Macrobiotics, despite its name, is not scientific in any way. It is arguably the first fad diet and is a “holistic” alternative medicine not based on scientific fact. However, this does not stop it from being effective. Underpinning the mysticism of the Macrobiotics diet is sound nutrition that can help you lose weight and get healthier.
The Macrobiotics diet has a long and peculiar history and has its roots in Japanese Zen Buddhism, which has lent to its popularity. Its origins stretch back over 80 years, and the diet is still widely practiced today.
Although the diet is clouded in half-truths and pseudoscientific jargon, it still manages to be useful for dieters. This is due to the strict requirements it puts on what food dieters are allowed to consume as well as the origins of said foods. Whether intentional or not, there are some scientific reasons for ascribing to the Macrobiotic Diet.
The History of Macrobiotics
It sounds like a diet that would fit in with the other fad diets of today. Macrobiotics, Paleolithic diet, Detox diet, Alkaline diet, 5:2 diet and many more fads use semi-scientific wording to add a veneer of legitimacy to their unsupported claims. “Macro” simply means large, and “biotic” refers to life or living things. Any living thing you can see is “macrobiotic.”
However, Macrobiotics didn’t come about in the age of infomercials; it was formulated even before World War II. Nyoichi Sakurazawa was born to a poor Samurai family in Shingu City. Japan. He had no formal higher education, as he could not afford it, but he joined a movement started by the disciples of Sagen Ishizuka, a famous Japanese Imperial Army doctor who first investigated the nutritional value of whole grains, sea vegetables, daikon and many other plants. It was these ideas that inspired Sakurazawa to invent Macrobiotics.
Sakurazawa took what he learned from the disciples of Ishizuka and moved to Paris. Soon after arriving, Sakurazawa changed his name to George Ohsawa. Ohsawa was a play on words of “Oh, ça va,” which in French means “I’m alright/OK” in response to the question “How are you?” The name would be similar to “George Feelgood” in English.
In Paris, he wrote books claiming that health was linked to food and food alone. He rejected Western science-based medicine as ineffectual and claimed to have cured himself of tuberculosis at age 19 by simply eating the right foods. The rich Parisian socialites had never heard of Eastern philosophies like his and were fascinated by his teachings on Yin and Yang.
Ohsawa’s Macrobiotic Philosophy
Ohsawa’s idea of Macrobiotics stated that the body must have balanced levels of Yin and Yang. The ancient Chinese concept of Yin and Yang posits that there are two types of energy that shape the world: bright and dark, also translated as positive and negative. Zen Buddhist teachings include the Yin and Yang philosophy, which is how the idea spread to Japan.
Ohsawa claimed that only by bringing these energies into balance in one’s body could one become healthy. By consuming “Yin foods” and “Yang foods” in the correct proportions, a dieter could achieve balance and thereby good health. Ohsawa believed that good health was defined as high energy, healthy appetite, good sleep, reliable memory, good humor, the precision of thoughts and actions, and gratitude.
Return to Japan and the Explosion of Macrobiotics
It wasn’t until Ohsawa returned to Japan did his philosophy really take off. After being imprisoned for pacifist beliefs during the war, he was freed by the Americans and retired to the mountains. There he continued to write well into the 1960s.
He wrote about how Macrobiotics could explain the cause of wars and how it could bring about global peace. He also claimed to have predicted the assassinations of Abdul Karim Kassem, Ngo Dinh Diem, and President Kennedy by observing the whites of their eyes, an ancient Japanese technique.
These pacifist writings and seemingly prescient ability captured the imagination of fringe elements of American society, and Macrobiotics took off in the United States. The 1960’s was the beginning of the Macrobiotic diet’s global popularity, and since then it has not slowed down much. To this day, alternative medicine institutes, books, videos, gurus and other self-proclaimed experts espouse the teachings of Ohsawa and Macrobiotics.
What is a Macrobiotic Diet?
