By Summer Banks on Dec 19, 2017

The Japanese are some of the longest-lived people on Earth. Some people attribute this to the macrobiotic Japanese diet. What is a macrobiotic diet?

It’s one based on traditional Asian principles, like yin and yang. Although there is no scientific evidence for foods having yin or yang effects, there may still be benefits to following a macrobiotic diet.

As the diet spreads from Asia to the rest of the world, many people are wondering what it is like and what benefits it may have.

What is a Macrobiotic Diet?

The macrobiotic diet definition will differ only slightly between different people.

About half of a macrobiotic diet is made up of whole, unprocessed grains.

They should make up forty to sixty percent of the macrobiotic diet foods, by weight.

Vegetables make up the next twenty to thirty percent. The vegetables should be organic and local.

Most vegetables on a macrobiotic Japanese diet are steamed or boiled.

Five to ten percent of the diet is made up of beans and sea vegetables, like nori, kombu and dulse.

Nightshade vegetables are to be used sparingly, if at all since they are considered very yin.

Some people’s macrobiotic diet definition is strictly vegan, while others consume a small amount (once a month or less) of fish.

The meat of land animals is never consumed on a macrobiotic diet. Other things to always avoid are dairy, eggs, alcohol and some processed foods.

Macrobiotic Diet and Weight Loss

Besides cancer concerns, some individuals are interested in macrobiotic diet weight loss.

The macrobiotic diet plan can be used to lose extra weight. Science has shown that a macrobiotic diet meal plan helps people with type 2 diabetes lose weight better than a typical diet. [1]

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The Macrobiotic Diet and Cancer

What does the science say on a macrobiotic diet meal plan?

Scientists began investigating macrobiotics after hearing many claims about the diet’s supposed benefits for conditions like cancer, diabetes, obesity and more.

Macrobiotic diet cancer claims are widespread on the internet, so many individuals with cancer try eating macrobiotics, though this is controversial.

Researchers decided to look at the macrobiotics diet plan and compare it to the RDA (recommended daily allowance).

They found that the macrobiotic diet meets or exceeds many of the recommended daily allowances, but fell short on calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

It was determined that more research should be done to better understand the benefits and drawbacks of a macrobiotics lifestyle. [2]

Other researchers looking into macrobiotic diet cancer claims found a few good things and a few bad things.

Women eating a macrobiotic diet had lower levels of circulating estrogen, which put them at a lower level of developing breast cancer.

Does the diet conclusively prevent cancer?

No, but researchers say it probably results in a lower risk.

That said, the researchers were concerned people diagnosed with cancer might attempt to use macrobiotics to replace proper medical care. In that case, they said macrobiotics could be harmful.

Their conclusion was that, at this time, macrobiotic diets should not be encouraged nor discouraged in cancer patients because there is not enough science done on the subject. [3]

Macrobiotic Diet Foods

The macrobiotic lifestyle isn’t just about weight, however. It’s also a philosophy that believes taking care of the environment is important.

This is especially true of the macrobiotic vegan diet. For that reason, the type of fruit eaten on a macrobiotic diet depends on the individual’s living region.

People in tropical areas are encouraged to eat tropical fruit year round, while people from northern areas are supposed to eat locally grown fruit only when it is in season.

A macrobiotic lifestyle also encourages organic fruit whenever possible.

While not yet conclusively proven, it is thought that consuming organic fruits over non-organic fruits reduces the risk of being overweight and having certain allergies. [4]

People on a macrobiotic diet don’t eat potato chips for an afternoon snack since they try to avoid nightshades.

Instead, they are likely to eat roasted nuts and salted seeds, like peanuts, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, sunflower seeds and more.

The type of salt is considered important. Sea salt is considered the best since it is seen as the most natural type of salt.

The fact that it comes from the ocean is also significant since the macrobiotic philosophy stresses connection to nature.

Whole Grains and the Macrobiotic Diet

What does a macrobiotic diet menu look like? Macrobiotic meals seek to balance yin and yang elements.

Some foods are seen as dominating in yin while others dominate in yang. Macrobiotic practitioners try to combine these elements for a balanced meal.

Whole grains like brown rice, rye and quinoa are considered neutral. Corn, buckwheat, millet, oats and barley are other whole grains typically included in a macrobiotic diet.

They are eaten whole rather than ground into flour.

Macrobiotics practitioners believe it’s important to thoroughly chew these grains before swallowing.

White rice is not eaten since it’s considered too processed.

Some of the benefits of a macrobiotic diet may come from the focus on whole grains.

A diet without enough whole grains is more likely to result in obesity, especially in people in their sixties or older.

