In a nutshell
|Weight loss||Possible, but that’s not the goal.|
|Food Choices||Quite limited|
|In practice, this means||Difficult in the short and long term.|
|Attention||Not recommended for children and adolescents.|
Risk of deficiency in calcium, magnesium, vitamins B12 and D, riboflavin, calories, protein and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA.
Not recommended for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Contraindicated in people with cancer and in malnourished people.
Macrobiotics is a diet designed to promote longevity. The term comes from the Greek “macro” (large) and “bio” (life).
Although the diet as it is practiced today is of Japanese origin, macrobiotics has been inspired since ancient times. The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates – the author of the famous maxim “Let food be your medicine” – mentioned it in his writings.
But it was Dr. Christoph Wilhem Hufeland, doctor to King Frederick III of Prussia, who gave us the first principles of macrobiotics. Published in 1797, his book L’Art de prolonger la vie par la macrobiotique gives him a worldwide reputation. It is also considered a pioneer in preventive medicine.
The founder of modern macrobiotics is the Japanese Georges Ohsawa, who is believed to have been familiar with Dr. Hufeland’s work. But, it would have been inspired above all by the diet of the Zen monks, known for their longevity, to establish the foundations of this philosophy of life. After surviving tuberculosis through Traditional Chinese Medicine, Georges Ohsawa sought to apply the energetic principle of yin and yang to other dimensions of life. According to him, we must aim for a balance of yin and yang energy in our diet: food would indeed have energy charges.
It was one of his disciples, the Japanese Michio Kushi, who, after his arrival in the United States in 1949, became the main promoter of macrobiotics in the West. Kushi is the author of several books in which he explains the philosophical and practical foundations of macrobiotics.
The main principles
The objectives are
- Maintain health.
- Protect the environment.
- Ensure sufficient food for all human beings.
- Prevent cancer.
The main lines
In its strictest application, the macrobiotic diet resembles a vegan diet, with the difference that some fruits and vegetables must be excluded. The diet consists of 50% to 60% whole grains, the rest being vegetables, legumes, seaweed and fermented soy products. Small quantities of white fish and fruit can be added. The proportion of food from animal sources can represent up to 20% of the diet in the transition phases to the ideal macrobiotic diet, very low in meat, poultry and their by-products.
|The Yin Yang|
Yin Yang represents the world as the fruit of two forces that are both opposed and complementary, one rather active and emitting (Yang), the other more passive and receiving (Yin).
No food is completely prohibited as such, but many are recommended only occasionally. However, depending on a person’s state of health, it may be suggested that he or she avoid certain foods completely until remission.
The composition of the macrobiotic diet is based on the yin and yang principle of food. It is recommended not to consume too much very yin (refined sugar, raw vegetables, tropical fruits, nuts, alcohol, etc.) or very yang (meat, poultry, refined salt, coffee, spices, etc.) food. Foods to eat that fall between these extremes are whole grains, vegetables, seaweed, legumes and white fish.
|Principle yin and yang of food|
The goal of macrobiotics is to achieve a balance between man, the environment and the universe. This balance is achieved mainly through the judicious choice and preparation of foods, which are based on the ancestral principle of the Tao: the yin and the yang. The yin and yang principle is used to classify universal phenomena into two poles, the yin corresponding to the positive pole, the yang to the negative pole. But these poles are in motion, so nothing is completely yin or yang. For example, a carrot is considered more yin than meat because it is sweet, full of water and a vegetable source. However, compared to a celery that grows vertically upwards, the carrot is more yang because it grows downwards. The more yin characteristics a food has, the more it is considered yin; the same is true for yang.
Other specificities of the macrobiotic diet
- It is important to eat seasonal and local foods.
- About half of the meal should be made up of whole grains.
- One to two bowls of miso soup is recommended every day. Thirty percent of the plate is made up of vegetables, two-thirds of which are cooked and one-third raw.
- Legumes should represent 10% to 15% of the daily ration.
- Animal foods are not recommended in large quantities, as they are mostly very yang. The human, a warm-blooded being, therefore fundamentally yang, must not overload himself with yang energy. But if you want to eat food from animal sources, it is preferable to choose the species as far away from man as possible in terms of evolution: lean and small fish, seafood, etc.
- The consumption of dairy products is not encouraged: human beings would not need milk after weaning, according to macrobiotic diet enthusiasts.
- The consumption of seed or nut butter should be minimized, as it is very fatty and from a vegetable source and therefore very yin. However, if they are dry roasted and lightly salted, they can be consumed in small quantities.
- Some vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, lettuce and asparagus are to be avoided because they are very yin, especially because of their high potassium content, an additional yin characteristic.
- As for desserts, they should be consumed in small quantities and preferably made with wholemeal and natural sugars such as rice or barley syrup.
