Macrobiotic diet

Macrobiotic diet
Alternative medicine
Claims Health effects from a diet avoiding refined foods and most animal products. Specific effects on cancer.
Related fields Diet
Year proposed 1797
Original proponents Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (coined term)
Subsequent proponents Sagen Ishizuka

A macrobiotic diet (or macrobiotics), is a nutritional philosophy focused on eating foods based on a person's health status, climate, seasonality of crops, age, gender, and geography among other considerations.[1] There is not a singular dietary regimen, as the diet is based on a variety of supposed variables, which take many forms. Major principles of macrobiotic diets are to reduce animal product, eat locally grown foods that are in season, and consume meals in moderation.[1] Other forms of the diet incorporate principles of archaic medical systems, such as traditional Chinese medicine, in which an attempt is made to balance the alleged yin and yang elements of food and cookware.[2]

Macrobiotics writers often claim that a macrobiotic diet is helpful for people with cancer and other chronic diseases, although there is no good evidence to support such recommendations.[3][1] Studies that indicate positive results are of poor methodological quality.[1] Neither the American Cancer Society nor Cancer Research UK recommend adopting the diet.[4][5] Suggestions that a macrobiotic diet improves cardiovascular disease and diabetes are explained by the diet being, in part, consistent with science-based dietary approaches to disease prevention.[1]


Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland

Hufeland, a German physician, in his book The Art of Prolonging Human Life (1797), first used the word "macrobiotics" in the context of food and health. Hufeland was an influential doctor at the time. He was active in medical research and became a medical professor at Jena. He then became the first dean of medicine at the University of Berlin.

According to Hufeland, macrobiotics is a medical philosophy on a higher level than the curative, preventative, or health levels of medicine. He stated, "The medical art must consider every disease as an evil which cannot be too soon expelled; the macrobiotic, on the other hand, shows that many diseases may be the means of prolonging life."

First edition of The Art of Prolonging Human Life", 1797

In his book, Hufeland refers to a life force which he claimed is present in everything and most easily detected in "organic beings" (live organisms), where it manifests in its response to external stimuli. This force can be weakened, as well as strengthened, through external influences. He believed that our life force would be depleted through physical exertion and increased with rest. Hufeland proposed that moral and physical health are intertwined and flow from the same source, both marked by an abundance of life force. In his view, illness was to be prevented primarily by pursuing a proper diet and lifestyle. In terms of using the word "macrobiotics" in relation to health, food, and energy or life force, Hufeland could be considered the founder of macrobiotics.

Chinese macrobiotics

The Huangdi Neijing includes some of the earliest known recommendations of the natural effects of diet, lifestyle, emotions, environment, and age as factors of disease. The best way to maintain health was considered to be prevention rather than treatment.

"The sages of antiquity did not treat those who were already sick, but those who were not sick... When a disease has already broken out and is only then treated, would that not be just as late as to wait for thirst before digging a well, or to wait to go into battle before casting weapons?"[6]

"In the Su Wen, therefore, the prevention of disharmony is paramount - as the character Huang Di points out, waiting until a disease arrives before treating it is like digging a well when you are already thirsty, or forging weapons after the battle has started. Through following a simple life, regulating one's activities to the seasons and nourishing the body with good food and sleep, one could maintain the balance and be healthy."[7]

According to Chee Soo in The Tao of Long Life, (1979)[8] natural dietary therapy, or Ch'ang ming, has been developed in China since prehistoric times, along with a range of health arts that have become what we now know as Traditional Chinese Medicine. Ch'ang Ming was adapted to the Western diet in 1930 by Chan Kam Lee a Taoist herbalist from Shandong in China. It advocates eating locally grown natural foods in season which have not been processed, or grown with chemical pesticides or fertilizers, or had any artificial additives. Chee Soo's book also contains nutritional information about the sources of various important vitamins and minerals.