Whole grains are seeds that are completely intact and have not had parts removed during processing. They are an important part of a healthy diet. [5]

Sometimes, grains that aren’t whole may also be included in a macrobiotic diet.

Wheat flour, buckwheat flour, oat flour and corn meal are examples of non-whole grains.

These ingredients are allowed sparingly. For those following a macrobiotic diet, these ingredients are used most often to make bread or noodles.

They are not meant to be eaten every day but may be had a couple of times per week- or month, depending on how strictly one adheres to the diet’s principles.

It’s common for people to ease into the macrobiotic diet, starting with the loose basics and getting the strict details down later.

For many people, that’s probably the best option, since macrobiotics has complex rules.

Memorizing and getting used to them all takes time and practice.

Vegetables and the Macrobiotic Diet

Vegetables come next on the macrobiotic diet food list.

This is especially true of the macrobiotic vegan diet. Macrobiotics takes a unique approach to vegetables.

People on a macrobiotic diet use nightshades sparingly, if at all. Nightshades include tomatoes, potatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, eggplants and a few other exotic fruit varieties.

Traditionally, the Japanese people considered these foods to be extremely yang, so much so that it could throw off the yin and yang balance of a dish.

Instead of nightshades, macrobiotic diet recipes emphasize Asian vegetables like daikon radish, bok choy, burdock and Chinese cabbage.

Vegetables are usually prepared by steaming or boiling. But, may be eaten raw or pickled in moderation.

The focus on steamed vegetables may lead to increased antioxidant consumption. A study on red cabbages found the vegetables retained more antioxidants and vitamin C when steamed, as opposed to stir-frying. [6]

Vegetables meant to be frequently eaten on a macrobiotic diet include onions, carrots, lotus roots, watercress and the crucifers.

Crucifers also called brassicas, are a group of closely related vegetables.

They include, but are not limited to:

  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Collard greens
  • Red/green cabbage
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Mustard greens
  • Kale

Many different varieties of heirloom squash are also meant to be eaten on a regular basis.

These include summer squashes like yellow crookneck and zucchini, but also acorn squash, butternut squash, and all other winter squashes and pumpkins.

Someone on a macrobiotic diet should eat at least one of these vegetables every day.

Some vegetables are supposed to be eaten just a few times a week on a macrobiotic diet.

Shiitake and other mushrooms are a good example of this.

Peas, string beans, cucumbers and chives are also said to be good if eaten two or three times a week.

A macrobiotic diet also encourages the consumption of locally grown heirloom lettuces (such as oak leaf lettuce, Boston lettuce, and Chinese lettuce) a few times per week.

They can be served with a salad as a side dish for a more substantial meal, or eaten in a sandwich or soup.

The Role of Beans on a Macrobiotic Diet

Beans make up a small but not insignificant portion of the macrobiotic diet foods.

Many people do not eat nearly enough beans. If people ate more beans, less money would need to be spent on healthcare.

Beans are known for their ability to reduce the risk of many serious diseases, like diabetes and cardiovascular illnesses.

A macrobiotic diet menu would use some beans more than others. Garbanzo beans and adzuki beans are frequently used in macrobiotic diet recipes. Lentils are also used, but less often.

What about soy?

Unfermented soy, such as edamame, is consumed in moderation on a macrobiotic diet.

On the other hand, fermented soy foods like tofu are very common in macrobiotic diets.

Besides tofu, other fermented sources of soy, like natto, tamari and tempeh, are eaten very frequently on macrobiotic diets. [7]

Food from the Ocean

A macrobiotic diet food list would not be complete without the sea vegetables.

Seaweed is not a common part of people’s diets in land-locked regions. But, they are commonly eaten in Japan and nearby Asian nations.

When eaten, seaweed is said to prevent hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases like oxidative stress and vascular inflammation.

Seaweed is often used in macrobiotic soup recipes, combined with whole grains and tofu. [8]

Miso Soup and the Macrobiotic Diet

Miso soup is also a significant part of the macrobiotic diet, so much so that it deserves a special mention.

Miso is a seasoning made from fermented soybeans. Scientists believe that combining miso with rice is one of the reasons the typical Japanese diet is so healthy compared to the average Western diet.

It has to do with the way soy reacts with rice- and what is a macrobiotic diet without special food combinations?

Liquid Calories

Another reason macrobiotic diet weight loss may be so effective is the absence of soft drinks (soda pop.)

Alcohol is also forbidden. Both soft drinks and alcohol are full of calories.

Studies have demonstrated a correlation between obesity and soft drink consumption in young people.

For people following a macrobiotic food plan, these drinks would be replaced by spring water and herbal teas.

