A key teaching of macrobiotics is that each and everyone of us is different. We are born differently, we grew up under different circumstances, we do different work and we live in different environments – even you and your next door neighbour live in different environments depending on, for example, how much air conditioning each of you use.
Because each of us is different, macrobiotics does not recommend the same diet for everyone. In this sense, there is actually no such thing as a “macrobiotic diet” for all to follow, There are only broad dietary guidelines which we are to adapt to suit ourselves.
Before going into the details of these guidelines, I like to emphasise four important principles:
Pattern of eating
This refers to which foods make up your diet. Many people in modern societies, for example, eat meat as their main food. Some health conscious people eat salads as their main food. Some eat mainly fruits. And so on. These are different patterns of eating.
Macrobiotics recommends a pattern of eating as follows:
- 50 – 60% whole grains
- 25 – 30% vegetables
- 10 – 15% high protein foods (mainly from vegetarian sources, such as beans, bean products and lentils)
- 5% soup
- small amounts of other foods.
The pattern is the most important. Even when you cannot control the quality of your food, as when you eat out in restaurants, you can still choose the pattern. We will discuss this pattern in greater detail below.
Where possible, eat natural and organic foods that have been grown and produced naturally without the use of chemical fertlisers, growth hormornes and so on.
In the case of processed foods such as soy sauce, miso, vinegar, etc, it is best to eat those that have been processed according to traditional methods – eg, say sauce and miso made by natural fermentation – without modern short-cuts.
Eat a wide variety of foods, because different foods nourish you in different ways. Eat different foods even if this sometimes means sacrificing on quality. For example, if you can only get organic carrots and broccoli, it does not mean that you eat only carrot and broccoli. Other vegetables are also important.
People living in hot tropical climates need to eat differently from those living in cool or cold temperate climates. This may seem obvious. Yet many people do not observe this principle at all – for example people in cold climates eating tropical fruits and spices, people in the tropics eating cold climate fish like salmon.
People with serious illness, however, have special considerations. They need to adjust first to their body condition (the internal climate). In some cases, this may require people in the tropics to eat a more temperate climate diet, or vice versa. If you have an illness, it is best you consult a macrobiotic counsellor. If you cannot find a counsellor, study deeper to acquire a good understanding of yin and yang.
In the discussion below about specific foods, I will give examples how to adapt the macrobiotic dietary guidelines to tropical climates.
MACROBIOTIC DIETARY GUIDELINES
As mentioned above, there are no fixed rules in the macrobiotic way of eating, just broad guidelines as follows:
50 – 60% whole grains
Grains are truly “human food”. They are the only foods we can eat every day at every meal, (after we stop breast feeding) and not get sick. There are also reasons to believe that human civilisation developed because of eating grains – and learning the use of fire, including cooking.
Whole grains that are commonly eaten include:
- Brown rice – short, medium and long grain, sweet rice, etc.
- Barley and “China barley”* or “Hato Mugi”
Grains can be cooked dry like rice, or wet and soft like porridge, which is usually eaten for breakfast.
Generally, it is better to eat the whole grain, rather than broken grains like rolled oats and polenta (corn), or flour products like bread and noodles. However, wheat is usually eaten in the form of flour products because whole wheat is very hard and chewy.
Baked flour products, including regular bread, cakes, pastries and pizza – and especially hard and dry products like biscuits – are best avoided or minimised.
Noodles as well as breads that are cooked in a short time, like pancakes, Indian chapati & prata or Chinese man tou (steamed buns), are healthier and more suited for tropical climates.
For tropical climates, the most appropriate grains are:
- Brown rice – long grain, medium grain, sweet rice
Also, starchy root vegetables such as sweet potato, yam and tapioca may occasionally be eaten in place of whole grains.
A small bowl of soup, rather than a glass of water, is recommended to go with meals.
Miso soup is recommended especially for people with cancer and other illnesses. Miso, a fermented soy bean paste, is known to have anti-cancer properties and it also contains “friendly bacteria” that contribute to the environment of the intestines.
