In the 1880s, Japanese doctor Ishizuka claimed he could treat several common health problems with a predominantly vegetarian diet, based on whole grains, cereals and vegetables. He published two books on his healing principles.
In the 1950s, American-Japanese writer George Ohsawa turned to the diet after doctors had given up on him when he was suffering from Tuberculosis. He recovered and believed that Ishizuka’s food doctrine was responsible. Ohsawa termed Ishizuka’s ideas as “Macrobiotic” — from the Greek makrobiotikos meaning ‘long-lived.’
The macrobiotic way of eating essentially draws from the eastern Vedic approach to health and healing.
The diet is believed to increase energy, resistance to illness and allowing one live a full life in balance. It is based on the Chinese philosophy of the two opposing yet complementary forces — Yin and Yang.
Yin is the female force, representing darkness, cold and tranquility, while Yang is masculine and represents light, heat and aggression. As per the Chinese philosophy, people who are predominantly Yang tend to be active, alert and energetic, while people who are predominantly Yin are pale and often feel cold. The health and harmony of both body and mind are believed to depend on a balance between the two forces.
According to macrobiotic philosophy, food also contains Yin and Yang qualities. For example, foods with high Yin content include sugar, tea, alcohol, coffee, milk, cream, yoghurt and most herbs and spices, while foods with a high Yang content include red meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish, eggs, hard cheeses and salt. Foods that are thought to contain a harmonious balance of yin and yang are: whole grains, cereals and millets — brown rice, oats, rye, buckwheat, whole wheat; fresh fruits; nuts and seeds; vegetables and pulses.
The Yin/Yang classification is not related to nutrient content but based on the following — the food’s colour, pH, shape, size, taste, temperature, texture, water content and weight, the region and the season in which it was grown and how it is prepared and eaten.
The macrobiotic diet is composed of whole grains (50-60 per cent of each meal), vegetables (25 – 30 per cent of each meal, pulses in the form of legumes (including soyabean), peas and lentils (5-10 per cent) of daily food. Nuts and seeds (small amounts as snacks), miso (fermented soyabean) soup, herbal teas and small amounts of white meat, seafood, poultry once or twice weekly all make up the diet. Bean sprouts are useful adjuncts. Sea vegetables like arame, hijki, kombu, nori and wakame provide texture, flavour and essential nutrients. Animal products are used as condiments, rather than as main dishes. The diet varies with the climate and season and emphasizes minimum use of chemical preservation and unnecessary food processing. It discourages dairy, meat, artificial sweeteners, genetically modified foods and refined sugars.
The macrobiotic diet encompasses more than just food. It advocates the belief that digestion and assimilation are aided by slow eating in a peaceful, harmonious atmosphere and that these are fundamental to spiritual and physical well-being.
A macrobiotic diet lays emphasis on plant food. It is low in calories and saturated fats, and rich in complex carbohydrates (starch and fibre). This makes it useful for reducing the risk of obesity, cancer, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and gastrointestinal complaints including constipation. It has been shown to be beneficial in cancer prevention particularly prostrate cancer and in reducing the risk of colon cancer by 25 per cent.
The diet, however, lacks certain vitamins and minerals, and supplements are often required. Strict adherence to the diet and its bulky nature may result in deficiencies of protein, vitamin B12 (for a healthy nervous system), vitamin D (for bones) and minerals like zinc, calcium and iron (healthy blood). Those at risk are children and those with increased nutritional needs like pregnant or breastfeeding women or those suffering from illness.
Nevertheless, the ‘modified macrobiotic diet’ used today varies and is customised to personal needs and is more flexible. Needless to say that it needs to be customised to individual needs by a qualified nutritionist.