If the Macro diet was formulated by an early 20th-century pseudoscientific charlatan, how can it be effective? By chance, trial and error. The diet relies heavily on foods that are known to be healthy already and claims their benefits come from the Yin and Yang properties and not their molecular makeup.
Yin and Yang Foods
All foods in the Macro diet are categorized as either Yin or Yang, but these definitions are relative to each other and not set in stone. In fact, the diet asserts that all foods have both Yin and Yang properties. While one food might be considered to be a Yin food, it may change to be a Yang food if eaten with or compared to a different food. It is (perhaps purposefully) confusing, but you can buy books and pay experts that will explain it to you.
Yin foods are, in general, light, diffuse, cold and expansive. Yang foods, on the other hand, are compact, dense, heavy, and hot. However, a food’s “Yinness” or “Yangness” is relative to other foods only, so it is not possible to permanently categorize any food into either category.
The Balanced and Unbalanced Foods
The Macro diet considers some foods to have more balanced levels of Yin and Yang than others. These foods are largely whole grains and include:
The majority of the Macro diet consists of these whole grains and brown rice.
The Macro diet also considers some food to be out of balance; containing too much Yin or Yang. For example, the so-called “nightshade vegetables” have too much Yin, according to the diet, and are used sparingly if at all. These vegetables include:
Too much of these “nightshade vegetables,” according to Macro diet practitioners, can lead to inflammation and osteoporosis.
The Right Proportions
The Macro diet calls for the adherent to consume the correct percentages of certain foods to achieve balance. These proportions are:
- 40%-60% whole grains: The balanced foods mentioned above. Referred to as “well-chewed whole cereal grains.”
- 20%-30% vegetables: Only balanced vegetables, however, the definition of which changes based on location and who is teaching the diet.
- 5%-10% beans and legumes: Usually soybean products like tofu.
- 5%-10% sea vegetables: Such as seaweed or nori.
- 5% miso soup: A salty Japanese staple food made with fermented soybean paste.
- 5%-10%: Fresh fruits and seafood: Locally sourced are encouraged.
The Macro diet discourages the eating of meat and dairy completely. Also prohibited are too much water, spices, alcohol, soda, coffee and anything artificially preserved or processed.
Why It Can Work
Disregarding all the Yin and Yang claims, the foods required by the Macro diet are high in nutritional content, mostly. A diet that is high in fiber and low in sugar is vital to healthy living, and whole grains are some of the best ways to achieve such a diet. A diet that includes large amounts of vegetables will always be a healthy one, as vegetables are high in vitamins and minerals yet low in sugars and excess fats.
The diet also emphasizes eating locally from “organic” sources. While it is not clear whether or not “organic” or local produce is somehow healthier than others, it is certain that preserved produce often have marginally less nutritional content as opposed to the fresh variety. Overly processed foods, scientifically proven to be detrimental to health, are also prohibited by the diet.
Why It Can Be Harmful
Ironically, the Macro diet does not do a very good job of providing its practitioners with balanced nutrition. While it does promote the consumption of some healthy foods, it leaves many others out.
For example, the prohibition of meat and reduced allowance for seafood severely limits the intake of animal proteins which are essential for regulating bodily functions. It is certainly possible to get these proteins from plants, but many of these plants are not allowed or recommended by the Macro diet, leading to a possible protein deficiency.
Prohibiting “nightshade” vegetables like spinach can also cause vitamin deficiencies. Vegetables with known health benefits are forbidden on the grounds of “Yinness” or “Yangness.” Overzealous focus on vegetables also could lead to calorie deficiencies, as plant matter is not as nutritionally dense as animal matter or even grains.
Relying on the Macro diet to fix serious health problems, as the diet claims it can, is also dangerous. Despite what proponents claim, the Macro diet has yet to prove to any kind of scientific body that it can cure cancer, which is a major selling point of the diet and its associated materials. The Macro diet can have beneficial health effects, but strict adherence to it can cause more problems than it fixes.