Ohsawa and Japanese macrobiotics

Sagen Ishizuka

In the late nineteenth century Japanese military doctor Sagen Ishizuka, the founding father of shokuiku, had great success in helping people recover from their serious health problems. He carried out many clinical trials and published two large volumes of his works. His theory was that a natural diet, in which foods are eaten in season and attention is paid to the correct balance of potassium and sodium and acid and alkaline, leads to good health.[9]

George Ohsawa

One of Sagen Ishizuka's students was George Ohsawa who subsequently recovered from illness after following a macrobiotic diet. Ohsawa left Japan and brought his message of nutrition to France. He practiced and preached the doctrines of his teacher, assembling a considerable body of French literature on the macrobiotic way of life. In 1965 William Dufty translated Ohsawa, in a book You Are All Sanpaku. As a method of rejuvenation, the diet was described as follows:

The application of Oriental philosophy to the biological and physiological science of nutrition may also be translated by the use of a word derived from the Greek: Macrobiotics. In Greek macro means great, bio means vitality, and biotics means the techniques of rejuvenation. So the word macrobiotics — derived from the Greeks, a people who also knew that a sound mind cannot exist in a tense and disturbed body — is used here to convey the idea of this ancient art of selecting, and preparing food so as to produce longevity and rejuvenation.[10]


Followers of the traditional macrobiotic approach believe that food and food quality powerfully affect health, well-being, and happiness, and that a traditional, locally based macrobiotic diet has more beneficial effects than others. The modern macrobiotic approach suggests choosing food that is less processed.

One goal of modern macrobiotics is to become sensitive to the actual effects of foods on health and well-being, rather than to follow dietary rules and regulations. Dietary guidelines, however, help in developing sensitivity and an intuitive sense for what sustains health and well-being.[11]

Japanese macrobiotics emphasizes locally grown whole grain cereals, pulses (legumes), vegetables, seaweed, fermented soy products and fruit, combined into meals according to the ancient Chinese principle of balance known as yin and yang. Whole grains and whole-grain products such as brown rice and buckwheat pasta (soba), a variety of cooked and raw vegetables, beans and bean products, mild natural seasonings, fish, nuts and seeds, mild (non-stimulating) beverages such as bancha twig tea and fruit are recommended.[11]

Some Japanese macrobiotic theorists, including George Ohsawa, stress the fact that yin and yang are relative qualities that can only be determined in a comparison. All food is considered to have both properties, with one dominating. Foods with yang qualities are considered compact, dense, heavy, hot, whereas those with yin qualities are considered expansive, light, cold, and diffuse.[12] However, these terms are relative; "yangness" or "yinness" is only discussed in relation to other foods.[13]

Brown rice and other whole grains such as barley, millet, oats, quinoa, spelt, rye, and teff are considered by macrobiotics to be the foods in which yin and yang are closest to being in balance. Therefore, lists of macrobiotic foods that determine a food as yin or yang generally compare them to whole grains.[14]

Nightshade vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant; also spinach, beets and avocados are not recommended or are used sparingly in macrobiotic cooking, as they are considered extremely yin.[15] Some macrobiotic practitioners also discourage the use of nightshades because of the alkaloid solanine, thought to affect calcium balance.[16] Some proponents of a macrobiotic diet believe that nightshade vegetables can cause inflammation in the body and osteoporosis.[17]



Some basic macrobiotic ingredients

Some general guidelines for the Japanese-style macrobiotic diet are the following (it is also said that a macrobiotic diet varies greatly, depending on geographical and life circumstances):[18]

Fish and seafood, seeds and nuts, seed and nut butters, seasonings, sweeteners, fruits, and beverages may be enjoyed occasionally, two to three times per week. Other naturally-raised animal products may be included if needed during dietary transition or according to individual needs.