Soups may be prepared with a few different vegetables, as well as grains, beans or fish and seafood.
When the soup is almost ready, remove a small portion, dissolve miso into it and pour back into the pot. Use about 1 tsp miso per bowl. The taste should be light salty, not strong salty.
Important: After adding miso, simmer gently for about 3 minutes, but DO NOT BOIL.
For daily consumption, use “2-year miso”. This is medium miso, brown in colour and made by two-year fermentation. The information is available on the package when you buy miso from health stores. Do not use commercial miso from Japanese supermarkets. The quality is totally different.
Those who are very weak from illness may take “3-year miso” or “hatcho miso”. It is almost black in colour and has a strong flavour.
Light or whit miso, made by 3 to 6 months of fermentation, may be enjoyed in hot climates such as the tropics, or during summer.
Soups may also be seasoned with:
- soy sauce – use like miso, add towards the end and simmer 3 minutes.
- sea salt – add at the beginning and cook at least 15 minutes
- umeboshi – a pickled sour plum, for a salty, sour taste. Add at any time.
25 – 30% vegetables
Vegetables can be divided into 3 categories:
Root vegetables that grow straight downwards, like carrot, white radish (daikon) and burdock.
These vegetables are more hard and strengthening. One extreme example is ginseng – it is so hard that it will not soften even if cooked for hours, and so strengthening that only a tiny portion is used. Such vegetables generally nourish the intestines and lower organs.
They are unlike other root vegetables that grow sideways underground – potato, sweet potato, tapioca and yam (grows straight down but swells sideways in the middle) which are more soft, porous and weakening.
One exception is the lotus root, which grows underground and underwater in the mud. It is also hard and strengthening, especially for the lungs
Ground level / round shaped vegetables like onion (below ground) and cabbage, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower and pumpkin (above ground).
These vegetables generally nourish the middle organs, such as stomach, pancreas and spleen.
Green leafy vegetables including spring onions, leek and chives (grow straight upwards) and other green leafy vegetables that grow upwards and outwards, like spinach, kai lan, bok choy, chye sim, etc.
Vegetables that grow straight up nourish the liver. Those that grow up and out nournish the heart.
All three types of vegetables are important to eat daily. In general, people in the tropics and those with a more yang (contracted) condition should eat more green leafy vegetables, while those in colder climates or with a more yin (expanded) condition should eat more downward root vegetables.
Almost all vegetables can be prepared in all ways – as raw salads, pickled, steamed, blanced, stir fried, cooked in soup or stews, baked and so on. However, there are some vegetables that are not advisable – some even poisonous – to be eaten raw. They include potato, tapioca and eggplant.
Nightshades: This family of plants include potato, tomato, eggplant, bell pepper and tobacco. Some macrobiotic books say to avoid them, but this applies mainly to people living in temperate climates or those with a yin (expanded) condition.
It is okay to eat them in the tropics, but moderation is still advised. These vegetables are generally soft and juicy, that is, very expanded or yin. They have a weakening effect on the body.
In modern diets, these vegetables are usually eaten with meat, to balance the strong yang (contracted) energy of meat. That makes some sense. However, it is not a good idea for vegetarians to eat large amounts of such vegetables.
It is worth noting also that, traditionally, these vegetables are usually well-cooked to counter the yin energy – like in potato stews or baked potato, or tomato paste prepared by cooking tomato for many hours. The practice of eating raw tomato is actually very recent.
Mushrooms: Again, they are very strong yin, that is, have strong expanding energy. Mushrooms grow very quickly – some grow overnight. They are very soft, porous and spongy.
Mushrooms can therefore also be very weakening. This is why macrobiotics recommends eating dried rather than fresh mushrooms. The sun’s energy is yang and it balances the yin nature of mushrooms. Also, macrobiotics recommends slower growing varieties such as shiitake or fa koo in Chinese. This is similar to the Chinese black mushroom or tong koo, but with a cracked “flower” pattern on its top.
