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Macrobiotics for Optimal Balance

by Vivien Ryder(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 69 - October 2001

Introduction

Macrobiotics literally means great (or long) life. It is about finding balance in all that you do in order to achieve fulfilment in life. It is widely thought that Macrobiotics is about eating brown rice. Yes, you can eat lots of brown rice if you like, but there is far more to it than that. It is with this in mind that I would like to share with you my perspective of Macrobiotics.

I first became aware of Macrobiotics 15 years ago while working in a vegetarian restaurant. My boss had an interest in the subject and lent me books, which I read with great enthusiasm. Until then I had had a vague interest in nutrition and was interested in what food could do in terms of healing a sick body. Macrobiotics suggested that any illness could be cured with the right foods and lifestyle. I was hooked.

I then managed to find myself a job in the wholefood shop next door to the East West Centre, which is the main Macrobiotic body of the UK. I did a course there (Macrobiotics Foundation Course Level I) and met some wonderfully inspiring people in the process. There were people who had cured themselves of terminal illnesses. I didn't need proof of this; I could see it in their eyes. Apart from now, it was the best time of my life. I was truly happy for the first time.

The person responsible for Macrobiotics in its present form was George Ohsawa, who was born in 1893 in Japan. He developed tuberculosis at fifteen, his mother, younger brother and younger sister having already died of it. Such a fate was not for George.

Having been written off by his doctor and given three months to live, Ohsawa set off on his life's path, his search for true health. He studied widely and, basing his theories on ancient Eastern concepts, came up with his own interpretation suitable for worldwide use – Macrobiotics as we know it today. By this philosophy he managed to cure himself and live a further 58 years, devoting his life to spreading the word of Macrobiotics.

Ying and Yang

Macrobiotics is based on the idea that everything is made up of two opposing forces, yin and yang, in varying degrees. We are all aware that there is a natural order to things. For example, day turns into night, summer turns into winter, we breathe in and out, we start off young and grow old, i.e. things change according to certain rules. These are the rules of yin and yang, a code which explains this natural order.

Yin is the name given to the force that produces expansion. Yin energy has the tendency to fill up space, grow quickly and grow large. Space is a yin quality, as is coolness and darkness. Yang, on the other hand, is the name given to that force which causes contraction. Yang energy has the tendency to grow slowly and be more compact. Time is a yang quality, so that the longer something takes to grow the more yang it will be. Initially, in order to understand the concept of yin and yang it is probably better to think in terms of extreme examples before trying to unravel the yin and yang of anything more complex. The important thing to remember is that yin and yang only have meaning when comparing things. By themselves they are meaningless.

A fascinating aspect of the Macrobiotic philosophy is the applying of this yin/yang theory to food (See Table 1). It follows that if there is a natural order to all things then this also applies to food. Macrobiotics suggests that we can achieve health and happiness by eating a balanced selection of foods that are locally grown or are suited to a similar climate. This makes sense because animals that live in a particular area are naturally suited to the foods that grow there.

Table 1. Yin, Yang and Balanced Foods1
Strong Yang
More Balanced
Strong Yin
Refined salt
Grains
Refined grain products
Eggs
Beans and bean products
Tropical fruit and vegetables
Cheese
Sea vegetables
Sugar
Fish
Unrefined sea salt
Alcohol
Meat
Seeds
Pesticides and dyes
Nuts
Drugs

Meat and therefore animals are relatively yang compared with plant foods. The ingestion of extremely yang foods would create a feeling of tightness and narrowness of mind if taken in excess. At the other end of the spectrum are sugar and strong alcohol, which might leave a person feeling expansive or 'spaced out'

Yin and Yang of food

Balanced Foods

To achieve harmony and balance within, therefore, we need to eat and drink a combination of foods that are similarly harmonious in nature. Initially you should begin by eating foods that are balanced, i.e. from the central spectrum of foods. This is so that the person can find a true balance point within themselves. Rice is considered to be the most balanced food, closely followed by the other grains. It is suggested that you begin by eating a diet of grains (50-60%), vegetables and sea vegetables (20-30%), beans or legumes (10%), soups (5-10%) and small amounts of various condiments (see Table 2).

