What Is the Macrobiotic Diet?

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The macrobiotic diet is a predominantly vegetarian eating plan said to enhance health and promote longevity. It's focused on whole grains, legumes, and vegetables. It's not only used to boost physical health, but is also said to improve spiritual health and have a positive impact on the environment.

What Experts Say

"The macrobiotic diet, focused on balancing yin and yang, encourages grains, vegetables, beans, and seaweed. These foods offer vitamins, minerals, and fiber. However, experts warn about the risk of nutrient deficiencies from eliminating other healthy foods."
Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

Background

A Japanese educator named George Ohsawa originally developed the macrobiotic diet in the 1920s. In the 1970s, Michio Kushi (a student of Ohsawa and founder of Erewhon Natural Foods and Boston's Kushi Institute) popularized the diet. The word "macrobiotic" has Greek origins and translates as "long life."

Many adherents to the macrobiotic diet follow an individualized meal plan based on factors like climate, season, age, gender, activity, and health needs. The idea is to find balance by eating the foods your body needs. A macrobiotic diet counters acidic foods (e.g., grains) with alkaline ones (vegetables and legumes), for example.

The macrobiotic diet is about balancing oneself with the natural world, so it's important to ease into it and learn recipes that you enjoy.

"It took three years for me to go from dabbling in macrobiotics to eating three macro meals a day—happily and consistently," says Jessica Porter, author of The Hip Chick's Guide to Macrobiotics. She encourages experimentation: "Learn the effects that different foods have on you. Maybe you need a Twinkie hangover to really appreciate a brown rice buzz. By doing this research, your body will begin to choose what it prefers over the long haul."

How It Works

Low in fat and high in fiber, the macrobiotic diet emphasizes choosing plant foods over animal products and processed foods. Ohsawa's version of the macrobiotic diet involved 10 progressively restrictive stages, with the final stage consisting only of brown rice and water. However, this dangerous approach is no longer recommended by most proponents of the macrobiotic diet.

What to Eat

Compliant Foods

  • Whole grains

  • Vegetables

  • Beans

  • Soup

  • Certain oils

  • Certain condiments and seasonings

  • Water and some teas

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products

  • Fish and seafood (in excess)

  • Fruit (in excess)

  • Most sugars and sweeteners

  • Seeds and nuts (in excess)

Whole Grains

In most cases, whole grains like brown rice, barley, buckwheat, and millet make up about 50 to 60 percent of each meal. In addition, flour-based products like pasta and bread can be eaten occasionally as part of a macrobiotic diet.

Vegetables

Vegetables typically comprise 25 to 30 percent of daily food intake in the macrobiotic diet. Up to one-third of your total vegetable intake can be raw.

Otherwise, vegetables should be steamed, boiled, baked, or sautéed. But the Kushi Institute recommends avoiding potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, spinach, beets, and zucchini.

Beans

Beans constitute about 10 percent of the macrobiotic diet. This includes soybeans, which can be eaten in the form of such products as tofu, tempeh, and natto.

Soup

The macrobiotic diet involves eating one to two cups or bowls of soup each day. In most cases, practitioners of the diet choose soy-based soups like miso.

Oils

People who follow the macrobiotic diet generally use unrefined vegetable oil for cooking, and dark sesame oil for flavoring. The diet also allows light sesame oil, corn oil, and mustard seed oil.

Condiments and Seasonings

For adding flavor to food, people on a macrobiotic diet tend to use sea salt, shoyu, brown rice vinegar, umeboshi vinegar, umeboshi plums, grated ginger root, fermented pickles, gomasio (roasted sesame seeds), roasted seaweed, and sliced scallions.

Beverages

Along with spring water or high-quality well water, the macrobiotic diet includes roasted kukicha twig tea, stem tea, roasted brown rice tea, roasted barley tea, and dandelion root tea. Alcohol, caffeinated drinks, and sweetened drinks are not recommended.

Animal Products

While meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy are usually avoided in the macrobiotic diet, a small amount of fish or seafood is typically consumed several times per week. Fish and seafood are usually eaten with horseradish, wasabi, ginger, mustard, or grated daikon.

Fruit

Local fruit can be consumed several times a week in the macrobiotic diet. This may include apples, pears, peaches, apricots, grapes, berries, and melon. Tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, and papaya are generally avoided (unless you live in the tropics).

Seeds and Nuts

Eaten in moderation, seeds and nuts can be lightly roasted and seasoned with sea salt or shoyu.

Sugars and Sweeteners

Naturally sweet foods (such as apples, squash, adzuki beans, and dried fruit) make good macrobiotic desserts. Avoid sugar, honey, molasses, chocolate, and carob. Try rice syrup, barley malt, and amazake (a sweet rice drink) instead.

Recommended Timing

Ideally, eat only two or three times a day, and stop before you feel full. When you do eat, slow down and eat mindfully, which will help prevent overeating. Chewing each mouthful of food thoroughly will also aid in digestion, says Porter.

"Complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains) need a particular enzyme in your saliva in order to be absorbed completely." She suggests striving to chew each mouthful 50 to 100 times. If that seems daunting, start with 20 to 30 times per mouthful.

Resources and Tips

It's important to avoid processing and stick with whole foods on a macrobiotic diet—preferably organic and local, whenever possible. Use low-fat cooking methods, particularly water-based methods such as braising, steaming or boiling. Strict followers of the macrobiotic diet cook only in stainless steel, enamel, wood, glass or ceramic cookware, and avoid cooking with electricity (like microwave ovens or electric ranges).

