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Definition of Macrobiotics

Macrobiotic teacher
Denny Waxman, teaching in the late 1970s

What is macrobiotics?

On 27 August 1978, on a rainy night in Philadelphia, a doctor who had just been diagnosed with cancer asked the same question to a macrobiotics teacher in their first meeting.

This is how the doctor tells us about it in his book:

“What is macrobiotics?” I asked him

Basically, it’s a way of life, incorporating a diet and philosophy to help bring about improved health and happiness. The diet varies some, depending on one’s condition, the time of the year, and the place one lives. But you should eat fifty to sixty percent whole grains, especially brown rice; twenty-five percent locally grown, cooked vegetables; fifteen percent beans and sea vegetables, and the rest made up of soups and various condiments”

He then told me in greater detail which foods I should be eating. Nearly everything he mentioned was unfamiliar. On the other hand, when he said which foods I should eliminate from my diet, he described my standard fare to the letter. Stop eating all meat, dairy products, refined grains, including white bread and flour products, he said. Cut out all sugar, all oil, nuts, fruits and carbonated beverages, and foods containing synthetic chemicals and preservatives. He said that the standard macrobiotic diet normally includes some fish, fruit desserts, and other natural sweeteners, but because my condition was so severe I should eat strictly until I showed real signs of improvements.

Almost 40 years later, the same teacher proposed a definition of macrobiotics that was supported by the entire macrobiotic community. Not only individuals but also schools agreed on that definition (dictionary style):

Macrobiotics, noun, (used with a singular verb)
1. a way of life that guides one’s choices in nutrition, activity, and lifestyle.
2. a system of principles and practices of harmony to benefit the body, mind,
and planet.

macrobiotic, adj., such as macrobiotic philosophy or macrobiotic diet.

Origin: from Ancient Greek: Macro (large or long) and Bios (life or way of living).

From Macrobiotic School, I would like to express that I agree with that definition.


NOTES

[1] Sattilaro, A.J. and Monte, T. (1982). Recalled by Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. (pp.66-67)

[2] Definition agreed upon by the International Macrobiotic Conference 2017 in Berlin, with 45 macrobiotic teachers, along with GOMF, SHI, Macrobiotic Association, IMP, IME, Chi Energy, IMS, and other schools, institutes, and organizations. Link to International Macrobiotics: Macrobiotic Definition

[3] Photo credit: Michael Rossoff.

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Remembering Michio

Michio Kushi from World Government to Food from Macrobiótica Mediterránea on Vimeo.

Leaders are important. They start a new movement, which is the most difficult thing to do, so that their followers keep it alive afterwards. In the case of macrobiotics, Michio Kushi was the leader par excellence. He popularised macrobiotics as a movement to improve our diet and lifestyle. He gave it a Japanese touch, maybe a Spartan touch and a very strict one in some occasions, but it was useful to revert many health issues.

Since December 28, 2014, macrobiotics does not count on Michio Kushi. He died at the age of 88 as a consequence of a pancreatic cancer. Since that day, the health of the Kushi Institute, in Becket, Massachusetts, started to decline and it finally closed its doors in February 2017. And with that, the dissemination of macrobiotics is in the hands of its students and their respective schools.

If we want to meet Michio again, we should travel to the past. For that reason, I am bringing you a fragment from an interview that was recorded in October 1996. Michio tells us how he changed his mind from trying to change the world by creating a World Government to starting to change it by teaching macrobiotics.

TRANSCRIPTION

Then, while I was studying, I started to wonder even if World Government is done, World Federation is done, what about a sickness? Government, Parliament, World Parliament can’t prevent sickness. How about crimes? How about arguments between people? How about race discriminations? Law maybe can be prohibiting, but individual, emotional hate amongst citizens would still be there. What shall we do about this? Government, World Parliament and Law would fail. There had to be some other way. So, I started to wonder and wonder and wonder. So, after a few weeks deep thinking, I quit everything: the political science studies, the international and law studies and the PhD course. I quit it all. And then I stood in New York, on Fifth Avenue, Times Square, and from morning to night I started to watch thousands, thousands, thousands of people. In order to know what a man is , what humanity is. Soon I was confused, so I decided what subject to observe. This week I will watch their eyes, the week after I will watch their nose, the week after I will watch their mouth. Some weeks I watched the way they walked or their hair or the way their clothes, etc, etc. Then, I was amazed when I realised everybody is different. I had not noticed it clearly before that. Everybody is different: the way they walked, their eyes, the way the spoke, their clothes… everybody.

