Macrobiotics - Developing a Healthy and Sustainable Human Ecology
Since its’ introduction to North America and Western Europe in the 1950’s macrobiotics has often stirred controversy in both the scientific and alternative health care communities. Much of this controversy has been generated out of poor communication from the macrobiotic leadership regarding the role of diet in healing, the more esoteric aspects of macrobiotic philosophy and a resistance to reassess and reinterpret the original writings of George Oshawa, Michio Kushi and Herman Aihara. It is unfortunate that some of the ideas that could be most valuable to the development of a healthy society and a healthy planet are lost in the confusion.
Many people stop their inquiry into macrobiotics with those aspects dealing with diet since it is there that the issues of physical well being are addressed in greatest detail. This is natural since preventing disease, establishing health or recovering from illness are important life issues. In my work over the past forty-two years I have tried to spread awareness of what I feel to be the most important factors of macrobiotic dietary practice without losing sight of the larger vision of life that they exist within.
Macrobiotics is about developing a human ecology that speaks to the needs of the individual, society and the web of life we exist within. As we enter this new century we are seeing the devastating results of a way of life that actually depends on environmental destruction in order to function.
It becomes obvious that the very nature of politics and other social mechanisms are not capable of withstanding the unchecked power of the food industry and the vested interests that live on the wages of environmental destruction and sickness. The hope of our children and future generation’s lie in our collective ability to take our individual physical, emotional and spiritual health into our own hands and to let our presence be felt and our voices heard. Part of this movement toward a sustainable way of life is the food we eat. Our choices of food have a direct impact on our health, as well as the economy and environment.
Is Macrobiotics a Healthy Diet?
(Excerpt from a report for the SHA Wellness Clinic, El Albir, Spain)
Macrobiotic dietary principles have been developed over the past 50 years in America, Europe and Japan. They are based on the philosophy of Asian medicine as practiced in China and Japan. These concepts reflect physical, environmental and social observations for a period of over 5,000 years. Although the philosophy bears little relationship to Western nutritional science, the conclusions are remarkably similar.
While the diet associated with macrobiotics is the “Standard Macrobiotic Diet” this way of eating is not a diet in the strict sense – it is a way of choosing foods and can be applied flexibly depending on the needs of the individual. The standard diet was developed in the early 1980’s by Michio Kushi with assistance from Bill Tara, Edward Esko, William Spear and Murray Snyder. The standard diet was presented to describe general principles to the growing number of people seeking help with their health who were dealing with cancer, heart disease and a variety of serious illnesses. While thousands of people found assistance in recovering their health using variations of the standard diet, the association of macrobiotics and healing is often misunderstood.
The application of macrobiotic principles to nutrition is not essentially an attempt to therapeutically correct the symptoms of disease. The macrobiotic approach to eating is focused on assisting the body to recover from nutritional stress, often the result of the modern diet, and return to a more sensible state of biological balance. In the process of returning to a more balanced state many people experience a natural recovery of health and in some cases a complete remission of serious symptoms. The diet helps the body exercise its own self-healing capacity.
Those who have serious health problems and begin eating a diet inspired by macrobiotic principles often use the services of an experienced macrobiotic “counselor” or “health coach” to design a program that is most suited for their personal needs. The purpose of this counseling has the greatest long term value if the individual learns the principles of health and assumes responsibility for their own wellbeing.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s macrobiotic practitioners came under attack from some nutritionists as being “unscientific” and mistaken in the view that there was a direct connection between diet and serious disease. The focus by conventional nutrition on nutritional deficiency ignored the fact that the degenerative diseases of modern society are diseases of excess. The macrobiotic view has been proven true.
The overwhelming evidence of contemporary science is that food is a major contributing cause of many cancers, stroke, diabetes, heart disease and a variety of major illnesses. The particular dietary factors most implicated in this relationship are the over consumption of meat, dairy and simple sugars. Diets that are dominated by these foods are also usually devoid of whole cereal grains, vegetable protein, adequate fresh vegetables as well as fruits, seeds and nuts.
The world wide macrobiotic community has played an important role in advocating dietary reform, establishing the first wave of natural foods stores, promoting organic farming, introducing Asian soy products to the West and encouraging individuals and families to become more conscious of food choices and a return to meals prepared in the home. The ideals of diet as expressed in the Mediterranean, Asian and American Food pyramids are a clear example of the contradiction between the leading edge of nutritional study and government policy.