Herbal teas are supposed to be relaxing, rather than stimulating. Dandelion root tea, roasted brown rice tea and roasted barley tea are considered good to drink.

While some other diets encourage drinking as much water or tea as possible, the macrobiotic diet says to drink only when thirsty. [10]

Spices and Oils

The macrobiotic diet is more strict than many other diets when it comes to seasonings.

This is because some spices are considered too yin, while others are considered too yang.

Yin foods are thought to make one feel sluggish, while yang foods are believed to make people restless and overactive.

Allowed spices, seasonings and other flavorful additions include traditional Japanese foods such as soy sauce, seaweed powder and miso.

Adding sugar to foods is not allowed. Instead, desserts can be sweetened with brown rice syrup.

Fermented foods, such as umeboshi plums and other pickles, are allowed. Sauerkraut is considered good if it is made with sea salt.

Many recipes are cooked with oils or other fats. Animal products like lard or beef fat are never allowed on a macrobiotic diet.

In fact, all oils are discouraged, but a few plant-based ones are allowed in moderation.

They include sesame oil and corn oil.

While other diets promote the liberal use of coconut oil and olive oil, these two oils are not used at all in macrobiotic cooking.

Fresh or Canned Foods on the Macrobiotic Diet

Canned foods are not permitted on a macrobiotic diet. This is for two reasons.

One, many people believe canned foods are less healthy than fresh fruits and vegetables.

It’s true that canned foods typically have lots of sodium, which isn’t good for some people with health issues.

The second reason for avoiding canned foods is because it conflicts with the macrobiotics philosophy.

Macrobiotics was inspired by ancient Asian philosophies, which belief nature to be important.

People in the macrobiotics community eat more fresh foods not only for the physical health benefits but also because they enjoy feeling in tune with the seasons.

Other Considerations

According to the macrobiotic diet, when you eat is almost as important as what you eat.

This means eating two or three meals a day when hungry. It also means not eating for at least two hours before going to bed.

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Macrobiotic Diet Recipes

There are many rules to macrobiotics.

For people interested in trying it out, it may seem overwhelming at first.

So, what do macrobiotic meals look like? One simple and an easily customizable recipe is miso soup.

It should have a whole grain, such as rice or millet. It should also contain fresh, green vegetables from the land or the sea.

Popular choices include:

  • Kombu seaweed
  • Chives
  • Carrots
  • Mushrooms

The miso soup should also include some soft tofu to get beans into the meal. This comforting meal is traditional in Japan, so it has a special place in the macrobiotic diet there.

A stir fry of beans and rice is also perfectly suited to a macrobiotic diet, as long as it contains plenty of vegetables, like broccoli and bok choy.

It can be flavored with soy sauce for a nice, Asian flavor.

Brown rice or whole grain basmati rice can be used for a variety of flavors.

Any bean can be used, but some are more ideal than others.

These days, it’s increasingly easy to find locally grown, heirloom varieties of beans.

These would be considered the best since they are more likely to be fresh and they connect the consumer to the land.

Sandwiches can also be made macrobiotic easily. The bread should be free of eggs and baked with natural sea salt.

Then it can be loaded with a combination of sauerkraut, fresh vegetables and seitan (also called wheat meat or wheat gluten.)

For those who don’t like sauerkraut, other types of fermented vegetables could be used.

The seitan could also be swapped out for baked tofu or tempeh instead.

One popular macrobiotic meal is the macro bowl, also called a Buddha bowl or nourishing bowl.

It combines the proper proportions of whole grain, vegetables, beans and a healthy sauce.

Macro bowls can be made with any combination of ingredients. One idea is to combine rice or quinoa, add steamed kale, carrots and butternut squash, then top with garbanzo beans and tahini (a sauce made from sesame.)

While the macrobiotic diet does discourage late-night snacking, that does not mean all sweets are forbidden!

Cookies and cakes are allowed as long as they are made without forbidden ingredients like added processed sugar.

Brown rice syrup can be used as a macrobiotic substitute for sugar. That said, most of the eating on a macrobiotic diet is done within two or three meals.

Snacking too much is considered a bad habit, especially if one is bored instead of truly hungry.

Choosing to eat a macrobiotic diet is not for everyone. Compared to other ways of eating, it can be complicated, but the apparent health benefits may make it worth to some.

About the Author:

Summer Banks, Director of Content at Dietspotlight, has researched over 5000 weight-loss programs, pills, shakes and diet plans. Previously, she managed 15 supplement brands, worked with doctors specializing in weight loss and completed coursework in nutrition at Stanford University. full bio.