Cooking utensils should be made from certain materials such as wood or glass, while some materials including plastic, copper, and non-stick coatings are to be avoided.[2] Electric ovens should not be used.[2]

Japanese popularity and influence

The macrobiotic way of eating was developed and popularized by the Japanese. During the Edo period in Japan peasants were not allowed to eat meat and had a diet based on staples of rice and soybeans. According to some macrobiotic advocates, a majority of the world population in the past ate a diet based primarily on grains, vegetables, and other plants. Because the macrobiotic diet was developed in Japan, Japanese foods that are beneficial for health are incorporated by most modern macrobiotic eaters.[19][20]

Macrobiotics and vegetarianism

A macrobiotic diet includes many of the same foods as vegetarian diets, but in macrobiotics some types of fish and other animal products are often included according to individual needs, although it is recommended that people on the diet avoid milk and other dairy products. The dietary styles share enough similarities that vegetarian and vegan versions of macrobiotics are common.


Claims that macrobiotic diets are useful for people with cancer are not supported by good medical evidence.[3]

The American Cancer Society recommends "low-fat, high-fiber diets that consist mainly of plant products"; however, they urge people with cancer not to rely on a dietary program as an exclusive or primary means of treatment.[4] Cancer Research UK states, "There is no scientific evidence to prove that a macrobiotic diet can treat or cure cancer or any other disease".[5]


Detailed information on the nutrients provided by a large range of foodstuffs is available in the USDA National Nutrient Database.[21]

The following nutrients should be monitored especially in children, because of their importance in facilitating growth and function: calcium, protein, iron, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin B12, riboflavin, vitamin A, omega-3 fatty acids.[22]

People following the macrobiotic diet are at increased risk of developing scurvy.[23]

Fish provides vitamin B12 in a macrobiotic diet,[24] as bioavailable B12 analogues have not been established in any natural plant food, including sea vegetables, soya, fermented products, and algae.[25] Although plant-derived foods do not naturally contain B12, some are fortified during processing with added B12 and other nutrients.[26] Vitamin A, in the form of beta-carotene, is available from plants such as carrots and spinach.[27] Adequate protein is available from grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and bean products. Sources of Omega-3 fatty acids are discussed in the relevant article, and include soy products, walnuts, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, and fatty fish. Riboflavin along with most other B vitamins are abundant in whole grains. Iron in the form of non-heme iron in beans, sea vegetables and leafy greens is sufficient for good health; detailed information is in the USDA database.[28]

In 1987, the AMA stated in their Family Medical Guide: "In general, the macrobiotic diet is a healthful way of eating."[29]

A 1999 review said the macrobiotic diet was similar to the then USDA recommendations for healthy eating.[30]



One of the earlier versions of the macrobiotic diet that involved eating only brown rice and water has been linked to severe nutritional deficiencies and even death. Strict macrobiotic diets that include no animal products may result in nutritional deficiencies unless they are carefully planned. The danger may be worse for people with cancer, who may have to contend with unwanted weight loss and often have increased nutritional and caloric requirements. Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.[31]


Children may also be particularly prone to nutritional deficiencies resulting from a macrobiotic diet.[31]


Macrobiotic diets have not been tested in women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, and the most extreme versions may not include enough of certain nutrients for normal fetal growth.[31]


