What Is the Macrobiotic Diet?

Macrobiotic diet

 Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

The macrobiotic diet is a predominantly vegetarian lifestyle said to enhance health and promote longevity. It's focused on whole grains, legumes, and vegetables. While many follow the diet to boost physical health, it is also said to improve spiritual health and have a positive impact on the environment.

George Ohsawa, a Japanese educator, originally developed the macrobiotic diet in the 1920s. The diet became popularized during the 1970s by Michio Kushi, who was a student of Ohsawa and founder of Erewhon Natural Foods and the former Kushi Institute. 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, sex, 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., refined grains) with alkaline ones (e.g., vegetables and legumes), for example.

While 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. The 2021 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the macrobiotic diet number 25 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 2.9/5. Learn more about the benefits of this eating plan and whether it's a healthy choice for you.

What Experts Say

"The macrobiotic diet focuses on balancing yin and yang and 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

What Can You Eat?

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 diet.

It's important to avoid processed foods whenever possible and stick with whole foods on a macrobiotic diet—preferably organic and local, whenever possible. Proponents say to 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), though it is not necessary for everyone to adhere to these restrictions to benefit.

What You Need to Know

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

Porter encourages experimentation on the macrobiotic diet. "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," she says.

The key to the macrobiotic diet is to eat only two or three times a day and stop before you feel full. When you do eat, it's important to slow down and eat mindfully, which will help prevent overeating. Porter says that chewing each mouthful of food thoroughly will also aid in the digestive process.

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

What to Eat
  • Whole grains

  • Vegetables

  • Beans

  • Soup

  • Certain oils

  • Certain condiments and seasonings

  • Water and some teas

What Not to Eat
  • Meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products

  • Fish and seafood (in excess)

  • Fruit (in excess)

  • Most sugars and sweeteners

  • Seeds and nuts (in excess)

  • Alcohol, caffeinated drinks, and sweetened drinks

Whole Grains

In most cases, whole grains like brown rice, barley, buckwheat, and millet make up about 50–60% 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 25–30% of daily food intake in the macrobiotic diet and up to one-third of your total vegetable intake can be raw. Otherwise, vegetables should be steamed, boiled, baked, or sautéed. Some proponents of the diet recommend avoiding potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, spinach, beets, and zucchini, though they are not strictly prohibited.

Beans

Beans constitute about 10% 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 1 to 2 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 fruits 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

Seeds and nuts can be lightly roasted and seasoned with sea salt or shoyu. Nuts and seeds are calorie-dense, with 150 to 200 calories per 1-ounce serving. It can be easy to go overboard without realizing it. A 1-ounce serving is roughly 1/4 cup.

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.

Sample Shopping List

Closely adhering to a macrobiotic diet can be challenging, in part because it's tricky to determine which foods are right for you. And once you do, some of those foods can be expensive and difficult to source. The following shopping list provides suggestions for getting started with the macrobiotic diet. Note that this is not a definitive shopping list, and you may find other foods that are more appropriate for your tastes and preferences.

  • Whole grains (brown rice, barley, buckwheat)
  • Dark leafy and cruciferous vegetables (kale, bok choy, seaweed, broccoli, cauliflower, lotus root)
  • Fruit (apples, pears, peaches, berries, grapes, melon)
  • Bean products (soybeans, natto, adzuki beans, tempeh)
  • Fish (halibut, haddock, herring, trout, smelt)
  • Unrefined vegetable oils (light sesame oil, corn oil, mustard seed oil)
  • Condiments and seasonings (miso paste, umeboshi vinegar, umeboshi plums, ginger root, fermented pickles, roasted seaweed, sesame seeds)
  • Teas (roasted barley, brown rice, dandelion root)

Sample Meal Plan

Meals on the macrobiotic diet can be time-consuming to prepare. The following three-day meal plan offers suggestions for getting started. You can choose to accompany your meals with water or tea.

Note that this plan is neither all-inclusive nor does it adhere to some of the more stringent cooking methods associated with the diet. It also includes minimally processed foods like tofu. If you do choose to adopt a macrobiotic lifestyle, there may be other meals and preparation techniques that work better for you.

