The Macrobiotic Diet
With the advent of the industrial revolution and new developments in science, industry and technology our lives have gone through a deep transformation. One particular area of our lives that have gone through extensive changes over generations has been our food and dietary habits in general. And for the majority of people today, their daily fare has very little resemblance to what their ancestors used to eat not that long ago both in terms of quality and food composition.
Global foods and diets did not change overnight and the transformation have been experienced slightly different in various parts of the world. But they all share something in common. When individuals and societies move away from a native, natural quality, traditional way of eating and introduces aspects of the modern food culture including higher intakes of animal food, sugared foods and beverages, and highly processed, chemicalized foods from a globalized food market, health begins to decline. And today we are witnessing a global epidemic of chronic diseases and a wide range of common disorders and conditions that are mainly nutritional and lifestyle related.
Macrobiotic educators noticed long ago that modern foods and dietary changes were going to have a negative impact on our health. Based on their own experiences and understanding they started formulating basic dietary guidelines and simple food recommendations with the intention of sharing with others their new findings. And eventually they began to teach and disseminate their ideas through various publications, teachings, and other activities with the intention of helping individuals, families, and society as a whole recover the quality of food and implement a more sound, healthful way of eating.
The macrobiotic diet is not based on rigid rules or about having to follow a strict eating regimen. Nor about coming up with complicated nutritional theories, hard to grasp energetic views, or elaborate dietary guidelines that are difficult to implement. It is more about sharing practical ideas aimed at helping guide individuals and families improve their food choices. Also, for maintaining a balanced habitual way of eating that optimizes health and wellbeing. And for encouraging a global move towards an environmentally sustainable and socially conscientious way of nourishing humanity.
While macrobiotic dietary practices share many similarities everywhere around the world, it should be noted that different teachers, advocates, and schools propose slightly different versions of the macrobiotic diet including basic guidelines and recommended foods. This is mainly due to differences in interpretation, background, location, food culture, practice, stage of development, and other factors. In the same way individuals and families practice macrobiotics in varied ways according to personal choice, unique situation, goals, needs, and preferences.
This is actually an important consideration and forms part of the macrobiotic approach to eating. Mainly because the way we eat can’t be regarded or practiced in a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Eating is something that we do every day and it needs to be managed individually in a conscientious but flexible manner. Food is related with culture and it should be well adapted to the locality where we live. And since food and eating form an intrinsic part of daily life, it should also be pleasurable and bring us satisfaction.
Having moved away from a more traditional way of eating and disconnected from the process of growing, processing, and cooking our food have resulted in much confusion about how to eat. Focusing too much on nutrients instead of foods has not helped either and often lead us further away from a common-sense way of eating based on a traditional eating pattern. Nor has the industrialization of our food on a global scale contributed to improve our nourishment. Instead, our insatiable quest for ever cheaper, more convenient foods have resulted in an endless array of highly processed food-like products with completely different nutritional and energetic qualities from the natural foods they replace. And all of this is taking place at the expense of our health and in detriment of the environment since we have broken the intimate relationship between local soils, local foods and local people.
In macrobiotics we like to take an honest and realistic approach to food and eating. And we are aware that regaining an innate sense of how to eat and implementing dietary changes in a more natural, healthful direction in contemporary society require time and effort. Simply because we have already gone through the process ourselves. That is why providing simple dietary guidelines along with some basic recommendations for food selection can be very useful and often needed today. Especially at the beginning in order to help us acquire a good sense of balance and set us in the right direction.
In addition to educating ourselves, implementing changes in the way we eat and improving dietary habits is actually more important. For that reason, macrobiotic educational activities are not just focused on disseminating knowledge. But on sharing valuable experiences and guiding individuals make improvements in food choices, cooking, and adopting an enjoyable, healthy way of eating.
Basic Features of the Macrobiotic Diet
An important feature of the macrobiotic diet or way of eating that is helpful to consider for starting eating in a more balanced way involves maintaining some basic food proportions. This includes becoming acquainted with different food groups and their approximate proportions or amounts consumed on a daily basis.
The practice of the macrobiotic diet for people living in a temperate or tropical region of the world is mostly composed of foods originating from plant quality food sources and considers animal food to be optional and supplemental, or consumed in moderation by those who wish. However, there may be instances when a larger amount of animal food may be appropriate and this recommendation is subject to various considerations as will be explained later.