The human being has been created by the environment and by what we eat. Among all the factors, eating is the most direct one and the one we can control. Whatever element we receive from the outside like solarisation, cosmic grace, sun, colours or stimuli, nervous stimuli,etc. We also breath air, and all those things come and influence us, but day to day, what we can control 100% is, by our free choice, is food, food and drink, and I came to the conclusion that food is the one we must manage well.

If we do not manage it well, then we become sick, we become mental hateful or narrow-minded or egocentric. If we manage it OK, then we become peaceful, we become high-spirited and we become healthy, etc. So, then, suddenly I recalled, while I was pursuing the way for peace, George Osawa said to me: “Michio, one day you will encounter food”. I could see it then: “Ah! He meant this!” And, in that moment, I became very serious about food. Before that, I sometimes ate hamburgers and sometimes drank Coca-Cola. By the way, the first Coca-Cola I drank was together with George Osawa at Hiyoshi’s school in Tokyo when I visited him. Then he said to me: “Michio, let’s drink Coca-Cola. Do you know Coca-Cola?” I said: “No”. “Lima, please, bring Coca-Cola”. He called his wife. She brought it. [George drank] “Mmm, it is delicious! Drink!” I drank: “Yuck” It tastes like medicine!” Then Lima said: “Don’t give it to Michio. It’s very yin”.

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I thought macrobiotics was an old-fashion diet

Macrobiotic old-fashion diet

I work in Sha Wellness Clinic, a resort on the Mediterranean Coast, in the east of Spain. 

I had dinner with guests some weeks ago and one of them mentioned she was surprised by how delicious the food was. She thought macrobiotics was an old-fashioned diet.

Macrobiotics evolves as well as other fields do. “Vintage macrobiotics” does exist. I invented this term in order to distinguish it from other more modern versions. If macrobiotics had a golden age, it would be the 80’s. During that decade, there was a great increase in the number of publications, speeches and schools.

The macrobiotics that was practised during that time is the macrobiotics that has remained in the collective mind.

How was macrobiotics in the 80’s?

It was a type of diet with the following characteristics: 

  • Almost vegan. White fish was consumed either once or, at most, twice a week. 
  • Soft flavours (bland diet). Spices, salt or foods with intense flavours (eggs, meat, fats, dairy products, sugar) were barely used.
  • Low-fat diet. Non-animal fat sources. Sesame oil was used for sauté recipes, a very small quantity (1 teaspoon every day or every two days per person, as The Macrobiotic Way book recommends)
  • Japanese orientation. Typical products from Japan were used, as for example, condiments (rice vinegar, umeboshi, shiso…), rice, seaweed, and miso soup. 
  • Presence of grain, little bread and pasta. Grain was consumed three times a day.
  • No sweets. At most some some desserts made with apples or pears.
  • Neither frozen nor canned foods. Consuming fresh and organic foods was promoted. 
  • Cooking took time. Grain and pulses were of great importance on this type of diet.
  • Several courses. Another factor that took time was the elaboration of several courses: soup, second course, steamed vegetables, tea. 
  • Little use of raw foods: fruit and salads. 

Nowadays, with the contribution of the second and third wave (see “Start Here” and read Kushi’s Students), the practice of macrobiotics has turned into something more complex. There is not only one model or type of diet, but several, depending on the teachers and on the case that it is applied to. We may find such extreme cases from teachers who recommend a total vegan diet to teachers who include some portions of meat and bones broths.

I will try to explain in other post why such a coexistence occurs.

In any case, we may observe the evolution in the practice of macrobiotics, as for example: 

  • In some cases, there are more animal source foods. 
  • It is tastier. It contains a bigger quantity of healthy fats like olive oil and avocado.
  • It does not depend on Japanese products, but on the traditional products of the place where it is applied.
  • Practical and fast ways of applying it are looked for, with the help of planning and of the fridge. 
  • More fruit and salads are included. 

To sum it up, although the origins take us to a diet from the 80’s, there has always been progress through the activity of Michio Kushi’s students. Despite the fact that teachers sometimes take different directions (more or less animal source foods), in every case the diet is richer, as it includes a bigger variety of dishes, and more options from other cultures as well as more flavours. For that reason, the guest I had in Sha found it to be such a rich diet. 


