What It Is
A macrobiotic diet isn't simply a diet plan. It's a way of life. If you're drawn to the concept of eating a natural, organic, plant-based diet (with a little fish) and embrace a Zen-like spirituality in both your life and food selections, then a macrobiotic diet may be for you.
Originally from Japan, the principle behind the macrobiotic diet combines tenets of Zen Buddhism with a Western-style vegetarian diet. Much more than a list of recommended foods, it is all about a spiritualism that transcends lifestyle, attitude, and diet practices. The word "macrobiotic" comes from the Greek and essentially means "long life" or "great life."
The macrobiotic diet regimen supports an Eastern philosophy of balancing foods to attain a balance of yin and yang. To achieve that balance, foods are paired based on their sour, sharp, salty, sweet, or bitter characteristics.
Yin foods are cold, sweet, and passive while yang foods are hot, salty, and aggressive. Some foods are prohibited because they contain toxins or fall on the far end of the spectrum, making it difficult to achieve and respect a Zen-like balance.
Early versions of the macrobiotic diet included several stages that became progressively more restrictive and ending with a diet of brown rice and water -- considered the ultimate in yin and yang. Today, the Americanized version is a modified vegetarian plan.
Although not scientifically proven, a macrobiotic diet of wholesome, nutritious foods may protect against cancer and other chronic diseases.
What You Can Eat
Practitioners of the macrobiotic diet prefer locally grown, natural foods prepared and eaten in the traditional manner, such as baking, boiling, and steaming. Lots of grains, vegetables, beans, fermented soy, and soups -- supplemented with small amounts of fish, nuts, seeds, and fruits -- are the basis of the macrobiotic diet menu. Other natural products, however, may be included to accommodate individual needs or during dietary transition.
It is essentially a "flexitarian" diet plan -- a mostly vegetarian diet that allows you to eat occasional meat or fish -- with rules governing eating, cooking, and lifestyle practices such as eating slowly and chewing food thoroughly.
Foods should be consumed in their most natural state and processed foods are not recommended. Other excluded foods are fatty meats, most dairy, sugars, coffee, caffeinated tea, stimulating beverages, alcohol, chocolate, refined flour, very hot spices, chemicals and preservatives, poultry, potatoes, and zucchini.
The diet also allows you to consume certain fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers in limited quantities. Excluded foods are considered to be extreme, overstimulating, or too concentrated and therefore not capable of achieving balance.
Vitamin and mineral supplements are frowned upon, yet seeking nutritional balance may be impossible without them, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Consult a registered dietitian to help you balance the yin-yang and nutritional completeness of your plan. Otherwise you could end up with nutritional deficiencies," she advises.
Here's a breakdown of a typical macrobiotic diet:
Whole grains, especially brown rice: 50%-60%
Vegetables (and seaweed): 25%-30%
Fish, nuts, seeds, fruits, miso soup: 5%-20%
Soup (made from ingredients above): 1-2 cups/day
How It Works
Followers of the macrobiotic diet believe that food and food quality impact health, happiness, and well-being. Eating natural food that is closer to the earth and less processed is healthier for the body and soul. One of the objectives is to become more sensitive to the food you eat and how it affects your life. Ultimately, this awareness will enhance your life and health.
What you can eat may be adjusted according to the following:
Health and any other personal considerations
What the Experts Say
A well-managed macrobiotic diet can be nutritionally sound. The ADA approves of carefully planned and monitored vegetarian diets for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, breastfeeding, childhood, and adolescence.
The macrobiotic diet is low in fat and high in fiber. Because of all the soy products, it is also rich in phytoestrogens, which may reduce the risk of estrogen-related cancers, such as breast cancer. There is no scientific evidence that a macrobiotic diet will reduce breast cancer, however eating a diet low in fat, high in fiber, and rich in plant foods containing phytochemicals may offer disease protection.
Blatner says she likes the focus on healthy foods that are low in fat and high in fiber, but she also recognizes the potential nutritional deficiencies. "Nutrients of concern are vitamins D and B12, iron, protein, and calcium if you are not careful," she says. Whenever you eliminate food groups, it can create deficiencies and affect your health. Her advice: Good nutrition should be considered first before balancing for yin and yang.
Food for Thought
The macrobiotic diet focuses on foods typically lacking in most American diets. Eating more natural foods, whole grains, vegetables, and beans could be beneficial to most people. Adopting it, however, may prove to be much more difficult because it often requires major lifestyle changes.
If you're interested in trying a macrobiotic diet, start slowly. First, incorporate just a few concepts, such as eating less unprocessed foods. Then add more whole grains and so on.
"Aim for a gradual approach before jumping in with both feet," Blatner suggests.
Adopting the macrobiotic diet takes a great deal of dedication and commitment to a lifestyle that is much bigger than your average diet plan.