From this view, the macrobiotic diet may be considered a well-balanced, plant based diet emphasizing a wide variety of foods. A plant based diet is usually defined as an eating pattern consisting mostly or entirely of foods derived from plants, including grains, vegetables, beans and legumes, sea vegetables, seeds, nuts, and fruits. A plant based diet is not necessarily vegetarian (doesn't include meat but may include other types of animal food) nor vegan (doesn't include any animal food or products).
Although it should be noticed that the contemporary concept of plant based diets is quite broad and in many cases food proportions are not clearly defined. Therefore, macrobiotic recommendations may differ from other plant based dietary approaches. And this is important to consider because it is not the same to draw most of your nourishment from grains, vegetables and beans than from fruits, nuts and seeds, and yet both eating patterns may be considered a plant based diet.
Macrobiotics also places importance on sustainability, increased self-sufficiency, and the significance of eating native and locally sourced foods. And that involves making good use of traditional food cultures and living in harmony with nature by emphasizing seasonal foods and adjusting the way of cooking and eating according to the climate, geography and other considerations of the locality where we live. So, the macrobiotic diet may also be viewed as a traditionally oriented eating pattern adapted to modern times.
In macrobiotics we do not view traditions as something limiting or that we necessarily have to rigidly follow. Instead traditional food cultures can provide us with a reliable foundation on which we can continue to build upon. A goal of macrobiotics is not only to help revive traditional foods, way of cooking and other practices comprised in food cultures but also to contribute to their advancement and further development. Including active participation in the exchange of foods and by sharing culinary aspects with the intent of enhancing balanced nourishment that optimize health while increasing variety and possibilities for greater enjoyment.
Another vital feature of the macrobiotic diet that we pay much attention to is the importance of food quality. We encourage as much as possible the use of fresh and natural quality foods. This includes whole foods or those that are unrefined and minimally processed. And organic foods, or those that have been grown and processed without the use of chemicals, pesticides, artificial additives, hormones, antibiotics or other medications, and the use of genetically modified seeds or products.
The following information offers an introduction to the basic food groups included in the macrobiotic diet along with a few tips based on our practice at Macrobiotic School Japan for those who wish to try and get started eating in a more balanced, healthful way.
Whole grains are a staple food in the macrobiotic way of eating and most meals are centered around some sort of whole grain or whole grain product. Commonly used whole grains include different varieties of rice, millet, wheat, barley, oats, rye, corn, buckwheat, job's tears or pearl barley, quinoa, amaranth, wild rice, and others. Whole grain products and whole flour products would also be comprised in this category and includes breads, noodles, pasta, rolled or pressed grains, corn polenta, couscous, bulgur, puffed grains, mochi, pancakes, muffins, cookies, and many others.
Eating grains and grain products in their whole, unrefined way has been a central macrobiotic dietary recommendation. And over the years much effort has been placed educating people about the health benefits of consuming whole grains, sharing ideas for cooking them in delicious ways and reintroducing them into our diets. The consensus among the scientific community today is that all grains and grain products are better eaten in their whole, unrefined form and all major health organizations around the world now recommend increasing consumption of whole grains.
Vegetables are indispensable in the macrobiotic way of eating and are consumed abundantly. As much as possible we make use of vegetables that are locally sourced, fresh, and seasonal. But we also make use of those that are dried or naturally processed. Variety is important when it comes to vegetables and that includes not only using a wide assortment of types of vegetables on a regular basis but also changing the style of cooking them frequently. Fermented vegetables such as pickles are also included regularly as they provide a good source of enzymes and beneficial bacteria (or probiotics) that aid digestion and absorption of food while helping maintain a healthy condition of the intestines and gut microbiota.
BEANS / LEGUMES
Beans and other legumes are also included on a regular basis in the macrobiotic way of eating although usually served in smaller quantities compared to grains and vegetables. Beans and legumes have played an important part of the human diet and in many cultures, it continues to take a center stage as part of the local cuisine. However, in many parts of the world beans became largely replaced by animal food and their consumption has been dwindling over the years. Beans are making a comeback around the world due to many people shifting dietary preferences back to plant based diets and cooking with beans is now experiencing a revival. The possibility to cook with beans and other legumes is great and besides serving them in a variety of traditional ways, in macrobiotics we also enjoy them in many original and innovative ways.
