A Guide for the Perplexed
by Charles W. Moore
Macrobiotics is a difficult-to-define and often
misunderstood term. Is it an adjective or a noun? Should the “m” be upper or
lower case? Doesn't macrobiotics have something to do with Eastern religions?
Isn't it that diet where you only eat brown rice? To alleviate the confusion,
here's a concise overview of what macrobiotics is and isn't.
Modern macrobiotics dates from the late 19th century, when a Western-trained
Japanese Army doctor named Sagen Ishizuka became frustrated by allopathic
medicine's ineffectiveness treating his own chronic illness. He researched
traditional Oriental medicine, and developed a therapy he called shoku-yo
(“food-cure”). This treatment proved so successful that Ishizuka left the army
and set up a private clinic.
When Ishizuka died in 1910, the shoku-yo torch passed to a young man named
Yukikazu Sakurazawa, who had been cured of terminal tuberculosis. Sakurazawa,
who later Westernized his name to George Ohsawa, integrated Ishizuka's shoku-yo
theories with elements of Eastern and Western philosophy and called the
resulting amalgam macrobiotics – which is Greek for “large or great life”.
Although shoku-yo/macrobiotics incorporates certain cosmological concepts
common to several Eastern religions, it is not and never was religious in
nature. Ohsawa's incorporation of Zen in the title of his first English-language
book in 1960 caused no end of misunderstanding, but the prosaic truth is that he
was attempting to coat-tail popular interest in Zen Buddhism on U.S. college
campuses at the time. Serious Buddhists were not amused.
Ohsawa defined macrobiotics as a dietetic medicine-philosophy, which is as
good a description as I've run across. His protégé, Michio Kushi, simply calls
macrobiotic diets “a sensible way of eating”.
There are several prominent macrobiotic teachers and leaders, but no formal,
official, organization or hierarchy. Macrobiotics encompasses a broad spectrum
of theoretical and practical interpretations. There is no macrobiotic diet per
se. Ohsawa proposed ten different diets (idiosyncratically numbered -3 to 7),
ranging from one including 30 percent animal-derived foods, to the legendary 100
percent whole grain Diet #7. The latter was intended only as a short-term
healing diet for serious illnesses – preferably administered under supervision.
In North America the two main schools of macrobiotics are based in
Massachusetts and California respectively. The west coasters tend to be
laid-back and intuitive in their approach, while the larger, eastern faction,
led by Mr. Kushi, is more systematic and formulaic, although these are broad
generalizations. The late George Ohsawa would no doubt be pleased, since his
vision of macrobiotics was as a philosophic approach to eating, healing, and
living, rather than a rigid orthodoxy.
The macrobiotic view is that eating proper varieties and proportions of foods
helps us achieve balance and harmony. Therefore, appropriate food choices depend
on variables like an individual's health, age, sex, geographic location,
physical activity, ancestry, the season, etc. Theoretically, there are as many
definitions of a macrobiotic diet as there are people practicing it.
Diets of traditional peoples were essentially macrobiotic, typically based on
locally-grown, seasonably available, organically cultivated foods.
Arctic-dwelling Inuit subsisting mainly on meat and fish are completely
macrobiotic relative to their extreme climatic environment. So are South Pacific
islanders living on fruit, roots, and vegetables.
For persons living in a four-season climate, diets based on cereal grains
with minority proportions of vegetables, legumes, and seaweeds are ideal.
Macrobiotic dietetics is predominantly, but not absolutely, vegetarian. As
Ohsawa put it: “Do not make the mistake of considering macrobiotics to be merely
another variety of puritanism or dogma; it is neither pro-vegetarian or anti-carnivorism. We do not deny one kind of food or praise another .”
Macrobiotic theory makes general dietary recommendations, particularly that
40 to 60 percent of caloric intake should come from whole grains, including
rice, millet, barley, wheat, oats, rye, corn and buckwheat. A comprehensive
outline of macrobiotic dietary suggestions is beyond the scope of this article.
Michio and Aveline Kushi's Standard Macrobiotic Diet represents a good point of
departure for macrobiotic eating (see accompanying reading list).
Besides basic foods, macrobiotics makes several other diet recommendations:
- No processed, sugared, dyed, canned, bottled, or otherwise adulterated
No foods produced using pesticides, chemical fertilizers or preservatives.