- It is important to use quality water for drinking or cooking, such as spring water or filtered tap water. It is recommended to drink more in spring and summer and mainly around 8 am. In addition to water, the recommended drinks are twig tea (kukicha) and roasted rice (genmaicha) or roasted barley (mugicha) tea.
- Microwave and electric cooking should be avoided, as well as the consumption of vitamin and mineral supplements.
|A small glossary of “macrobiotic” foods|
Daikon: Oriental winter radish with white flesh and generally white outer skin, usually white, perhaps also black, pink or green. Its flesh is crisp and juicy and its flavour is relatively sweet.
Fu: Air-dried seitan (wheat gluten) patty.
Miso: Fermented soybean paste, used as a condiment.
Natto: Soy condiment obtained in the presence of the Bacillus natto bacterium.
Panisse: A type of French fries from the South of France, made from a mixture of chickpea flour, water and olive oil. After two hours of rest, the dough is cut into a circle and fried in peanut oil.
Poirée (birelli): Condensed pear juice that can be spread on bread or used in dessert recipes.
Tahini: Butter of crushed sesame seeds.
Tempeh: Soybean product fermented with Rhizopus oligosporus ferment. It can also be made from other legumes such as groundnuts, red beans or small white beans. It comes in the form of a cake that can be cut into pieces and cooked.
Bancha Tea: Japanese green tea, very sweet.
Tea mu: Preparation of 9 or 16 different plants (mu no 9, mu no 16) including ginseng. It is a mixture of yang type plants, recommended for people of yin constitution affected by cold or over-consumption of sugar. Mu tea No. 16 is less potent than No. 9 and is used as a general tonic.
Yannoh: Caffeine-free drink, made from roasted cereals.
A step-by-step introduction
This process involves applying a “yanginizing” agent such as heated oil to a yin food to make it more yang. The heat of the fire or the sun, salt, and cooking are agents of “yanginization”. Long cooking or cooking over high heat transforms the yin energy of a food into yang.
It is suggested that the macrobiotic diet be introduced gradually, through a transition phase. The help of a macrobiotic advisor can be invaluable.
This table, taken from a site dedicated to the promotion of macrobiotics18, gives different indications about the foods to be removed or promoted. It also includes foods recommended during the transition from a Western diet to a macrobiotic diet. In addition, a short cooking time over a low heat is recommended.
|Foods to be deleted||Transition foods||Foods covered|
|Meat and derivatives, delicatessen, pâtés, broths, farmed fish.||Wild white fish, shellfish, shellfish, poultry, vegetable pâté, canned tuna, wild or organic smoked salmon.||Legumes: soy beans, lentils, chickpeas. Concentrated vegetable proteins: fu, seitan, tofu, tempeh, humus, lentil pâté, panisse.|
|Dairy products, cheese, milk, cream, butter, yogurt, animal fats, industrial margarines, bakery containing lard.||Soy milk, almond milk, vegetable margarine, hard cheese, goat cheese, feta cheese, soy yoghurt.||Miso, natto, tofu, tahini, sesame butter, rice milk, cereal cream, hazelnut, sesame or almond puree.|
|Fruits and juices of tropical origin, tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, salads, asparagus. Fruits out of season and outside the region Seasonings: mustard, oils, vinegars and industrial sauces.||Organic fruits from temperate regions. Reduce raw vegetables, especially tomatoes. Reduce significantly the current consumption of potatoes.||Regional and seasonal fruits, fresh, dry or cooked. Root vegetables, wild vegetables, old varieties, scalded salads. Milk-fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut. Sea vegetables (seaweed).|
Seasoning: rice vinegar, soy sauce, tahini, parsley, horseradish, salted plums, cider vinegar. First cold pressed oils. Sesame oil.
|Coffee, black tea, soda and sweetened drinks, coke, syrups, mint tea, sparkling water, mineralized water, instant soluble drinks, strong alcohols.||Herbal teas, green tea, natural black tea without tannin, apple juice, cider, mineral water, spring water, beer and organic wines. Reduce the amount of liquid absorbed.||3-year-old tea twigs or leaves, yannoh cereal coffee, rice tea, thyme, rosemary, ripe tea, spring water. Light miso soup.|
Drink a little.
|White and brown sugar, molasses, chocolate, sweets, confectionery, pastries, chemical sweeteners, artificial glucose, honey, industrial jams.||Maple syrup, raw cane sugar, pearl (birnel), malt candies, fruit compotes.||Rice, wheat, corn and barley malt syrup, whole grain rice maltose or maltose, almond and sesame confit.|
Other macrobiotic recommendations for meals include18:
- Avoid cooking and eating in a state of resentment, anger or overexcitement; allow yourself a moment of relaxation to regain a certain inner calm.
