What do you think when you hear “macrobiotic”? perhaps you envision Buddhist monks or endless bowls of brown rice and vegetables. Maybe the words “fad diet” flash up in your mind. But you’d be mistaken. Not only can a macrobiotic diet be delicious and varied, it can effectively be adapted to suit your own health needs. This is more than just a diet, it’s a philosophy and lifestyle that can really help your body return to balance. Let’s take a closer look a macrobiotics, and how you can give it a try.
Macrobiotic comes from the Greek words Macro, meaning big, and Bios, meaning life. The crux of the macrobiotic philosophy is to promote a big, or long, life. And indeed, studies have found that the principles underpinning the macrobiotic diet are linked to increased longevity and a healthy old age (1) . Better still, the macrobiotic lifestyle addresses more than just our personal health—it prescribes living in harmony with our bodies, the planet, and the seasons. The founder of modern Macrobiotics, George Osawa, equated the diet to eating for world peace. (2)
Though Wikipedia calls it a “fad diet 3 ”, macrobiotics has been around a lot longer than our modern-day quick-fixes. Unlike fad diets such as the Cabbage Soup Diet or the Dukan Diet which advocate a one-size- fits-all approach, macrobiotics is a lifestyle you can adapt to your own unique needs. In fact one of the macrobiotic principles is “non-credo” which means “do not believe.” Rather than blindly following rules, macrobiotics encourage you to listen to your own body to discover what works for you. Later in this article we’ll look at how this diet can be used to nurture and support your different organs.
The basic principles 4 of the macrobiotic diet are simple: eating mostly whole, plant-based foods, with a focus on seasonal, local produce. While meat and fish are not forbidden, most people following a macrobiotic diet tend to avoid them. Meat should only be eaten once or twice a week, and should come from sustainable sources. Since the majority of commercially available meat and fish carries a heavy environmental and toxic burden, it should be avoided. But the principle thing to consider when embarking on a macrobiotic diet is the energy within food.
The macrobiotic diet has its roots in ancient Japanese tradition and Zen Buddhism. It is based on the idea of balancing Yin and Yang energies within the body through what you eat and how you live your life.
Modern science has now confirmed what the ancients knew all along: that the physical body is affected not just by the food we eat, but by the energy of our emotions and our behaviors. The Oriental understanding of health proposes that there is more to life than the physical, and that energies play a vital role in our lives and our health.
According to that tradition, life comes in opposites: Yang, which literally means “the sunny side of the hill” and is associated with male energy, and Yin, the shady side, and female energy. These energies are present in everything from food to our own bodies. Balancing Yin and Yang in our bodies is key for good health.
To better understand Yin and Yang, let’s take a look at some general examples:
What about food? As a general rule, Yang foods are high in salt, warming, heavy and deeply energizing. Yin foods tend to be higher in potassium, cooling, light and energy depleting (though they might have an initial energizing effect).
But how do you know which foods are right for you? The first thing to do is ascertain where you are on the Yin and Yang scale.
Are You Yin or Yang?
Take a look at the table below to see where you are in terms of Yin and Yang. This will help you understand how to adapt your macrobiotic diet to suit your personal needs.
If you’re leaning more towards the unhealthy Yin traits, this may indicate you need more yang foods in your diet. Similarly, if you find your behaviors lean more towards the unhealthy Yang, you may benefit from adding some more yin foods to your diet.
The Yin to Yang Food Scale
The following table shows which foods have a higher Yin or Yang energy. The ideal is to focus on foods that fall within the whole, plant-based foods category and to avoid the foods at the more extreme ends of this scale.
What types of food do you crave? This could give you an indication of where you need to focus your attention on in terms of your diet. The good news is that cravings for extreme Yin or Yang foods can be addressed using foods from the center of the scale. For example, creamy soups and root vegetables can satisfy a yearning for sweetness, while miso, tamari soy sauce and grilled tempeh can satiate cravings for meat or cheese.
Yin and Yang Cooking
Cooking techniques make a difference to the energetic value of food. Heating foods makes them more Yang, while cooking with a lot of water makes foods more Yin. Deep frying, pressure cooking, oven roasting, seasoning with salt are Yang methods of cooking. Whilst boiling, steaming or seasoning with spices are more Yin.
