Can a macrobiotic diet extend your life? What’s the science to support the claims? Is there any harm in eating according to a macrobiotic philosophy?
Nutrition Diva fan Meg writes: “Will you do an episode on the macrobiotic diet? Is it a healthy way to eat? Can it really help beat cancer? The owner of my local health food store swears by it.”
What is a Macrobiotic Diet?
The term “macrobiotic” is used to describe a philosophy of living and eating that is said to maximize one’s life force, prevent and heal diseases, extend the life span, and promote spiritual well-being. The system actually encompasses a lot more than just diet, extending to personal hygiene, exercise, and even the clothes you wear—but in this article, I’ll focus on the dietary advice.
There are lots of variations on the macrobiotic dietary philosophy but most recommend a diet based on brown rice and other whole grains, vegetables—especially sea vegetables, legumes like soy, and herbal tea. Small amounts of nuts and seeds are allowed. Once or twice a week, you get a small amount of fish or chicken—although many people who practice macrobiotics are vegetarian or vegan. Not included in the macrobiotic diet are red meat, eggs, dairy products, refined grains, sugar, any processed foods, caffeine, and alcohol.
The whole system is based on a notion of balance—so far, so good. And because this system has its roots in Eastern philosophy, this is usually expressed in terms of yin and yang—two opposing and complementary “energies” that are said to exist in all living things. Often, yin is described the “feminine” energy and yang as the “male.”
This idea of “yin” and “yang” is hard to translate into Western terms, and even harder to evaluate in terms of the Western understandings of physiology and biochemistry. For example, a food that is said to be “cooling” doesn’t necessarily have a measurable effect on body temperature or metabolism. There’s really no way to measure a food’s (or a person’s) yin and yang energy using any of the tools employed in Western science—so I can’t really say much about that particular aspect of the philosophy. But here are the pros and cons of the diet, viewed through the lens of Western nutrition.
Pros of the Macrobiotic Diet
No junk food. One of the best things, in my view, about the macrobiotic diet, is what’s not in it: junk food, soda, and other empty calories.
Whole foods. Most of the foods are whole and minimally processed, which also lines up with my usual advice.
Lots of vegetables. Every meal—even breakfast—contains vegetables. And you know how I feel about vegetables.
Eating with the seasons. There’s an emphasis on eating locally and seasonally, which is great.
Cons of the Macrobiotic Diet
Grain-focused. According to macrobiotic principles, whole grains should comprise 50-60% of every meal—because whole grains are thought be balanced in terms of yin and yang. Vegetables are to make up around ¼ of the plate. As you may already know, while I think grains have a place in a healthy diet, they aren’t all that nutritious. I prefer the reverse ratio, with vegetables taking up half the plate and starches or grains just a quarter.
See Also: The Whole Truth About Whole Grains
High carb, low protein. Like most vegetarian or near-vegetarian diets, the macrobiotic regimen tends to be relatively high in carbs and low in protein. It’s also quite low in fat. As long as total calorie intake is appropriate, this can certainly work. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you found yourself a little hungry. Protein and fat go a long way toward making meals satisfying.
See also: How to Eat Less Without Feeling Hungry and How Much Protein Should I Eat?
Restrictive. This is a pretty austere regimen, built on a fairly short list of foods. Not only can this get kind of boring, but the more limited your diet in terms of food choices, the harder you have to work at making sure that you’re getting a complete range of nutrients. If I had a patient on a macrobiotic regiment, for example, I’d want to know where their calcium was coming from.
See also: How Important is a Varied Diet?
Over-reliance on a short list of foods can present other concerns as well. The two staples of the traditional macrobiotic diet (brown rice and soy), for example, are both high in phytates that can impair the absorption of minerals. In the context of a more varied diet, I don’t worry too much about phytates. But eating brown rice and soy at every meal is exactly the type of scenario in which it might be a problem.
See also: Should you Soak Your Grains? and Pros and Cons of Soy
The Bottom Line on Macrobiotic Diets
Is the macrobiotic diet one to try? I don’t know about balancing yin and yang, but whenever you remove sugar and processed foods from the diet, the effect is probably going to be good. And I like the focus on whole foods and mindful eating. But, as with blood-type and pH-balancing diets I’ve talked about in previous shows, I think the macrobiotic system also includes a lot of restrictions and rules that make eating healthy more complicated than it needs to be—and the more stringent variations may even make it tricky to get all the nutrients you need. So, experiment with care and use common sense!
See also: Moderation in All Things, Part 1
For my thoughts on macrobiotics and cancer, please see this week’s Nutrition Diva newsletter. (Not subscribed? You can do that here!)
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