No imported foods from a long distance – especially North-South.
The macrobiotic view is that eating proper varieties and proportions
of foods helps us achieve balance and harmony.
No vegetables or fruits out of season.
No extreme yin vegetables, such as potatoes, tomatoes or eggplant.
No spices, chemical seasonings or processed table salt.
No coffee or black tea.
Avoid flesh and dairy foods except for occasional fish and game birds.
No refined flour products, yeasted foods or foods containing baking soda.
All foods must be chewed thoroughly (at least 30 times – preferably more).
Cook over a gas or wood fire. Electricity creates chaotic energy patterns,
and microwaves are considered a “brazen death trap”.
Avoid plastic coated cookware like Teflon; use earthenware, glass, cast
iron, or stainless.
Macrobiotic teachers usually recommend a gradual transition to macrobiotic
eating, rather than the cold-turkey approach. Viewed from the standard North
American diet perspective, macrobiotics seems pretty austere. I know it did to
me back in 1987. Macro people are sometimes accused of being preoccupied, even
obsessed, with food. However, in another sense macrobiotics is freedom from the
tyranny of food. You grow beyond eating to merely satisfy appetite, and ideally
make your food choices from a higher level of judgment. Food is no longer part
of a system of rewards and punishments, desire and guilt; it is just your food,
which you eat with gratitude.
Macrobiotics enjoys a remarkable anecdotal history of curing various
illnesses, including cancer. Mr. Kushi has developed specific healing diets for
various diseases. It is best to consult a certified macrobiotic teacher.
In this short article, it's impossible to touch more than lightly on
non-dietary aspects of macrobiotic philosophy. The objective is to achieve
balance and harmony in all areas of life. General lifestyle suggestions include:
- Maintain an active spiritual focus with daily prayer and meditation in
accordance with one's own religious beliefs.
Cultivate appreciation for nature and the beauty of creation. Try to be
Make loving, harmonious, family relationships a priority.
Be grateful for difficulties; remember that “what has a front has a back”,
and “the bigger the front, the bigger the back”.
Be good-humored, joyous, alert and appreciative.
Learn a form of exercise, martial art, or massage to help strengthen and
balance energy flows in your body.
Develop an appreciation of fine art and quality music. Learn to express
your own artistic and creative talents.
If possible, work at an enjoyable and fulfilling vocation rather than
chasing after material wealth.
Learn new things continually. Read as much and as widely as possible.
Become actively knowledgeable about things that affect you rather than passively
taking them for granted. Have a vision and a dream, and work to fulfill it.
Our Kitchens As Wellness Centers by David Snieckus from Natural Life
Magazine, January/February 2010
Zen Macrobiotics by George Ohsawa (1965, George Ohsawa Macrobiotic
Foundation) Ohsawa's problematically misnamed first English-language book.
Should be read in conjunction with later works by Kushi, Aihara, and others.
The Book Of Judgment by George Ohsawa (1980, George Ohsawa Macrobiotic
Foundation) Comprehensive exposition of macrobiotic philosophy.
The Book Of Macrobiotics by Michio Kushi with Alex Jack (1986, Japan
Publications) Comprehensive macrobiotic theory according to Kushi.
Macrobiotic Dietary Recommendations by Michio and Aveline Kushi (1982,
Pamphlet) Basic diet primer.
Basic Macrobiotics by Herman Aihara (1985, George Ohsawa Macrobiotic
Foundation) The California perspective.
Acid and Alkaline by Herman Aihara (1986, Goerge Ohsawa Macrobiotic
Foundation) Macrobiotics and Western theory compared.
Food and Healing by Annemarie Colbin (1986, Ballantine) Ms. Colbin
studied with George Ohsawa in the 60s. This isn't a macrobiotic book, but some
may find the approach more accessible.
The Cure Is In The Kitchen by Sherry A. Rogers, M.D. (1992, Prestige
Publishing) The macrobiotic book for environmentally ill people especially.
The First Macrobiotic Cookbook Revised Edition (1985, George Ohsawa
Macrobiotic Foundation) This is George Ohsawa's Zen Cookery updated.
Complete Guide To Macrobiotic Cooking by Aveline Kushi (1985, Japan
Charles W. Moore is a freelance writer who
lives in Nova Scotia.
Photo (c) Yoko Bates/Shutterstock Images