Macrobiotic Diet: Balancing The Yin and Yang
Although it’s referred to as a diet, making use of macrobiotics is considered more of a ‘system’ and lifestyle for longevity than an actual diet. The goal of macrobiotics is to to be more in tune with how food, your environment, the activities you engage in, and your attitude affect your body, mind, and emotions (1). Some sources also suggest that a macrobiotic lifestyle can help heal chronic inflammatory conditions and prevent cancer (2).
How the Macrobiotic Diet Works: Balancing The Yin and Yang
Macrobiotics is predominantly a low-fat, high-carb vegetarian diet (with a minimal amount of seafood) that draws on the theory of Yin and Yang, a core concept of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It’s believed everything in life, including food, activities, and even personalities, have yin and yang energy, with one always being more dominant.
The guiding idea behind macrobiotics is balancing the Yin and Yang in all areas of your life, a practice that is believed to create balance, harmony, and health throughout the mind and body. This can be done in many ways, especially through your diet, as macrobiotics suggests.
Here’s a brief Traditional Chinese Medicine crash course: foods that are yin in nature are considered cooling (or cold), spacious, and light. Foods that are yang are hot, heavy, and dense (3).
If you take a look at yin and yang foods, extremely yang foods are animal products such as pork, beef, and eggs, while extremely yin foods are sweet fruits (such as bananas), refined carbohydrates, and dairy.
Since the idea behind macrobiotics is to eat foods that are as balanced as possible, all of these foods are off limits on the macrobiotic diet. Foods encouraged by macrobiotics have the closest yin and yang balance: vegetables and whole cooked grains.
What Can You Eat on the Macrobiotic Diet?
Foods Allowed on the Macrobiotic Diet:
- Whole cooked grains- 40-60% of your daily caloric intake
Brown rice, millet, barley, quinoa, oats, corn, buckwheat, whole grain breads (not leavened with yeast), whole cereal grains, noodles and pasta are allowed in smaller amounts
- Fresh or lightly cooked vegetables (besides vegetables belonging to the nightshade family) and fresh fruit- 25-30% of your daily caloric intake
Kale, mustard greens, green cabbage, pumpkin, broccoli, bok choy, dandelion, daikon, onions, radish, squash, turnips, carrots, burdock root, scallions, herbs such as parsley. Vegetables to only be eaten occasionally (2-3 times per week) when in season: cucumber, celery, lettuce
- Local fruit, beans and sea vegetables – 5-10% of your daily caloric intake
Lentils, chickpeas, adzuki beans, soybean products such as tofu, tempeh and natto, nori, kombu, wakame, dulse, agar agar
- Occasional foods (2-3 times per week)White meat fish (cod, halibut, sole), dried fruit, rice syrup, barley malt, brown rice vinegar, umeboshi vinegar, lightly roasted nuts and seeds
- Other foods to include:Unrefined vegetable oil (such as unrefined sesame oil), unrefined sea salt, miso, nama shoyu, tamari, pickles and sauerkraut fermented using sea salt and/or miso, grain based teas, vegetable juices
Foods Off Limits on the Macrobiotic Diet:
- Tropical fruit
- Animal fat
- Animal meats
- All dairy products
- Aromatic herbal tea (peppermint, lemon ginger, spiced tea)
- Honey and other natural sweeteners (except brown rice syrup)
- Canned foods
- Frozen food
- Refined grains
- Refined sugar
- Spicy food
- Alcoholic beverages (spirits)
- Any other stimulating, overpowering foods with strong flavours
The Macrobiotic Lifestyle
Macrobiotics doesn’t stop at what goes on your plate – it also places emphasis on improving your health through your environment by being selective with where you purchase your food, the equipment you cook with, and even when you go to bed. Here are the lifestyle changes macrobiotics recommends, as explained by the Kushi institute, a leader in macrobiotics:
- Buy local and organic produce to avoid pesticides and other toxins
- Eat with the seasons
- Avoid caffeine and aromatic teas
- Chew your food 50 times per mouthful to improve digestion
- Stop eating before you’re full
- Eat only when you’re hungry
- Drink your water without ice
- Avoid toxins in cosmetics and body care products
- Have green plants in your home to increase oxygen flow
- Open your windows daily to allow fresh air to circulate your home (even in the colder months)
- Cook with cast iron or stainless cookware, and avoiding teflon and other non-stick cookware that contain carcinogenic chemicals (4)
- Keep your home neat and tidy, especially in cooking spaces
- Go to bed before midnight
- Avoid long hot baths or showers, which are said to deplete your body of minerals
- Eat slowly, and when you’re relaxed
- Express gratitude for your food before each meal
- Use a gas stove to cook, and avoid leftovers and microwaved foods
- Eat a variety of color each day to increase antioxidants
- Exercise regularly (yoga, martial arts, tai chi)
Each of these practices are believed to improve physical health and bring more balance to your living environment, thereby promoting longevity and a stronger sense of well-being. Let’s look closer at the other health benefits— as well as the potential risks— of following the macrobiotics diet.