Table 2. Balanced Spectrum of Foods1
Grains
Vegetables
Beans, Legumes
Sea Vegetables
Seeds
rice
cabbage
aduki
kombu
sunflower
wheat
carrots
chick peas
wakami
sesame
barley
burdock
lentils
nori
pumpkin
millet
onions
Black
dulse
 
rye
pumpkin
black eyed
hiziki
 
buckwheat
radish

soya (in form of tofu, tempeh, natto, etc.)

oats
watercress
 
Condiments include: gomasio (partially ground sesame seeds + salt in a ratio to suit the individual)
  soya sauce (made from fermented soya beans and salt)
  various pickles
  miso (based on fermented soya beans)
  umeboshi plums (salted plums)

When this balance within has been established, a healthy person will usually have developed a healthy enough state of body and mind to start using their own judgement on what foods work for them. Such a set of foods will not be the same for everyone and neither will a person's middle point stay the same. Balance is dynamic, so we are not seeking neutrality. This is because everything is continually changing, so we also have to change to adapt to these changes around us, however subtle they may be. Take, for instance, how we feel when the weather becomes a little colder. Hearty soups and stews would be the order of the day and we would wrap up warm, i.e. we adapt to the changes.

Controversies and Myths

One of the most common criticisms of the Macrobiotic diet is the apparent lack of fluid intake. Combine this with another confusing issue, that of salt intake, and we have a seemingly dodgy diet. This salt and water issue is one that needs addressing.

Salt

Firstly, salt is vital. We do not require much and certainly not in the form taken by the average Westerner, i.e. refined, chemicalized table salt containing anti-caking agents and such like. Salt in this form is extremely yang. We need sea salt, which is the 'wholefood' version of salt. This kind of salt contains essential trace elements from the sea and is a less yang form of salt.[2] Our blood and bodily fluids have a similar balance of minerals to the sea water from which we are said to have evolved.

Minerals in the sea neutralize toxins which enter it from the land. It makes sense that if we supply ourselves with such elements in the right proportions (from sea salt, sea vegetables, grains and vegetables) then we too can neutralize the toxins that enter our bodies.

The problem with salt is that the average person's body is laden with chemicalized salt from the excessive intake of processed foods and meat. Take away refined foods and meat and the body's salt content would soon diminish. What the Macrobiotic diet purports is a basically vegan diet (no meat or dairy) with the occasional use of fish (at least at first while the person finds their true balance). The amount of salt actually ingested on the Macrobiotic diet is probably far less than the average meat-eating, processed-food addict. It is probably good advice in itself for such a person to reduce salt intake, but to link this advice with salt in the Macrobiotic sense is ludicrous. Science seems to take fragments of truth and distort them, without understanding or trying to see the whole picture.

Water

Hand in hand with the salt issue is the water controversy. Many detox diets recommend a high intake of water. This also is probably good advice for the processed food/meat eater but is not the ultimate solution. For a limited period of time water will help flush the kidneys of impurities but over time will leave them tired and overloaded. Excessive salt can be removed from the body by excessive water if meat intake is stopped. If meat intake is continued along with water the person may suffer from water retention. The answer is to stop eating processed foods and meat.

Macrobiotics suggests drinking just enough fluid to stop thirst, but this is only if you are following Macrobiotic guidelines where processed foods, etc., are not being eaten. If you have a high salt intake, e.g. from a junk food diet, then you will become dehydrated if you limit your fluid intake.

Such controversies, i.e. lack of understanding, are what give Macrobiotics a bad name. The philosophy and diet are sound. I believe any illness can be cured through proper use of Macrobiotic principles. It does not work like conventional medicine though, where a person is kept alive whether they want to be or not. For a person to use Macrobiotics to heal themselves they have to want to live and therefore take responsibility for their health.