Day 1

Day 2

  • Breakfast: 1 cup cooked buckwheat grouts ("kasha") topped with 1 cup mixed berries
  • Lunch: 1 cup of seaweed salad with pickled burdock root; 1/2 cup natto; 1 cup brown rice
  • Dinner: Macrobiotic "Buddha Bowl" with tofu, adzuki beans, seaweed, brown rice, and veggies

Day 3

  • Breakfast: 1 cup savory breakfast bowl with brown rice, avocado, seaweed, sprouts, and soy sauce (optional egg); 1/3 cup pickled vegetables
  • Lunch: 1 cup Kinpira gobo (burdock root and carrot stir-fry); 1 cup herring-bean salad
  • Dinner: 1 cup broccoli stir-fry (omit the sugar); 1/2 cup pan-seared tempeh

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Emphasizes healthy ingredients

  • May offer health benefits

Cons
  • Restrictive

  • Time-consuming

If you enjoy the foods listed on the macrobiotic diet and feel comfortable with the commitment, it might be worth it for the potential health benefits. However, the diet has drawbacks, too.

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.

Promotes Health and Longevity

According to practitioners, the anti-inflammatory properties of a macrobiotic diet can protect against a host of chronic diseases and help slow the aging process. There is even some emerging research to support this claim.

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 health experts often caution that it may too restrictive for some people.

Time-Consuming

The macrobiotic diet can be 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.

The bottom line is that eating this way takes time (for planning, shopping, preparing, and cooking) and can be costly. Depending on where you live, organic and local ingredients can be difficult to find and more expensive than conventional ingredients, even minimally processed ones.

Is the Macrobiotic Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

You have probably noticed some common threads between the macrobiotic diet and other vegetarian-inspired diets. Like the macrobiotic diet, the Okinawa diet is low-fat and high-fiber, featuring plenty of vegetables and a little fish. The pescatarian diet is also similar in that it is mostly vegetarian, but also allows for fish and seafood.

The macrobiotic philosophy is unique in that it attempts to balance the body through diet and lifestyle. Like a whole foods diet, the macrobiotic diet also cuts out all processed foods. But the macrobiotic lifestyle is more restrictive and eliminates animal products except for limited seafood and most sugars. These restrictions can make the macrobiotic diet more difficult to adhere to compared with other healthy diets.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests a balanced mix of protein, fruit, vegetables, grains, and dairy for optimal nutrition. The macrobiotic diet, while including most of these (except dairy), differs from the USDA guidelines in terms of its proportions.

For example, the USDA suggests about one-fourth to one-third of a healthy, balanced diet 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 the calories consumed. In addition, the diet restricts protein and fat sources, so careful attention needs to be made to ensure adequate fat and protein consumption.

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

To determine your individual calorie needs, use this calculator.

The macrobiotic diet aligns with most—but not all—of USDA guidelines. As long as you get plenty of protein from fish or plants and ensure there are enough vitamins and minerals in your meals each day, the macrobiotic diet is recommended by many health and nutrition experts.

Health Benefits

While scientific support for some of the macrobiotic diet's claims is somewhat limited, preliminary research has shown that following a macrobiotic diet may offer some health benefits.

Diabetes Prevention and Treatment

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.

However, since the publication of these studies, there has been a great deal of research on the value of low-carbohydrate and ketogenic eating plans for people with diabetes. All people with diabetes should meet with a registered dietitian to create an individualized meal plan that meets their health goals and fits into their lifestyle. There is no one size fits all diet for people with diabetes.

Reduced Risk for Cancer

Some studies suggest that eating a macrobiotic diet may help to reduce the risk of cancer in some individuals, however, no long-term randomized clinical trials have been conducted to ascertain this relationship.

In addition, lifestyle factors such as reducing the intake of red meat and processed foods, maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, reducing stress, and avoiding smoking, also play a crucial role in reducing the risk of certain cancers.

Health Risks

While there are no common risks associated with the macrobiotic diet, If you choose to follow a macrobiotic diet, you should make sure that you're getting enough plant-based sources of vital nutrients.

Some people may need additional nutritional supplements to fulfill their nutrient needs like protein and iron since the diet does not include animal and dairy products. In rare cases, the macrobiotic diet could result in the loss of too much body fat and some people could become underweight.

A Word From Verywell

The macrobiotic diet may well offer health benefits and could help you lose weight, but it's potentially low in some important nutrients. Additionally, using it to self-treat a chronic condition could be harmful to your health if it means avoiding or delaying medical 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.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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Article Sources
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