This means foods can be more Yang or more Yin depending on how they are cooked and processed. For example, while wheat is a balanced grain, bread is a Yang food because it requires high heat and energy to transform it from grain to the finished product.
So, if you’re craving a hunk of bread and cheese, you could replace it with some pressure cooked black beans, which have a very Yang energy. Similarly, if you’re craving something sweet like ice cream, you could opt for a creamy pumpkin soup instead.
Achieving Yin-Yang Balance
Because the body is always striving to achieve balance, when you eat more Yang foods, or have a Yang lifestyle, your body will crave Yin foods, and vice versa. A concrete example of this is reaching for a sweet treat when you’re stressed out, or grabbing an ice-cream after a burger.
Unlike fad diets, where the emphasis is very much on some foods being “good” while others are “bad”, and restricting portion sizes or calories, the point of the macrobiotic diet is to feel balanced and satisfied at every meal. According to Oriental medicine, the more balanced your diet, the more balanced your emotions. Macrobiotic diet encourages making and eating a variety of dishes designed to satisfy the body’s needs.
Instead of banning certain foods, and thereby strengthening the desire to eat them, macrobiotic asks: why are you craving that food? Usually cravings for sweetness are really a craving for emotional support, while cravings for heavy foods are often underpinned by a need to feel nurtured. Next time you feel the strong need for a particular food, ask yourself: what am I really craving? Different emotions could also indicate an imbalance in certain organs.
Supporting Your Organs with a Macrobiotic Diet
The empowering thing about macrobiotics is that you can use it to heal your own body, you can take responsibility for your own health. In Oriental medicine, the five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal and water—are represented in the body as organ pairs with different energetic qualities and roles, both physical and emotional. Let’s briefly explore the different organ pairs, their functions, how to identify imbalances, and how you can restore them using macrobiotic principles.
Kidney & Bladder (Water)
Holds our ancestral energy, or essence; nourishes bones, hair and ears; balances body fluids; gives courage and willpower; nourishes the nervous system; supports the back.
Signs of imbalance:
Lack of energy and strength; weak bones and teeth; poor memory; hair loss or premature greying; insomnia; poor balance; overly sensitive to cold; lower back pain; puffy skin or swollen veins in feet; excessive nervousness.
What weakens the kidney and bladder?
Overwork; emotional stress; too many Yin foods and stimulants; lack of minerals; fear; lack of sleep. Foods that weaken these organs include sugar, tea, coffee, alcohol, spices and too many tropical fruits.
Supporting and nourishing the kidney and bladder:
Strong whole grains, like buckwheat; sea vegetables like wakame, arame, nori and hiziki; salty seasonings like miso, tamari and shoyu; soups, broths and stews; stronger Yang foods like seafood and dark beans.
Lifestyle tips to support the kidney bladder energy include getting proper sleep, meditation, and gentle exercise like yoga or tai chi.
Liver and Gall Bladder (Wood)
Ensures the smooth flow of energy through the body; helps emotional expression; produces bile and helps detoxify the body from waste.
Signs of imbalance:
Stiffness in muscles and joints; stiff shoulders; hips or neck; pre-menstrual tension; emotional frustration; nausea; timidity; difficulty making decisions; lack of direction; repressed anger or resentment; depression; headaches or migraines.
What weakens the Liver and Gall Bladder?
Lack of physical movement can lead to this energy stagnating; too much physical movement can also create a condition where energy gets stuck in these organs, which can prevent you from relaxing. Heavy foods like meat, cheese, bread and too much salt can block the liver and gall bladder energies. Not expressing your feelings and emotions can create energy blockages in this area—many of us have learned not to show our feelings, and this can have serious consequences for our health.
Supporting and nourishing the liver and gall bladder:
Lighter grains like barley, wheat, rye and white basmati rice; sour flavors from naturally fermented foods like sauerkraut or citrus fruits; sprouted seeds; raw or lightly steamed vegetables; upward growing vegetables like leeks, celery and leafy greens.