An important benefit of mushrooms is that they can help reduce cholesterol levels.
As with nightshade vegetables, mushrooms are actually more suited for meat eaters than for vegetarians. And they are best cooked for some time, rather than eaten raw.
Sticky, slimy, spongy vegetables: In the tropics, there are many varieties of vegetables that have very strong yin or expanding energy. They include the leaves of tall plants like tapioca leaves, creepers and climbers like sweet potato leaves as well as fruit-type vegetables like long beans, bitter gourd, angled loofa, hairy gourd plus, of course, the nightshade vegetables.
In general, these vegetables are sticky, slimy, juicy, spongy or hollow.
They are okay to eat occasionally if you live in the tropics and are in good health. Eat them well cooked, not raw. However, such vegetables are best avoided by those who are weak from illness.
10 – 15% beans & lentils
Small, hard beans are more strengthening. They include:
- aduki or red beans
- black soy beans
- soy beans
Large, soft beans are less strengthening. They include:
- green or mung beans
- broad beans
- navy beans
Red or aduki beans are about the same size as green or mung beans, but cooking immediately reveals the difference. When cooked, green beans soften in about 15 minutes, while red beans takemore than an hour to soften.
It is best to soak beans before cooking. Softer beans can be soaked for less than an hour, harder beans need to be soaked for a few hours or overnight. Discard the soaking water before cooking.
Add a piece (about 1-inch square) of kombu seaweed during soaking and cooking to improve digestibility and also reduce gas formation. Also, do not cover the cooking pot for the first 15 minutes or so.
If you are not using any salty seasonings – eg if you are cooking beans as a sweet dessert of cooking them plain to use in a bean salad – add a pinch of sea salt towards the end of the cooking period and cook at least another 10 minutes.
Tofu is easy to use and easy to digest. However, do not have the mistaken idea that it is a “health food” to be eaten all the time. Eating too much tofu will literally make you soft like tofu.
Firm tofu (cheaply available from wet markets) is not as weakening as the soft, silken type. In supermarkets, look for cotton tofu made with nigari, an extract of sea salt traditionally used for making tofu. This is preferable to tofu made with calcium carbonate.
Other bean products and vegetable protein include:
- bean skin – use it in soy sauce stews.
- tempeh – a “bean cake” made from mouldy soybeans. The molds are edible and a good source of vitamin B12 for vegetarians, since this vitamin is normally found only in animal products. Tempeh is sold at market stalls that sell tofu, usually wrapped in “rojak leaf” and brown paper.
- natto – a sticky (and some say “smelly”) fermented soybean sold in Japanese supermarkets. In Japanese restaurants, it is used in sushi and in side dishes such as natto mixed with soy sauce and mustard, and topped with spring onions and nori seaweed.
- gluten or “mock meat” that is commonly used in Chinese vegetarian cooking.
Fish & Seafood
Fish and seafood may be eaten in small amounts by those in good health as an alternative source of protein. Fish soup, for example, can be strengthening for those who are weak.
However, those with a very yang (contracted) condition would do well to avoid them at least temporarily, until their condition improves.
In general, white meat fish is recommended over red meat fish like tuna and salmon. And fish is preferable to seafood such as prawns, crabs, lobsters, cuttlefish, shellfish, etc.
Seaweeds Seaweeds make up a small but important part of the daily diet. They are a rich source of minerals which tend to be lacking in today’s vegetables because of poor soil quality.
Seaweeds to take daily include:
- Kombu – 1/2 to 1-inch strip daily, added to grains or beans.
- Wakame – 1 to 2inch strip daily, added to soups
- Nori – 1/2 to 1 sheet daily, eaten on its own or with grains or other foods.
Other seaweeds include:
- Agar-agar – use occasionally to make jelly desserts made with fruit juices, teas, soy milk, etc.
