The macrobiotic diet
In the 1880s a Japanese doctor called Sagen Ishizuka discovered that many common health problems improved with a diet that emphasized wholegrain cereals, such as brown rice, and vegetables. As a result, he created a diet that banned white rice and refined sugar products. He shared his ideas by keeping case histories and publishing several books. Ishizuka’s ideas were later introduced in the United States by George Ohsawa who called the dietary system ‘macrobiotics’, from the Greek words meaning ‘large’ and ‘life’.
George Ohsawa believed that macrobiotics could help people live life to the full by improving vitality and building resistance to illness. By concentrating on eating ‘live foods’ such as plants, grains, fruit and seeds, man could live in harmony with nature and gain valuable ‘life force’ from the sun, air, water and soil. While these ideas had long been part of Eastern ways of thinking, they were very radical for Western followers.
Macrobiotics attracted negative publicity in the 1960s and 70s when extremists ate almost nothing but brown rice, resulting in cases of malnutrition, anaemia and even kidney damage. The macrobiotic diet is now better understood, and a more moderate approach, varying with personal needs, ensures good nutrition.
There are many benefits to the macrobiotic diet – it is low in calories and saturated fats, and high in fibre. It can help to reduce the risk of obesity, raised cholesterol, high blood pressure and constipation. There are also some case histories that claim cures for cancer, arthritis, digestive problems and other serious disorders.
Macrobiotics is a way of life that requires dedication and a good understanding of the principles of Yin and Yang energies as well as how to cook and eat food in ways that preserve its energy.
Yin and Yang
In common with Traditional Chinese Medicine, macrobiotics is based on the Ancient Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang – two opposing yet complementary forces that together make up a balanced whole. Yin represents the fluid and cooler side of nature, whereas Yang represents the drier and hotter side.
Unlike Traditional Chinese Medicine, which also uses Five Elements, Four Energies and Five Flavours to classify foods, macrobiotics is only concerned with the Yin and Yang qualities of foods. Both food and people have a mixture of Yin and Yang within them, but one force tends to be stronger than the other. In macrobiotics, it is believed that a balance between the two is needed for good health, and an excess of either results in illness.
Yin and Yang foods
The ideal macrobiotic diet aims to include foods that provide a balance of Yin and Yang, and to avoid those foods that are extremes of either.
Yin foods grow above the ground in a hot, dry climate, have a high water content, have fruit and leaves, and are hot and aromatic. Moderately Yin foods, such as salads, steamed vegetables and fresh fruit, are refreshing for hot summer days. Foods that are considered to be extremely Yin, and therefore best avoided, include refined sugar, sweets, cakes, tea, coffee, alcohol, milk, cream, ice-cream and strong spices.
Yang foods grow below the ground in a cold, wet climate, have stems, roots and seeds, and are salty and sour. Moderately Yang foods are warming and strengthening during cold, wet winters, and include fish and bean stews, brown rice, whole-oat porridge and root vegetables such as potatoes. Foods that are considered to be extremely Yang, and therefore best avoided, include red meat, poultry, fish and shellfish, eggs, hard cheeses and very salty foods.
Yin and Yang people
People who are predominantly Yin are said to be calm, relaxed, peaceful and creative, but an excess of Yin energy causes lethargy, depression and difficulty concentrating. Yin people are therefore advised to eat more Yang foods to increase alertness. Ailments caused by an excess of Yin energy (which is cold and wet) include cold extremities, chest ailments and fluid retention.
People who are predominantly Yang tend to be active, alert, energetic and precise, but an excess of Yang will create tension, irritability and an inability to relax. Yang people are therefore advised to eat more Yin foods in order to help them to stay calm under stress. Some of the ailments attributed to an excess of Yang energy (which is hot and dry) are those associated with excessive body heat, such as inflammations and eruptions -acne is a classic Yang condition.
The Macrobiotic Menu
The macrobiotic diet is based on whole grains (around 50 per cent of the diet), green vegetables, salads, seeds and seaweed (which form around 25 per cent) and smaller amounts of fruit and legumes (beans, peas, lentils and soya products).
Non-vegetarians can include a small amount of fish. Ideally, all food should be fresh, organic, locally grown and seasonal. All of the foods in this chart contain a good balance of Yin and Yang.
|Choose brown rice, oats, barley, wheat, buckwheat, corn (maize), rye, millet and products made from these, such as wholewheat flour, bread, pasta, noodles and whole-oat porridge.|
|Eat a wide variety of fresh, seasonal vegetables (but keep tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines and peppers to a minimum as these are considered to be very Yang).|
|Sea Vegetables||Seaweed is used to enhance the flavour and nutritional value of many savoury dishes. Try experimenting with varieties such as wakame, dulse, kombu and arame. Seaweeds are rich in calcium and iron.|
|Fruit||Choose seasonal and local varieties of fresh and dried fruit.|
|Nuts and seeds||Choose nuts such as peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts, and seeds such as sesame, sunflower and pumpkin.|
|Pulses||Eat beans, peas and lentils. Beans in small quantities, combined with grains or a little fish, are an excellent source of protein.|
|Japanese vegetale-based seasonings||Use miso, shoyu and tamari as seasoning.|
|Soya products||Eat tofu (soya-bean curd) and drink soya milk.|
|Fish||For non-vegetarians, three small portions of fresh seafood can be included each week.|
Cooking and Eating Macrobiotic Foods
Preferred methods of macrobiotic cooking that preserve the energy of the food include steaming, pressure-cooking and stir-frying. Gas cooking is considered preferable to electricity. Using a microwave is unacceptable as this disrupts the energy of the food. Food should be chewed slowly, and eaten in a calm frame of mind so that all the goodness can be used more efficiently by the body. To adopt a macrobiotic diet, consult a qualified macrobiotic nutritionist to discuss your individual dietary needs.