In 1971, the AMA Council on Foods and Nutrition said that followers of the macrobiotic diet, particularly the strictest, stood in "great danger" of malnutrition.[32] This report came half a decade after the well-publicized death of Beth Ann Simon, a young woman who had followed Ohsawa's form of the diet in spite of its disastrous effect on her body.[33][34][35] On the other hand, in 1987, the AMA stated in their Family Medical Guide: "In general, the macrobiotic diet is a healthful way of eating."[29]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Lerman, R. H. (7 December 2010). "The Macrobiotic Diet in Chronic Disease". Nutrition in Clinical Practice. 25 (6): 621–626. doi:10.1177/0884533610385704.
  2. 1 2 3 Bijlefeld M, Zoumbaris SK (2014). Macrobiotics. Encyclopedia of Diet Fads: Understanding Science and Society (2nd ed.). ABC-CLIO. pp. 127–128. ISBN 978-1-61069-760-6.
  3. 1 2 Hübner J, Marienfeld S, Abbenhardt C, Ulrich CM, Löser C (November 2012). "[How useful are diets against cancer?]". Dtsch. Med. Wochenschr. (Review) (in German). 137 (47): 2417–22. doi:10.1055/s-0032-1327276. PMID 23152069.
  4. 1 2 "Macrobiotic Diet". American Cancer Society. November 2008. Retrieved February 2014. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  5. 1 2 "Macrobiotic diet". Cancer Research UK. Retrieved April 2013. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  7. The history of medicine in 100 facts by Caroline Rance ISBN 978-1445650036
  8. Soo, Chee (1982). The Tao of Long Life. Aquarian Press (Thorsons/HarperCollins originally published by Gordon & Cremonesi in 1979). ISBN 0-85030-320-6.
  9. Brown, Simon (2009). Macrobiotics for Life: A Practical Guide to Healing for Body, Mind, and Heart. North Atlantic Books. p. xi. ISBN 978-1-55643-786-1.
  10. Nyoiti Sakurazawa, William Dufty translator (1965) You Are All Sanpaku, page 94, Citadel Press ISBN 0-8065-0728-4
  11. 1 2 Kushi and Jack
  12. Porter, pp. 22–25
  13. Porter, pp. 44–49
  14. Porter, pp. 71–78
  15. Kushi and Jack, p. 119.
  16. Stanchich, Lino. "All About Nightshades". New Life Journal: Carolina Edition, Apr/May 2003, vol. 4, no. 5, p. 17, 3 pp.
  17. Porter
  18. Kushi, Michio; Blauer, Stephen; Esko, Wendy (2004). The Macrobiotic Way: The Complete Macrobiotic Lifestyle Book. Avery. ISBN 1-58333-180-8.
  19. Make Mine Macrobiotic | Lifestyle | Trends in Japan. Web Japan. Retrieved on 2012-04-27.
  20. Panel 11: Globalisation, Hybridity and Continuity in Traditional Japanese Health Practices.
  21. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.
  22. American Dietetic, Association; Dietitians Of, Canada (2003). "Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Vegetarian diets". J Am Dietetic Assn. 103 (6): 748–765. doi:10.1053/jada.2003.50142. OCLC 1083209. PMID 12778049. Vegetarian diets, like all diets, need to be planned appropriately to be nutritionally adequate.
  23. Pimentel L (2003). "Scurvy: historical review and current diagnostic approach". Am J Emerg Med (Review). 21 (4): 328–32. doi:10.1016/s0735-6757(03)00083-4. PMID 12898492. Persons at risk include ... followers of fad diets such as the Zen macrobiotic diet
  24. National Institutes of Health. "Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin B12". Retrieved 2008-05-27.
  25. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 20: Vitamin B-12 (μg) Content of Selected Foods per Common Measure, sorted by nutrient content.
  26. Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D. "Vitamin B12 in the Vegan Diet". Vegetarian Resource Group. Retrieved 2008-08-11.
  27. National Institutes of Health. "Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin A and Carotenoids (Table 2: Selected plant sources of vitamin A from beta-carotene)". Retrieved 2008-05-28.
  28. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 20: Iron, Fe (mg) Content of Selected Foods per Common Measure, sorted by nutrient content.
  29. 1 2 Kunz, Jeffrey R. M., and Finkel, Asher J., eds. (1987). American Medical Association Family Medical Guide. Random House. p. 27. ISBN 0-394-55582-1.
  30. Cassileth BR (1999). "Evaluating complementary and alternative therapies for cancer patients". CA Cancer J Clin (Review). 49 (6): 362–75. doi:10.3322/canjclin.49.6.362. PMID 11198952.
  31. 1 2 3 Russell J, Rovere A, eds. (2009). "Macrobiotic Diet". American Cancer Society Complete Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Therapies (2nd ed.). American Cancer Society. ISBN 9780944235713.
  32. "Zen Macrobiotic Diets". JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. 218 (3): 397. 1971. doi:10.1001/jama.1971.03190160047009.
  33. "Simon, Beth Ann". The Free Dictionary.
  34. Christgau, Robert (1966). "Beth Ann and Microbioticism".
  35. "The Kosher of the Counterculture". Time. EBSCOhost. 96 (20). 16 November 1970.

Further reading

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