NOTES

[1] Image of the post coming from the book: Kushi, A. and Esko, W. (1987). Macrobiotic Family Favorites. Tokyo and New York: Japan Publications, Inc. P. 87

[2] The book where 1 teaspoon of sesame oil a day was recommended: Kushi, M. y Blauer, S. (1985). The Macrobiotic Way. Wayne (New Jersey): Avery Publishing Group Inc. P. 76

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The Macrobiotic Pyramid

Food guides are an informative tool that orients our diet.

Since 1916, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has published several food guides. The most popular one has been the Food Guide Pyramid, published in 1992.

Food pyramid 1992

Macrobiotics does also count on a food pyramid. We can find the last version of the Macrobiotic Pyramid in the book The Macrobiotic Path To Total Health, written by Michio Kushi and Alex Jack.

This is the Macrobiotic Pyramid:

 

Michio and Alex wrote the following words together with the previous picture:

The Great Life Pyramid is designed as a graphic depiction of the relative importance and proportions of the different food groups. It shares the same basic orientation as the U.S. Food Guide Pyramid, the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, the Asian Diet Pyramid, and the Vegetarian Diet Pyramid but is more comprehensive. The Great Life or Macrobiotic Food Pyramid is based on a universal eating pattern found throughout the temperate regions of the world, not just one civilization or culture, and is more in line with current nutritional and medical studies than the other guidelines. Please study this illustration carefully.

The Pyramid is a more detailed version of the pie chart we saw in the post Foods of the Macrobiotic Diet. Personally, I believe this is a good way of summarising what the Macrobiotic Diet is, and a proper starting point when designing a personalised diet.


NOTES

[1] To know more about the Food Guides visit: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/brief-history-usda-food-guides

[2] The image of the Macrobiotic Pyramid comes from the book: Kushi, M. and Jack, A. (2003). The Macrobiotic Path To Total Health. New York: Ballantine Books.

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Macrobiotic Diet vs Healthy Diet

The Standard Macrobiotic Diet (SMD) that is presented in the post Foods from a Macrobiotic Diet is the sort of diet that was taught since the mid 50’s by Michio Kushi and his collaborators. This diet is what I call Vintage Macrobiotics, and some macrobiotics students have continued teaching it to others.

In order to check the validity of the SMD currently, we can compare it to the guides that have been written by each country or by official organisms. In this case, I would like to compare it to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (8th edition).

I will be guided by the recommendations of the SMD, and I will compare them to the recommendations written in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

Let’s begin.

COMPARISON

WHOLE GRAINS

Standard Macrobiotic Diet Dietary Guidelines for Americans
Whole grains compromise at least half of every meal (50%). Flour products should be below 20 percent of the daily proportion of whole grains. Healthy eating pattern includes whole grains and limit the intake of refined grains and products made with refined grains, especially those high in saturated fats, added sugars, and/or sodium, such as cookies, cakes, and some snack foods. The recommended amount of grains is 6 ounce-equivalents per day. At least half of this amount should be whole grains.

They agree. Both the SMD and the DGA recommend whole grains, a bigger amount of grains and a smaller amount of products made with refined grains. Whole grains constitute an important part of the diet.

SOUPS

Standard Macrobiotic Diet  Dietary Guidelines for Americans
Soups, 1 or 2 bowls daily. Seasoned with a moderate amount of miso, tamari or sea salt. It mentions nothing about soups. It only explains not to worry about the high amount of sodium they may contain. For that reason, macrobiotics recommends a natural seasoning.

VEGETABLES

Standard Macrobiotic Diet   Dietary Guidelines for Americans
About one-quarter (25-30% of each meal) may include vegetables. One-third of your daily vegetable intake may be eaten as pickles and salad. Healthy eating patterns include a variety of vegetables from all of the five vegetable subgroups -dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other. These include all fresh, frozen, canned, and dried options in cooked or raw forms, including vegetable juices. The recommended amount of vegetables in the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern and the 2000-calorie level is 2 1/2 cup-equivalents of vegetables per day.

They agree. The DGA does not exclude certain vegetables, and it does admit several sorts of vegetables (fresh, frozen, canned, and dried). I remember the SMD excludes systematically vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines, and peppers.

BEANS, BEAN PRODUCTS, AND SEAWEEDS

Standard Macrobiotic Diet    Dietary Guidelines for Americans
About 5 to 10 percent of your daily diet may include cooked beans, bean products, and sea vegetables. Beans and bean products are included as “vegetables” on the DGA.

They agree on the beans consumption, but seaweeds are not mentioned in the DGA.