Soybean products may be included as part of the bean or legume category. Traditional soybean products have been consumed regularly throughout Asia and form an essential part of the local food culture. Macrobiotics have actively participated introducing and promoting many traditional soybean products in the West and around the world. There are a large variety of soybean products to choose from including soymilk, tofu, dried tofu, tempeh, natto, yuba, aburage, atsuage, ganmodoki, okara and many others that are enjoyed in the macrobiotic way of eating. Soybean products are convenient and easy to cook with while providing a lot of versatility in the kitchen which is contributing to their increased popularity worldwide. They are widely regarded as a healthful source of plant quality protein, calcium and iron and frequently recommended as a good replacement for animal foods.
SEA AND WATER VEGETABLES
Sea and water vegetables form an integral part of the macrobiotic way of eating and are usually included in relatively small quantities on a daily basis. Sea and water vegetables have been consumed since ancient times and form part of the cuisine of many traditional societies particularly those living close to water, whether rivers, lakes, or ocean. But as with many other foods, their use gradually decreased over time and most people around the world stopped eating them altogether with the advent of the modern diet. Macrobiotics has also actively contributed to introduce, promote and teach how to cook with a wide variety of sea vegetables. People around the world are now increasingly familiar with sea vegetables and they are increasingly becoming a common ingredient in many contemporary healthy kitchens.
Sea and water vegetables are among the most nutrient dense foods available. They contain the broadest range of minerals and important trace elements compared to other foods, including all the minerals essential for a strong blood and sound health. Sea vegetables are also a good source of many vitamins, including some containing vitamin B12 which is considered to be found mainly in animal food sources. This is of particular relevance today because of low intakes of micronutrients found in modern diets including iron, iodine and other mineral deficiencies. Besides diets lacking in enough variety and overall balance, this is also due to demineralized poor soil conditions resulting in a decline of nutrient density available in the majority of common foods today, refinement of most foods resulting in mineral and vitamin loss, and over-reliance on processed foods depleted of important micronutrients.
SEEDS AND NUTS
Seeds and nuts are also among the most common foods eaten by humanity throughout the world and can greatly enrich our diet. In the macrobiotic way of eating they are often included in moderate amounts in cooking such as added to grain and vegetable dishes, in flour products and fillings, and also used to make sauces, dressings, condiments, or sweets. They may also be eaten as a snack and made into beverages. Seeds and nuts are highly concentrated, compact structures that include all the requirements of a living plant, be it a flower, vegetable, bush or tree. For this reason, seeds and nuts are endowed with many essential nutrients that complement well along with other plant based foods to achieve nutritional balance. Seeds and nuts originating close to where we live or from the same climatic region are preferred.
Fruits grew plentiful in the wild and have formed part of the human diet since ancient times. With the development of agriculture, some species of fruits began to be domesticated and, in many instances, species native to one area have spread around the world. As with vegetables and other fresh foods, locally sourced fruits consumed in season are most delicious, nutritious and preferred. Fruits can also be enjoyed naturally dried or cooked down to make fruit preserves, fruit spreads and natural fruit syrups that can be used all year round. And occasionally they can also be made into beverages such as pressed into juices or added to shakes and smoothies. Those that originate from the same climatic region to where we live are recommended.
Fruits are generally seen as a supplemental food in the macrobiotic way of eating and the frequency and amount of fruits consumed may vary according to climate, growing season, personal preferences, and other factors. Generally, fruits may be enjoyed in larger quantities in tropical areas where they grow abundantly year-round, in moderation in temperate areas and in lesser amounts in colder regions. It should be noted that fructose, the primary carbohydrate in fruit, is a simple sugar and enters the bloodstream more rapidly than the complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, most vegetables and beans. As a result, fruits are usually consumed in less amounts and not necessarily eaten as part of the meal but as a snack, treat, or included in sweets.
