The Yin and the Yang: The Macrobiotic Diet Strives for Dietary Balance

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Is it possible to achieve perfect dietary balance? Proponents of the macrobiotic diet say they have found the healthy Holy Grail, but for many the long list of restrictions are a turnoff. The macrobiotic diet is high in grains and natural, unprocessed foods: 50%-60% of the calories come from whole grains, especially brown rice. Vegetables make up another 25%-30% of calories. Protein (10% of calories) comes from beans, fish, nuts and seeds. Miso soup is drunk each day. Animal products, including meat, poultry, eggs and dairy, are forbidden, as are sugars, spices, caffeine and alcohol. And many vegetables are also excluded for being too extreme to achieve balance, including asparagus, beets, avocados, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, peppers and spinach

There are also specific rules regarding food preparation. Food is considered sacred, and should be organically grown, eaten fresh and prepared in a peaceful setting. Eating slowly and meditatively and chewing food completely are lifestyle practices encouraged by the diet. Microwaves are avoided in favor of more traditional cooking methods like boiling, steaming and baking. Likewise, cooking utensils must be made of natural materials like wood, glass, ceramic, stainless steel or enamel.

Balance on a Plate

This way of eating is based on the Eastern philosophy of macrobiotics (macro = great, biotic = life). The diet is an attempt to balance yin and yang. According to ancient Asian spiritual traditions, these two complementary energy forms are present in everything (including people, objects, diseases and foods) and are forces that must be balanced to achieve health and vitality. To achieve this balance, foods are paired based on their flavor characteristics. Yang foods are warm and salty and considered aggressive. In contrast, yin foods are cool and sweet and thought to be passive.

Japanese military doctor Sagen Ishizuka (1850-1909) developed the theory, but it was Japanese businessman, teacher and writer George Ohsawa (1893-1966) who began teaching the Unique Principle of Macrobiotics in Europe during the 1930s. He is known as the founder of the macrobiotic diet and philosophy. Early versions of the macrobiotic diet involved eating mainly brown rice and water, and have been linked to severe malnutrition and death. Modern macrobiotics is less restrictive. It combines Zen Buddhist teachings and Asian medicine with a Western-style vegetarian diet.

Proponents claim this diet can prevent and cure many diseases, including heart disease and cancer. Studies have shown that practitioners of the macrobiotic diet do indeed have a lower cancer risk than those following a traditional American diet. But it’s on par with other low-fat diet regimens.

Know Your Limits

Even the modern version of the diet can be fairly limiting. It can be hard to supply adequate amounts of minerals like calcium, iron and zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin D with this diet. A large Dutch study showed statistically significant growth retardation and serious delays in psychomotor development in children raised on macrobiotic diets. This has led some dietitians to warn against it.

Clinical dietitian Christina Arquette promotes many aspects of the macrobiotic diet for her patients. “The focus on fresh and seasonal foods creates for a healthier food system and environment,” she says. “The diet promotes whole grains, beans and vegetables, which almost every person should pursue. One advantage of the macrobiotic diet is the increased fiber content with the push of whole grains and vegetables, an area that is lacking in most Americans. This diet is also low in processed foods and foods that are high in saturated and trans fats, which is recommended for all Americans and decreases your chance for heart disease,” Arquette says.

However, she also has some cautions. “Anytime a diet promotes vegetarianism, the individual has to be extra vigilant on consuming enough protein and fat soluble vitamins, specifically B12. B12 is naturally found in mainly animal products. The diet does not prohibit fish consumption, which can be vital for many people to meet their B12 needs. Iron and calcium are also at an increased risk for deficiency. Make sure to add lots of dark green leafy vegetables to get adequate calcium,” she says. Non-animal sources of iron include almonds, beans, cooked spinach and hummus. “Overall it can be a healthy and advantageous diet, Arquette says, adding that “Children, pregnant women, the ill and elderly should consult with their dietitian before changing to this diet.”

The macrobiotic diet is a lifestyle philosophy, not a diet plan. Therefore, it takes a real commitment to implement. Eating more locally produced foods, vegetables, whole grains and beans would benefit most Americans, but the strict regimen imposed by the macrobiotic lifestyle can be hard to follow. Before embarking on such a plan, start by incorporating a few key concepts, like eliminating processed foods or adding more whole grains—healthy transitions that can benefit anyone’s diet.

YVONA FAST cooks and writes in Lake Clear, New York.