Top 6 Benefits of the Macrobiotic Diet
While there are many reported benefits of the macrobiotic diet, it’s important to mention the macrobiotics diet and lifestyle is founded on theory and anecdotal evidence. There is a lack of scientific research to support the claims of the macrobiotic diet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the benefits aren’t valid.
With that said, here are the top benefits that may result from following a macrobiotic diet.
1. Better Digestion
When was the last time you chewed your food fifty times before swallowing? Or ate when you were relaxed, instead of scarfing down something while sifting your way through rush hour traffic?
No one else is going to chew your food for you. Eating while you’re relaxed instead of stressed and chewing your food thoroughly are two of the most important steps for improving digestion and nutrient absorption.
In fact, these two steps alone are known to help reduce bloating, acid reflux, and other forms of digestive discomfort even if no other dietary changes are made.
The macrobiotic diet is also higher in fiber than most diets, which is another advantage for optimal digestion. Fiber acts as an intestinal ‘broom’ to help remove waste from your GI tract, and bulks up your stool for regular elimination.
If you include raw (or very lightly steamed) vegetables on the macrobiotic diet, you’ll also be getting plenty of enzymes from plant foods that assist in digestion and are depleted during cooking.
2. Reduced the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
A primary cause of cardiovascular disease is chronic inflammation. Since the macrobiotic diet eliminates the worst offenders for cardiovascular health, inflammatory foods such as refined sugar and trans-fats, and increases the antioxidants from plant foods, it may also reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease.
Fiber is another nutrient needed for heart health because it helps reduce elevated LDL cholesterol levels, which increases your risk of heart disease (5). As mentioned above, the macrobiotic diet suggests getting 20-30% of your daily calories from fibrous plant foods, and 40-60% of your calories from high fiber whole grains— which means your entire diet is comprised of high fiber foods if you stay within these guidelines.
3. Weight Loss and Weight Management
Macrobiotics promotes weight loss and weight management in several ways:
- It removes refined sugar and processed carbohydrates (muffins, cakes, pastries, fast foods), which are the primary cause of obesity and type 2 diabetes (insulin resistance).
- It encourages eating only when you’re truly hungry, and stopping before you’re full.
- It promotes better digestion with high fiber foods and proper chewing, which can result in feeling full sooner.
- All of the foods recommended on the macrobiotic diet are low calorie but rich in antioxidants, essential vitamins and minerals.
Since the macrobiotic diet is full of nutrient dense foods, it’s also said to be helpful for preventing unwanted weight loss with age.
4. A Healthy Relationship With Food
Expressing gratitude for the food on your plate, and becoming more aware of how food affects your mind and body on an energetic level can help you feel more confident in your food choices. Since macrobiotics considers the relationship between the energy of food and your physical and mental well-being, it can help you experience food as a true healer, rather than an enemy.
5. Reduced Inflammation
The regular consumption of anti-inflammatory foods, and eliminating pro-inflammatory foods, may be helpful for reducing the systemic inflammation associated with chronic health conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, acne, and allergies (6).
6. Reduced Toxin Exposure
The macrobiotic diet recommends ‘detoxing’ your living environment by using only chemical-free, natural, organic skin care and household products. Many of the chemicals found in these products are known endocrine disruptors, such as bisphenol A (BPA), which is found in plastic (7).