Macrobiotics is not a restrictive diet and we enjoy a wide assortment of foods and styles of cooking. Including natural sweets which eaten in moderation can form part of a balanced way of eating. The key to making healthy sweets rely on the quality of the ingredients and the type of sweeteners used. Macrobiotic style natural sweets usually do not contain animal products such as eggs, cream, or butter and instead rely on plant quality ingredients such as whole grains and their products, vegetables, fruits, beans, seeds, nuts, spices, herbs, plant oils, plant-based milks, and other wholesome foods.
Problems related with added sugars, sweets, and sweetened beverages in the modern diet generally arise because of the excessive amount being consumed. And also because of the poor-quality ingredients and sweeteners being used since most of them are refined, highly processed, and artificial. In macrobiotics we prefer milder, unrefined sweeteners containing all the valuable nutrients and obtained from natural sources.
We particularly emphasize those that have been naturally processed without chemicals and used traditionally including rice syrup, barley malt, amazake (a traditional beverage made from fermented rice that can also be used as a sweetener), pure maple syrup, natural fruit syrups, and unrefined beet sugar or syrup among others. As with other foods, those that originate from the climatic region where we live are preferred and therefore in tropical areas other sweeteners not mentioned above would also be included. These sweeteners along with fruits, dried fruits, fruit juices, and other naturally sweet tasting foods offer wonderful possibilities for making delicious sweets.
Macrobiotics looks at consumption of animal food in a flexible, open-minded manner. What we do recommend is to take some time to educate ourselves and become well informed because whatever we decide to eat is eventually based on personal choices. And macrobiotics simply shares ideas and offers guidance to help people achieve a comfortable way of eating that optimizes health and wellbeing while respecting individual preferences and considering their unique circumstances.
One aspect we find that should be evident by now is that the way most people consume animal food today is negatively affecting their health and the health of the planet. Excessive consumption of meats, processed meats, chicken, milk, dairy products, eggs, and seafood has been clearly linked over the years with the rise of chronic and lifestyle diseases in modern society. And based on today’s scientific evidence whole food, plant based diets are considered the most healthful and environmentally sound eating pattern. Meanwhile for many years now all major health organizations and most governments around the world have been coming out with dietary guidelines recommending reducing animal food intakes as part of their efforts to improve dietary habits and help prevent chronic and lifestyle related diseases.
Besides consuming animal food in moderation by those who wish, the type of animal food should also be considered for optimizing health and reducing the environmental impact. And in macrobiotics fish and seafood is commonly seen as the preferred choice. Particularly low-fat varieties such as white meat fish. Even then, we consider that animal food is not necessary every day and fish or seafood is better eaten an average of about two to three times a week.
Other types of animal food become more optional and usually consumed less frequently, or a few times a month on average. Regarding other types of animal food, a small amount of dairy products, such as natural cheese or yogurt, and eggs would be preferred to meats. While chicken, poultry, birds and other small animals would be preferred to red meats from mammals. Taking into consideration current scientific evidence, processed meats such as sausage, ham, bacon or hot dogs are considered the least healthy compared to other choices and their consumption should be carefully evaluated.
Obviously, most people today are used to eat animal food in much larger quantities and may need some time to gradually reduce the amount. It should also be pointed out that these recommendations offer a general guide that would need to be adjusted to include other considerations. For example, for people living in deserts and arid areas, high altitude, or very cold regions of the world where the growing season is short and plant foods are available in limited supply a larger amount of animal food may be required and has been traditionally consumed.
In addition to quantity and being more selective about the type of animal food consumed, there are other influences that should be considered for those who wish to eat animal food. Including the importance of learning how to properly cook and serve animal food in a more balanced way which forms part of the macrobiotic approach for consuming animal food in a healthful manner. Most cooking today is focused on convenience and sensorial satisfaction and often overlook other important elements such as ideas for making food easier to digest and the overall nutritional and energetic balance of the meal. And when it comes to animal food these considerations can play a significant role in health outcomes.
Those who eat animal food should also be mindful and pay more attention to the fact that the quality of animal food available today is very different to that of a few generations ago. Most meats, dairy products and eggs today are produced in factory farms where huge numbers of animals are crowded together, live under inadequate conditions, fed low quality feed, and administered growth hormones to speed production. This usually result in poor health of the animals which are then treated with excessive drugs and antibiotics. Meanwhile, due to overfishing and declining fish stocks about half of the fish and seafood consumed today comes from aquaculture (fish farming). And the situation for farmed seafood is often not that much different to that of factory farm animals.