- Ensure a good sitting and relaxed position.
- Express gratitude for the food and gratitude to the person who prepared the meal.
- Eat only if you are really hungry. Chew well with food and drink moderately between meals.
- Avoid eating and drinking during the three hours before bedtime.
The mechanisms of action
Foods have different yin and yang characteristics, just like every other living thing. In fact, all life is expressed by the movements between these two opposing, but above all complementary forces. In a few words, we can summarize: yin represents softness, suppleness and freshness, while yang corresponds to vivacity, rooting and warmth.
Macrobiotics seeks to restore or maintain the complementarity of these two forces. When the balance between yin and yang forces is established, the body is healthy. An imbalance therefore creates a breeding ground for disease. Cancer can, for example, be caused by an excess of very yin foods such as refined cereals, sugar, soft drinks, additives, or an excess of very yang foods (meat, fat, etc.).
To prevent and treat various health problems, macrobiotics offers foods whose main characteristics, yin or yang, provide the ideal balance. In general, by eating foods that are neither too yin nor too yang, we avoid the exhaustion of our body and the phenomena of compensation.
In addition to the yin and yang aspect, the foods recommended in macrobiotics have, to a large extent, antioxidant properties (vegetables, algae), which is beneficial in reducing cancer risks. This diet also tends to lower the high level of blood lipids thanks to whole grains, legumes, and first cold pressed oils. Therefore, foods recommended for macrobiotics are not intended to contain animal hormones or chemicals from agriculture or food processing. This can therefore reduce the risk of some cancers.
There is no scientific basis for the yin and yang classification of foods since it is a concept that is difficult to measure. However, Traditional Chinese Medicine, itself based on this concept, is recognized as an effective alternative medicine by the medical authorities of many countries.
According to the American Cancer Society and a study published in 2001 by the American Dietetic Association, there is no scientific evidence that the macrobiotic diet can prevent or treat cancer1-2. It could even be harmful to people with cancer.
With regard to cardiovascular disease, no studies have evaluated the preventive effect of the macrobiotic diet. A few studies have shown that a macrobiotic diet reduces cholesterol levels3-4. However, a diet that is too rich in carbohydrates can increase the level of blood triglycerides, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. We can therefore be concerned, because the macrobiotic diet is precisely rich in carbohydrates (about 65% of daily energy).
It seems that the breast milk of mothers on a macrobiotic diet contains less contaminants than that of mothers on a Western diet5, particularly because of the small amount of meat, poultry and their by-products consumed.
Typical one-day menu
|Millet cream cooked in water|
Dried fruit compote
|Miso soup with seaweed|
Steamed vegetables and marinated vegetables
|Mushroom and daikon soup|
Lima beans with vegetables
Advantages and disadvantages
Satiety and well-being
The abundance of dietary fibre in the macrobiotic diet contributes to satiation, although protein intake is not always very high.
It is a restrictive diet for Westerners because there are many foods to put aside and many new foods to integrate whose taste is unfamiliar to them (seaweed, tempeh, miso, pickled vegetables, etc.).
The macrobiotic diet claims not to impose any food bans. However, those who want to join must abandon several foods that are considered not in conformity with human health by macrobiotic promoters.
In practice, this means
Macrobiotics is not an easy path and requires real motivation. It is therefore suggested to seek help from a person already initiated. Recipe books are essential in order to best prepare the less well-known foods in the West.
Unfortunately, this practice can lead to isolation, because we can no longer eat like the people around us. For outdoor meals, only sushi counters and Japanese restaurants are suitable. To get the basic ingredients, you shop in health food stores and Asian grocery stores.
Macrobiotic theory suggests that a person who is overweight should lose excess weight because he or she will eat the right foods; this idea has not been scientifically proven.
In children and adolescents, the macrobiotic diet can induce several nutritional deficiencies, including vitamins B12 and D, calcium, riboflavin, protein, fat and DHA, a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid7-12.
These deficiencies can cause growth retardation6, slower psychomotor development6, decreased cognitive performance8, rickets12-14, etc. One study recommended that in young children, the macrobiotic diet should be supplemented with 20 g to 25 g of fat per day, 150 g to 250 g of dairy products per day, and 100 g to 150 g of fatty fish per week15.
It seems difficult to fill vitamin B12 deficiencies caused at an early age simply by moderate consumption of animal products later in life16. With regard to growth, it seems that the addition of dairy products to the macrobiotic diet seems to be able to catch up with the growth slowdown in early childhood17.
The American Cancer Society has concluded that the macrobiotic diet is dangerous for people with cancer because it does not provide adequate nutritional intakes, which can worsen a cancer patient’s condition and even cause death1.