SUPPLEMENTARY FOODS

Standard Macrobiotic Diet Dietary Guidelines for Americans
1-2 times a week white fish or seafood, a small volume of roasted seeds, fruits from time to time, small amounts of rice syrup, barley malt or amazaké. -Fruits: Healthy eating patterns include fruits, especially whole fruits. Whole fruits include fresh, canned, frozen, and dried forms. The recommended amount of fruits is 2 cup-equivalents per day.
-Fish is included in the category of “Protein Food” in the Healthy eating pattern. This group includes seafood, meats, poultry, and eggs; and nuts, seeds, and soy products. The recommended weekly consumption is 8 ounces-equivalents of seafood per week, meat, poultry, and eggs is 26 ounce-equivalents per week. Nuts and seeds 1 1/2 ounce a day.
Healthy eating patterns limit added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories per day.

They do not agree because the DGA includes a bigger amount of all the above-mentioned foods, except for sweeteners, that are limited in both the SMD and the DGA. We need to highlight that the DGA offers a vegetarian pattern as well, in which meat and fish are excluded, and eggs (3 times a week) and dairy products (3 times a week) are included.

BEVERAGES

Standard Macrobiotic Diet Dietary Guidelines for Americans
It is recommended that spring or well water is used in the preparation of teas and other beverages. Recommended beverages: spring water, kukicha tea, rice tea, barley tea. Beverages that are calorie-free -especially water- or that contribute beneficial nutrients, such as fat-free and low-fat milk and 100% juice, should be the primary beverages consumed.

They agree on the use of water, but not in the recommendation about consuming milk and juice. The SMD excludes milk, and it recommends small amounts of fresh juice when the person is a healthy person and it is hot.

CONDIMENTS

Standard Macrobiotic Diet Dietary Guidelines for Americans
Condiments may be used in moderate amounts to add a variety of flavors to foods and to provide additional nutrients. The following condiments may be used: Tamari soy sauce, sesame salt (gomashio), roasted sea vegetable powder, sesame seed powder, umeboshi plum, shio (salt) kombu, nori condiment, tekka, sauerkraut. It does not mention any recommendation about condiments, but it does about sodium consumption. Healthy eating patterns limit sodium to less than 2300 mg per day. This could be limiting the consumption of Japanese condiments that contain more sodium.

They agree on the recommendation of a limited use of condiments, but maybe the SMD exceeds the use of sodium.

OILS

Standard Macrobiotic Diet Dietary Guidelines for Americans
It is best to use only a moderate amount of high quality, cold pressed vegetable oil in cooking. Oils for regular use include: Sesame, dark sesame, and corn oil. The recommendations for oils in the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern is 27 g (about 5 teaspoons) per day. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are more recommended than saturated fats. It is include: canola, corn, olive peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils.

They do not agree. The SMD recommends a smaller amount, 1 teaspoon (SMD) compared to 5 teaspoons (DGA). And the DGA allows more variety.

DAIRY PRODUCTS

There is a general category that the DGA and other national guides include, but the SMD does not: dairy products.

Standard Macrobiotic Diet  Dietary Guidelines for Americans
No dairy products are recommended. Examples: cheese, butter, milk, yogurt, kefir, ice cream, cream, sour cream, whipped cream. Healthy eating patterns include fat-free and low-fat (1%) dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages (soymilk). The recommended amounts of dairy in the Healthy U.S. -Style Pattern are base on age rather than calorie level and are 2 cup-equivalents per day for children ages 2-3 years, 2 1/2 cup equivalent per day for children 4-8 years, and 3 cup-equivalents per day for adolescents ages 9-18 and adults

Regarding to dairy products, they do not agree.

CONCLUSION

When we compare the SMD to the DGA, we realise that they agree on many aspects. For example: whole grains, vegetables, less added sugars, beans, fish.

The main aspect that differentiates them is that the DGA includes more foods. The DGA recommends the consumption of dairy products, poultry, a bigger amount of fish, and it also accepts more formats than the SMD, as for example: frozen, canned or dried vegetables.

The official guides, such as the DGA, are designed by committees made up of experts, and therefore, from my point of view, they are valid. That is why, even if I admire and I am fascinated with vintage macrobiotics, the sort of macrobiotics that I use in my practice includes more foods. Sometimes, when the condition of the person needs it, I use a more strict version in short periods of time.


NOTES

[1] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.

[2] The material used to describe the Standard Macrobiotic Diet is coming from: Kushi, M. and Kushi A. (1986). Macrobiotic Child Care & Family Health. Tokyo and New York: Japan Publications, Inc.