- Arame & Hijiki – both of these come in thin strands. Hijiki is thicker and has stronger flavour than arame. They can be eaten as a side dish once or twice a week. To prepare arame or hijiki, cook in just enough water to cover. Arame takes 10 – 15 minutes while hijiki takes 20 – 30 minutes. When almost done, add soy sauce and cook at least 3 minutes longer. If desired, add a few drops ginger juice at the end. Variations: Cook arame or hijiki with vegetables, mushrooms, beans etc.
Pickles Small amounts of good quality, natural pickles will help digestion and perk up a meal. They include:
- Sauerkraut – pickled cabbage
- Takuan – pickled white radish
- Shiso – pickled shiso or “beefsteak” leaves, a very rich source of iron.
Pickled cucumber, ginger and other vegetables. You can also make a light, quick pickle. Simply cut vegetables finely. Almost any vegetable can be used. Mix with sea salt and press in a pickle press, or place a heavy weight over the vegetables, and leave for 1/2 hour or longer.
If pickles are too salty, wash off excess salt before eating.
Fruits – the lesser the better, eat only when desired
This is probably the least understood macrobiotic dietary recommendation, since fruits are widely considered to be healthy.
It is true that fruits are rich in vitamins and they also have a cleansing effect on the body. It is not quite true that fruits are high in fibre. Most are actually low-fibre or, at best, medium fibre.
Fruits are considered “healthy” for most modern people because they eat plenty of meat and hardly eat any vegetables.
However, if you are on a macrobiotic diet with no meat and plenty of vegetables, you will find that your craving for fruit naturally decreases. You will get more than enough vitamins, minerals and fibre from vegetables and whole grains.
As you become more sensitive to the effects of food on your body, you will also realise that fruits have a weakening effect. Particularly weakening are tropical fruits, especially those that:
- are very large, like durian and jackfruit.
- have strong smell, again like durian, jackfruit and also mango.
- are very soft and juicy, like papaya.
- are soft, slimy and without structure, like banana.
- grow very high up, like coconut.
Of course, these fruits are okay for people in good health living in the tropics. However, those weak from illness would do well to minimise or avoid them.
They would be better off eating:
- temperate fruits that are firm and hard, like apples and pears – but try to get organic quality, as commercially produced apples and pears are very heavily treated with chemicals.
- fruits that grow near the ground, like berries and melons.
Fruits may also be cooked to balance their yin energy. Do not worry about losing some vitamins through cooking because on a macrobiotic diet, you will get more than enough vitamins.
The idea of cooking fruit is not as strange as it first seems. Jams are cooked fruit. So are apple pies. And canned fruit. And dried fruits like raisins and dried apricots, “cooked” by the sun.
In tropical societies, banana is often cooked as in goreng pisang (deep fried banana fritters),and barbequed banana (common in Thailand). There are also a number of traditional dishes made with cooked pineapple (Thai pineapple rice. or prawn curry), banana, durian, jackfruit and other tropical fruits.
Fruits may be cooked with a pinch of sea salt and kuzu, a starch made from a very strong, deep growing root. Both the salt and kuzu add minerals, which are strengthening to counter the weakening effect of fruit.
Seeds & Nuts
Nuts are very very fattening, containing over 80% or even more than 90% fat. Tropical nuts like cashew and brazil are more fattening than temperate nuts like walnuts, almonds and hazel.
The high content of oil makes them very yin or “expanding” even though nuts appear to be hard. Salted nuts therefore make some sense, since salt is yang. Unfortunately, it is not a good idea to take salt directly. Salt is best used when it is cooked together with food.
Nuts may be enjoyed occasionally by those in good health, but are best avoided by those who are ill.
Peanuts or groundnuts are not really nuts, since they grow beneath the ground. Their effects are also milder than other nuts. They may be eaten occasionally, either roasted in the shell or in soups.