Essential Nutrients

If you compare the Macrobiotic diet with current dietary recommendations it becomes clear that such a way of eating fits in with most of its criteria. The myth about how vital cow's milk is, is now being exposed, especially with the increasing numbers of people being found to be allergic to dairy products. There are many different foods within the Macrobiotic diet which provide calcium (and every other essential nutrient) in a balanced, easy to absorb form. It is the balance or proportion of nutrients in our diet that is important to prevent deficiencies and not quantities. Large quantities of one nutrient merely increase the quantity required of another nutrient(s) and so the vicious cycle goes on.

Fats

Take the fat issue for example. We require omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in a ratio of 4:1. Such requirements are easily met in the low-fat Macrobiotic diet from the intake of seeds and oils. This is the whole essence of Macrobiotics – balance.

Raw Foods

Another conflict is that between the raw food diet and the Macrobiotic diet. Firstly, raw foods have their place in Macrobiotics, but, because raw food is very yin, only a small proportion tends to be eaten. Raw foods are good for detoxifying the body and have their place for an extremely yang meat eater...for a while. Continuation of such a diet would lead to a very yin state and a craving for very yang foods. The Macrobiotic approach would be to eliminate animal foods and use rice (a great detoxifier) plus other grains and vegetables, i.e. a less extreme method. Swings back to extremely yang foods are then less likely.

Another point on raw foods is that some vegetables contain nutrients that interfere with the process by which the thyroid acquires iodine. Light cooking eliminates this problem. Some beans and legumes contain protease inhibitors, which block the absorption of proteins, making cooking vital.

Recipes

Here are a couple of recipes that are quick and easy. I have included miso soup because many people don't know what it is and what to do with it. It also contains beneficial bacteria similar to those found in yoghurt.

Miso Soup

Ingredients:
miso – about 1 tablespoon
spring onions or onions finely chopped – to your taste
wakame – small amount rinsed and sliced

Method:
Put wakame and onions in a pan of water and gently bring to the boil. Simmer for five minutes. Mix miso with a little pan water to dissolve. Add to pan. Stir, simmer and then serve.3
Note that miso is added at the end of cooking because boiling destroys miso’s beneficial qualities.
A bowl or two of miso soup every day is recommended, using vegetables/sea vegetables of your choice. Miso soup is soothing and relaxing. A great bonus in this day and age!

This is a seasonal favourite of mine:
Pumpkin Pie

Ingredients:
2 cups wholemeal flour
pinch of salt
1/3 cup corn oil
1/3 cup water
1lb pureed pumpkin
1 tablespoon kuzu (thickener similar in use to corn flour)
1/4 cup barley malt syrup (sweetener made from sprouted barley)
1 cup chopped walnuts

Method
Make pastry by combining flour and oil with a fork. Add enough water to make a stiff dough. Roll out dough to fit required dish. Bake this pie crust on its own for ten minutes at gas mark 6 (200ºC/400ºF). Mix barley malt into pumpkin puree. Dissolve kuzu in a little water as you would with corn flour. Add to pumpkin mix and gently bring to the boil to thicken. Cover pastry base with the mix and sprinkle with chopped walnuts. Put in oven for 30 minutes.3
What strikes me as being the most
significant aspect of Macrobiotics is its down-to-earth practicality. It is at its least a healthy diet. Beyond that is up to you.

 

References

1. Kushi Michio and Aveline. Macrobiotic Diet. Japan Publications. Tokyo and New York. 1993.
2. Muramoto Naboro. Healing Ourselves. Avon Books. New York. 1973.
3. Kushi Aveline. Macrobiotic Cooking. Warner Communications. New York. 1985.

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About Vivien Ryder

Vivien Ryder is a health researcher and writer with a particular interest in nutrition. She has an honours degree in Health Studies and diplomas in Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy. She is currently writing a book about her late husband’s death from inoperable pancreatic cancer. Vivien may be contacted via vivien2ryder@yahoo.co.uk

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