Lifestyle tips include expressing your emotions, whether by talking to a friend, journaling, or seeking a safe space where you can be open about your feelings; regular exercise and stretching will help to release and move these stuck energies.
Heart and Small Intestine (Fire)
Houses Shen (or consciousness); circulates blood; controls speech; processes emotions; absorbs nourishment.
Signs of imbalance:
Anxiety; depression; insomnia; poor memory; sweating excessively; sweaty palms; poor circulation; poor digestion; lack of mental clarity; pain or stiffness in shoulders; emotionally repressed.
What weakens the heart and small intestine?
We can lose touch with our inner guide, or heart, when we are overworked or have too many responsibilities. Not being heard, or feeling that we cannot trust other people, can lead to this energy becoming depleted. Extreme Yin foods like sugar, coffee, cacao, and extreme Yang foods like meat and cheese, all affect the heart and small intestine.
Supporting and nourishing the heart and small Intestine:
Grains like polenta, corn on the cob, whole oats, amaranth; bitter green vegetables like cabbage, watercress, Brussel sprout tops; aromatic herbs like thyme and rosemary. The most important lifestyle tip for nourishing the heart energy is to learn to love and trust yourself. Surrounding yourself with people who support and understand you, and practicing some physical exercise that get the heart pumping, like a dance class or a brisk walk in nature, will also help support your heart energy.
Spleen and Stomach (Earth)
Controls the digestive system; raises energy; enables emotional satisfaction; prepares food for digestion; creates appetite (for food and for life); helps focus the mind.
Signs of Imbalance:
Poor appetite; tiredness after eating; digestive problems; lack of energy; frequent nose bleeds; excessive thirst; poor concentration; excessive worrying; craving sweet foods; feeling dissatisfied from life.
What weakens the spleen and stomach?
Lack of nourishment (too much processed food); lack of self-worth and self-belief; skipping meals; eating too fast; dieting; eating excessive sweet foods; lack of exercise; low self-esteem; overthinking; too many Yin foods like chocolate, sugar, coffee, cakes etc.
Supporting and nourishing the spleen and stomach:
Sweet grains like millet and brown rice, naturally sweeter foods like chickpeas, hazelnuts and seasonal fruits; root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes; creamy soups; creamy desserts like stewed fruit and cashew cream. Lifestyle tips include eating regularly, sharing emotions, spending time with people who nourish your soul, building up your self-esteem and self-belief.
Lungs and Large Intestine (Metal)
Breathes in energy and circulates it around the body; nourishes the skin; opens up the nose; emotional and mental communication; elimination (of waste); letting go of old emotions.
Signs of imbalance:
Poor blood circulation; throat and nasal issues; lack of energy; feelings of loneliness; rounded shoulders; difficulty communicating; long-held grief or sadness; lack of confidence; weak lower back; digestive troubles; difficulty letting go of the past; negativity; skin problems like acne or boils.
What weakens the lungs and large intestine?
Lack of physical exercise; social isolation; growing up an only child; not being allowed to express emotions; having weak boundaries; excessive Yin foods like coffee, alcohol and sugar; strong Yang foods like meat, cheese and bread.
Supporting and nourishing the lungs and large intestine
Regularly eating grains, especially brown rice; high fiber foods like beans and lentils; root vegetables and pungent flavored vegetables like white radish, turnip, garlic, ginger, horseradish, spring onions; pressure cooked, baked or roasted foods; occasionally eggs and poultry. Lifestyle tips include aerobic exercise; fostering healthy relationships with family and friends; being clear about your feelings and your boundaries; learning to let go of the past and emotions that do not serve you.
Macrobiotic Diet – a diet adapted to your unique needs
As you can see, macrobiotic is far more complex and holistic than simply “rice and vegetables”, and it goes beyond the realms of a mere “fad diet”. Instead of merely following a set of rigid rules, macrobiotics encourages you to delve deeper into your health by noticing where you might be imbalanced, and tailoring your diet to support and nourish your body and your soul. A simple way to get begin your macrobiotic journey is to cut down on the extreme Yin and Yang foods, and favor seasonal, local, whole, plant-based foods. Or speak to a life coach who can help you fit these principles into your life. With macrobiotics, you’re eating for your body, your soul, and the planet.