice, barley, buckwheat, and millet make up about 50 to 60 percent of each meal. In addition, flour-based products like pasta and bread can be eaten occasionally as part of a macrobiotic diet.
Vegetables typically comprise 25 to 30 percent of daily food intake in the macrobiotic diet. Up to one-third of your total vegetable intake can be raw. Otherwise, vegetables should be steamed, boiled, baked, or sautéed.
Beans constitute about 10 percent of the macrobiotic diet. This includes soybeans, which can be eaten in the form of such products as tofu, tempeh, and natto.
The macrobiotic diet involves eating one to two cups or bowls of soup each day. In most cases, practitioners of the diet choose soy-based soups like miso.
5. Seeds and Nuts
Eaten in moderation as part of the macrobiotic diet, seeds and nuts can be lightly roasted and salted with sea salt or shoyu.
6. Unrefined Vegetable Oil
Adherents to the macrobiotic diet generally use unrefined vegetable oil for cooking, while dark sesame oil is commonly used for flavoring. Light sesame oil, corn oil, and mustard seed oil can also be consumed as part of the macrobiotic diet.
7. Condiments and Seasonings
For adding flavor to food, macrobiotic diet practitioners tend to use condiments and seasonings such as sea salt, shoyu, brown rice vinegar, umeboshi vinegar, umeboshi plums, grated ginger root, fermented pickles, gomasio (roasted sesame seeds), roasted seaweed, and sliced scallions.
Along with spring water or high-quality well water, beverages like roasted kukicha twig tea, stem tea, roasted brown rice tea, roasted barley tea, and dandelion root tea are recommended in the macrobiotic diet.
As part of the macrobiotic diet, certain foods can be eaten sparingly (i.e., several times per week). These foods include:
1. Animal Products
While meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy are usually avoided in the macrobiotic diet, a small amount of fish or seafood is typically consumed several times per week. Fish and seafood are usually eaten with horseradish, wasabi, ginger, mustard, or grated daikon.
2. Local Fruit
Local fruit can be consumed several times a week in the macrobiotic diet. This may include apples, pears, peaches, apricots, grapes, berries, and melons, although tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, and papaya are generally avoided.
Naturally sweet foods (such as apples, squash, adzuki beans, and dried fruit) can be eaten as dessert. Sugar, honey, molasses, chocolate, and carob are avoided in the macrobiotic diet, but sweeteners such as rice syrup, barley malt, and amazake are permitted.
The Health Benefits of a Macrobiotic Diet
According to practitioners, the macrobiotic diet can protect against a host of chronic diseases and slow up the aging process. While scientific support for these claims is very limited, some preliminary research has shown that following a macrobiotic diet may offer some health benefits. Here are several key findings from that research.
There’s some evidence that the macrobiotic diet may aid in the management of diabetes. In a report published in Diabetes/Metabolism Research and Reviews in 2014, for instance, researchers analyzed findings from four 21-day-long studies and found that adopting a macrobiotic diet helped improve blood sugar control and reduce cardiovascular risk in adults with diabetes.
In addition, a study published in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care in 2015 suggests that the macrobiotic diet may help reduce levels of certain markers of insulin resistance and inflammation (two major factors in the development and progression of diabetes).
The macrobiotic diet shows promise as an approach to reducing cancer risk, according to a report published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2001. However, the report cautions that research on the potentially cancer-fighting effects of the macrobiotic diet is very limited and that further research is needed to clarify whether the diet may be effective for cancer prevention and/or treatment.
Since the macrobiotic diet may be lacking in several important nutrients (including protein, vitamin B12, iron, magnesium, and calcium), there’s some concern that the diet may be too restrictive.
It should also be noted that using the macrobiotic diet to self-treat a chronic condition (such as diabetes) and avoiding or delaying standard care can be extremely harmful to your health. If you’re thinking of incorporating the macrobiotic diet into your disease management plan, make sure to consult your physician for guidance.