As a result of governmental neglect, an unregulated food industry and a health bureaucracy that is focused on treatment of disease as opposed to prevention, the suggested importance of food groups has been reversed. Meat and Dairy have become the foundation of the modern diet, most grain products are refined and the consumption of simple sugars has increased by several hundred percent in the last 100 years. This pattern of eating is usually accompanied by negligible consumption of fruits and vegetables. Without clear guidance, practical guidelines for food choice and preparation the population is easy prey to advertising, the latest diet or miraculous nutritional product.
One of the most cited results of dietary confusion and the growth of the fast food industry is obesity. Of course, the problem is not really obesity - obesity is a symptom. The real problem is an increase in diabetes, cancers and heart disease. These are the result of the modern diet and reflect a major shift in eating patterns throughout the world. One of the most accurate signs of this change is world meat production. The 400% increase in production over the past fifty years far out runs the rise in population. People who ate meat in 1961 are eating more and an increasing number of people are being introduced to meat (as well as dairy foods) as a sign of wealth and promised nutritional improvement. Promoting a high animal protein diet runs contrary to the overwhelming epidemiological evidence against it.
The results of one such study, “The Nurses Study” was published in 1990 and showed the increased risk of cancer of the colon with increased meat consumption. This study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study was conducted with a cohort of 88,759 nurses between the ages of 35 to 59 who were followed for a period of 6 years. Those who ate meat daily had a cancer risk of over double those who only had it once a month.
This study conforms to hundreds of international studies that show the same results for heart disease, and many cancers. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund, from their 1997 report on diet and cancer prevention:
“There is no essential lower limit of intake of any type of meat, and diets including no meat are not only compatible with good health and low cancer risk, but may be preferred in some settings, especially when plant foods are abundant, reliable and varied.”
The macrobiotic approach to diet is not vegetarian or vegan but does counsel a significant reduction in animal protein, eating lower on the food chain and a reduction or elimination of all sources of animal fats and simple sugars. An increasing number of macrobiotic people are becoming vegan for moral and/or ecological reasons. We feel that an approach that improves disease prevention can also be helpful in times of illness if the diet provides complete nutritional needs.
The macrobiotic approach to diet acknowledges the overwhelming proof for dietary reform and also recognizes the positive opportunity to change existing dietary patterns in line with a way of eating that focuses on vegetable quality protein, a good variety of vegetables and fruits and a return to whole cereal grains as a dietary staple. Making these simple changes holds great promise for a healthier future for society.
Vegetables and Cancer
For example, a survey of all studies done on the relationship of vegetable consumption and cancer by the American Institute for Cancer Research 59 out of 74 studies, or 80%, show that more eating more vegetables is associated with lower cancer rates. The American Institute for Cancer Research and World Cancer Research Fund estimated that if everyone in the world increased their vegetable and fruit intake by 150 g, from about 250 g to about 400 g per day, we could expect to prevent about 23 percent of all cancers.
Whole Grains and Soy Products
For centuries cereal grains have formed the basis of the human diet. The World Health Organization, the American government and the most accepted dietary models such as the ideal Mediterranean Diet and the ideal Asian diet all show cereal grains as being the foundation of a good diet. The problem with these models is that society often makes no distinction between un-refined whole grains and refined grains.
Whole unrefined grains are the perfect compliment to other vegetable quality foods and provide a good balance of carbohydrate, protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Eating whole grains has been shown to help protect against heart disease, colon cancers and a wide variety of other health problems.
In several studies of men and women of Japanese descent who live in Honolulu, it was found that those who ate fermented soy products regularly had a lower rate of breast and prostate cancers. The consumption of miso soup (made with fermented soya paste) seemed to be related to a decrease in stomach cancer.
By reducing the nutritional stress of the modern diet and establishing a healthy macrobiotic approach to eating many thousands of people have established good health following the diagnosis of serious illness. While the diet should not presented as a “cure all” it is effective in promoting self-healing and often a significant factor in the remission of illness. Once individuals learn the simple principles of macrobiotics they are empowered in adapting their diet to fit their needs. When some people begin they may seek the help of a trained health counselor to suggest specific alterations that take into account individual health history, activity levels, environment and other personal factors.
There are many excellent books available that can help an inspired individual begin eating according to macrobiotic principles, some of them are listed on this site.