Endocrine disruptors can mimic naturally occurring hormones, such as estrogen, which can disrupt the natural balance amongst the rest of your hormones. Since your hormones are so interconnected (imagine each hormone as a single strand of a spider web), when one hormone is off balance, the rest are directly affected.
Endocrine disruptors have been linked to neurological, immune, and reproductive disorders, which is why eliminating as many toxins as possible from your home environment, the products you apply to your body, and the foods you eat can have a profound impact on your overall well-being (8).
There are also claims that macrobiotics can help prevent cancer, however, this remains a controversial statement simply due to the lack of scientific research done on the macrobiotic diet. Personally, we believe if you’re eating plenty of antioxidants from local, organic foods, reducing the amount of toxins you’re exposed to, getting proper rest, reducing stress and eliminating refined sugar— just as the macrobiotic diet recommends— you’re off to a good start when it comes to disease prevention in general.
Concerns With the Macrobiotic Diet
Now of course, no diet is perfect, and your nutritional needs are guaranteed to change as you age, and enter different stages of your life. As one of my nutritionist friends always said: ‘there’s no one diet that’s right for everyone all of the time.’
Let’s look at the potential risks of following the macrobiotic diet.
1. Nutrient Deficiencies
With a lack of animal protein on the macrobiotic diet, the primary nutrient deficiencies to watch out for are B12, iron and vitamin D, which are found primarily in animal products. Sure, B12 and iron can be found in plant foods, but studies show that non-heme iron (plant iron) isn’t as efficiently absorbed as the iron found in animal products (9).
B12 is found in small amounts in foods such as nutritional yeast, but most plant foods contain the inactive form of B12, which is poorly absorbed by the body (chlorella, a green algae, is an exception) (10).
In order to avoid nutrient deficiencies on the macrobiotic diet, your meals would have to be carefully planned and prepped with a wide variety of foods— easy on the leftovers, remember— to ensure you’re meeting your nutritional requirements. Otherwise, supplementation on the macrobiotic diet would likely be necessary.
The macrobiotic diet is not considered safe for children or pregnant or nursing women because it isn’t guaranteed to provide all of the nutrients needed for growth and development.
2. Increased Risk of Leaky Gut
Since the majority of the macrobiotic diet is whole grains, many of which contain the gut-damaging protein known as gluten, it may be a concern for developing leaky gut syndrome— especially if you’ve previously had a diet rich in processed foods and sugar.
Leaky gut syndrome, also known as intestinal hyperpermeability, is a chronic digestive condition that has been linked not only to painful digestive symptoms, but as an underlying cause of autoimmune diseases (11).
Gluten has been shown to cause the body to overproduce zonulin, a protein that helps regulate the tight junctions in your small intestine, and prevent undigested food particles from passing into your bloodstream (12).
However, when zonulin is overproduced, it actually breaks apart these tight junctions and allows undigested food and bacteria to sneak into your bloodstream. This is when your gut has become ‘leaky’.
To avoid the potential negative effects of zonulin on your gut, especially if you’re prone to digestive distress, it would be best to eat fewer grains that contain gluten, and focus on gluten-free grains such as buckwheat, quinoa, brown rice and wild rice.
Since the macrobiotic diet eliminates animal products, collagen and gelatin (two proteins found in bones, connective tissue and bone broth) are also off-limits, which are the best supplements for healing the gut lining and repairing leaky gut.
3. High Carb May Not Work For Everyone
Some people do extremely well on high carb, low fat diets, while others thrive on high fat, low carb diets. Again, this is going back to ‘no diet is right for everyone’ and learning to become more in tune with how foods affect your body by paying attention to it’s cues (which the macrobiotic diet recommends doing by eating slowly, chewing thoroughly, and eating only when relaxed).
A few ways you can tell if the foods you’re eating are doing your body good include: having energy that lasts all day (no 3pm crashes), a happier mood, fewer sugar and caffeine cravings, and better sleep.
In short, the macrobiotic diet is a great way to increase the fiber, antioxidants and micronutrients in your diet, while also considering the energetic effect of foods on your overall health. Since the macrobiotic diet also encourages general lifestyle tips for well-being, many of the principles of macrobiotics can be used by anyone looking to increase their health and vitality, regardless of whether they follow the macrobiotic diet plan to a tee, or not.