Rampant pollution has also contributed to deteriorate the quality of animal food and often contain worrying amounts of pollutants such as pesticides residues, mercury, PCBs, dioxins, and many others. All of these factors together pose many questions about the safety of today’s animal food for human consumption. Rising health and ethical concerns related to the quality of animal products and the raising methods used for their production is another reason why increasing numbers of people around the world are being more selective about their animal food choices.
Whether to include or not animal food in our diet now also go beyond nutrition, health, quality, or even tradition and food culture. The enormous amounts of animal food being consumed today entails raising huge numbers of animals and now about 80 percent of the land globally used for agriculture is dedicated to produce animal food. Meanwhile one-third of the world’s fish catch is used as animal feed. And in recent years livestock production have been directly associated with a long list of environmental and social problems including environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, animal and plant extinction, deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, inefficient use of natural resources, lack of sustainability, food wastage, economic disparity, social unfairness, hunger, human migrations, armed conflict, and many other issues facing humanity.
Increasing awareness about the impact of our food choices on health, the planet, the environment and in society at large has prompted many individuals and families around the world to significantly reduce animal food consumption. Including many who are adopting a vegan diet and forgo eating animal food or products altogether. Many people are making this decision based on a genuine concern for animal welfare, solidarity towards other fellow human beings, a sense of responsibility towards improving the health of the planet, and a sincere hope for a better future. And this is something that should be recognized and appreciated by all of us because their decision involves our collective wellbeing and that of future generations.
Macrobiotics embraces personal choice and diversity in ways of eating. And is also supportive of those who wish to practice a vegan diet. Actually, many people practicing macrobiotics over the years have not included any animal food even before the current vegan movement became popularized. Therefore, those wishing to go on a vegan diet can greatly benefit from macrobiotics because they can gain much practical knowledge about how to eat in a balanced way while drawing all the necessary nutritional and energetic requirements from plant foods. And can also learn many ways of cooking with a wide range of wholesome plant foods in very satisfying, delicious ways.
NATURAL SEASONINGS AND PLANT OILS
Seasonings are essential in cooking in order to flavor food in enjoyable ways. Macrobiotic cooking makes use of a wide array of natural quality and traditional seasonings allowing the cook to create a variety of tastes and enjoyable meals. This includes unrefined sea salt and a moderate use of natural sweeteners, herbs and spices. Naturally fermented and traditionally processed seasonings such as shoyu (soy sauce), tamari, miso, vinegars, and many others that are also used regularly and recommended for increasing possibilities and variety in cooking.
Traditionally fermented seasonings contain naturally occurring enzymes and bacteria that are beneficial for maintaining gut health. Other advantages include helping digest and optimize the absorption of nutrients contained in the foods. In general, the use of seasonings is done judiciously so as not to overpower the natural flavors found in the food. Evidently, it doesn’t mean that everything should be bland and creating dynamic flavors and satisfying, tasty meals is important.
Good quality oil used in moderation in cooking also forms part of a balanced way of eating. High quality oils that are pressed from seeds, grains, fruits, or nuts at relatively low temperatures and then minimally filtered are preferred. Rich and cloudy in appearance, they retain the natural aroma and flavor of the whole food from which they are extracted. Unrefined, pressed oils contain vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and other important nutrients that make them easier to digest as well as antioxidants such as vitamin E that help prevent against rancidity without the use of additives.
Filtered tap water is usually recommended to help remove impurities or from a local natural source such as spring or well water. Besides water for drinking, teas are also popular beverages for regular use particular those that are mild and lower in caffeine such as bancha tea, kukicha tea, roasted grains teas, and roasted beans teas. More aromatic or mildly stimulant herbal teas made from flowers, leaves, stems or roots from various plants such as green tea, chamomile, dandelion tea, or hibiscus tea are usually consumed less frequently. Other stronger caffeinated or stimulant beverages such as coffee and black tea are optional upon personal choice. In addition, there is a wide variety of natural beverages that are usually enjoyed in moderation by those who wish including pressed juices, smoothies, amazake, plant-based milks, grain coffee, naturally fermented mild alcoholic beverages, sparkling mineral water, and many others. As much as possible organic and naturally processed beverages are preferred.