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Emphasizes healthy ingredients

  • May have health benefits

Cons

  • Restrictive

  • Time-consuming

Pros

Healthy Ingredients

The macrobiotic diet is low in fat, sugar, and processed foods of all kinds. It's rich in fiber and healthy, nutritious foods like whole grains and vegetables. So switching to a macrobiotic diet will boost your intake of these smart choices. However, experts say that eating an entirely organic diet is probably not necessary.

Health Benefits

According to practitioners, the macrobiotic diet can protect against a host of chronic diseases and slow the aging process. While scientific support for these claims is limited, preliminary research has shown that following a macrobiotic diet may offer some health benefits:

  • Diabetes: In a report published in 2014, researchers analyzed findings from four 21-day-long studies and found that adopting a macrobiotic diet helped improve blood sugar control and reduce cardiovascular risk in adults with diabetes. In addition, a 2015 study suggested that the macrobiotic diet may help reduce levels of certain markers of insulin resistance and inflammation (two major factors in the development and progression of diabetes). It may also help with weight loss.
  • Cancer: Few recent studies have looked at whether the macrobiotic diet could reduce cancer risk. However, a research review published in 2010 reported that large observational studies show that vegetarian and vegan diets can reduce the overall risk of cancer by 10 to 12 percent. Another study published that same year noted that "many of its components suggest macrobiotics would be a valuable approach to cancer prevention." This study also found lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure in people on a macrobiotic diet.

    If you enjoy the foods on this diet and feel comfortable with the commitment, it might be worth it for these potential benefits. However, the diet has drawbacks, too, and you should be aware of them.

    Cons

    Restrictions

    Since it does not include animal products, the macrobiotic diet can lack several important nutrients (including protein, vitamin B12, iron, magnesium, and calcium). That's why experts caution that it may too restrictive. If you are choosing a macrobiotic diet, you need to be sure that you are eating plant-based sources of these nutrients.

    Time-Consuming

    It's complicated and takes time to balance all the nutritional and lifestyle factors that go into a macrobiotic diet, especially since implementation and interpretation can vary a lot. And the bottom line is that eating this way takes time (for planning, shopping, preparing, and cooking) and can be costly. Organic, local ingredients are often harder to find and more expensive than conventional ingredients, even minimally processed ones.

    How It Compares

    You have probably noticed some common threads between the macrobiotic diet and other vegetable-laden diets. It also aligns with most, but not all, of the USDA guidelines.

    The 2019 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the macrobiotic diet number 27 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 2.9/5.

    USDA Recommendations

    Food Groups

    The USDA suggests a balanced mix of protein, fruit, vegetables, grains, and dairy for best nutrition. The macrobiotic diet, while including most of these (except dairy), shifts the proportions away from the USDA view.

    For example, the USDA suggest about one-fourth to one-third be made up of grains, and that at least half of those grains should be whole grains. The macrobiotic diet allows only whole grains, and suggests that they should make up more than half of calories consumed.

    Calories

    The macrobiotic diet is not based on calorie counts, nor is it intended for weight loss. However, some users may lose weight on it because of the emphasis on whole foods and complex carbohydrates.

    To find out your particular calorie needs, use this calculator.

    Similar Diets

    While other diets don't encompass the macrobiotic philosophy of balancing the body through diet and lifestyle, there are several that have a lot in common.

    Macrobiotic Diet

    • General nutrition: This diet cuts out processed foods, all animal products except limited seafood, and most sugars. This makes it more restrictive than most experts would recommend.
    • Practicality: Closely adhering to a macrobiotic diet is challenging, because it's tricky to determine which foods are right for you. And once you do, those foods tend to be fairly expensive, as well as time-consuming to source and prepare.
    • Sustainability: Although it's designed to be a lifelong diet, the macrobiotic diet's restrictions and challenges may prove too difficult for many people to continue with long-term.

    Whole Foods Diet

    • General nutrition: The whole foods diet covers all the major food groups, so it provides balanced nutrition.
    • Practicality: As with the macrobiotic diet, the whole foods diet forbids processed foods. That can increase both supermarket spending and the time spent preparing meals.
    • Sustainability: If users can overcome the practical inconveniences, this can be a long-term diet. However, it's important to stay flexible to guard against disordered eating.

    Pescatarian Diet

    • General nutrition: This diet is similar to the macrobiotic diet in that it is mostly vegetarian, but also includes fish and seafood. One difference is that pescatarians may consume other animal products, such as eggs and dairy products (but not meat or poultry). Especially with these protein and mineral sources, the pescatarian diet is nutritionally balanced.
    • Practicality: This is not a formal diet with established rules, so users are free to interpret it however they wish. Not everyone is familiar with how to cook fish, but it's a skill that can be learned.
    • Sustainability: This is a simple-to-follow diet that could be safely followed for the long term, and it is flexible enough to allow users to make it work for them.

    Okinawan Diet

    • General nutrition: Like the macrobiotic diet, the Okinawan diet is low-fat and high-fiber, featuring plenty of vegetables and a little fish. However, the Okinawan diet includes very few grains, so it could lack some important nutrients.
    • Practicality: This diet emphasizes some foods that aren't as familiar to many North Americans, like miso paste, bitter melon, and seaweed. It's also low-calorie, which may not be satisfying enough for some who try it.
    • Sustainability: That low calorie count, combined with a limited number of recommended foods, could make this diet hard to stick with for the long term.

    A Word From Verywell

    The macrobiotic diet may well have health benefits and could help you lose weight. But it is low in some important nutrients. And using it to self-treat a chronic condition could be harmful to your health, if it means avoiding or delaying standard care. If you're thinking of trying the macrobiotic diet, consult your physician for guidance—especially if you have a health condition, such as diabetes or heart disease.

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