Seeds like sesame, sunflower, pumpkin and melon are rich in minerals. They also do not contain as much oil as nuts. These two reasons make them less yin than nuts, so the effect of eating seeds is less extreme.
Seeds, lightely toasted until golden brown and lightly seasoned with soy sauce, are recommended as occasional snacks, or sprinkled over cooked rice and other grains.
Pumpkin seed is one of the richest sources of zinc, an important mineral for men because they lose zinc when they ejaculate semen.
Sesame seed – and not milk! – is the richest source of calcium, containing about 14 times more calcium than milk
Popular nutritional theory recommends olive oil as being the “most healthy” based on the observation that the Italians and French use olive oil in their cooking (and salads) and they have low rates of heart disease. This is a narrow viewpoint which looks only at one item in their diet rather than the entire diet and lifestyle. The fact that olive oil seems to benefit some people does not make it “the best” for all people.
Macrobiotics recommends mainly the use of sesame oil – cold-pressed and unrefined, if possible.
This is based, again, on the understanding og yin and yang. Oil, in general, is yin – it expands and spreads outwards, it makes a person “expand” and become fat.
Among commonly available oils, sesame oil is the least yin since it is derived from a very small, compact seed. The overall energy of sesame oil is therefore more balanced, less extreme – the least yin version of a yin product.
In contrast, olive oil is derived from a soft, fleshy fruit. It is extremely yin For the Italians, French and other modern people who eat a very yang, high meat, high salt diet, this may offer a good balance.
However, for those on macrobiotic and vegetarian diets, sesame oil offers a better balance. Being less yin also means that sesame oil keeps well and is not easily destroyed by high heat during cooking.
Overall, the use of oil is to be kept to a minimum, say, 1 or 2 tsps in a dish prepared for four people. And in a meal consisting of several dishes, not all dishes need to have added oil. Soups, stews and steamed dishes, for example, can all be prepared without oil.
Seasonings Sea salt
It is important to use sea salt and not ordinary refined salt known as “common salt”, “table salt”, etc.
Sea salt contains:
- about 95% sodium chloride
- about 4% potassium chloride
- small amounts of about 60 other minerals.
Sea salt is totally different from refined salt which is about 99.9% sodium chloride. All the scientific studies which show that “salt” is harmful to health had been done using refined salt rather than sea salt.
DO NOT, however, use “celtic” sea salt which is yellowish / grey in colour. This is far too strong, in macrobiotic terms, too yang. Instead, use white sea salt which is very lightly refined.
Shoyu / Tamari
Shoyu is a light soy sauce recommended for daily use. Tamari is slightly darker and recommended for occasional use.
Soy sauce generally comes in 3 different qualities:
- commercial quality – contains chemical preservatives, MSG, etc
- natural / organic quality – made entirely with natural / organic ingredients, without chemical additives and made with either refined salt or sea salt. However, these are made with modern processes that take a very short time.
- traditional quality or “macrobiotic quality” – made the traditional way through long fermentation, using only natural / organic ingredients, sea salt and without any chemical additives.
A soybean paste, similar to chinese “tau cheo”. As with soy sauce, use only macrobiotic quality miso bought from health stores.
- Light miso is fermented less than 6 months, yellow in colour, slightly sweet / light salty taste. It will turn dark if kept for a long time without refrigeration. This is okay and the miso can still be used.
- Medium miso is fermented for 1 to 2 years, brown in colour and salty.
- Dark miso is fermented 3 to 5 years, black in colour with strong salty taste.
Use mild vinegars, such as brown rice vinegar or hato mugi (Chinese barley) vinegar.
Umeboshi vinegar, made from pickled sour plum, can also be used. This is salty and sour.
DO NOT use artificial vinegar!
Apple cider vinegar, which is highly praised in some health books, is also not recommended as it is very extreme yin. Vinegar is already yin. Vinegar from fruits would therefore be extreme yin whereas vinegar from grains would be mild yin.
This is commonly described as pickled sour “plum” although it is actually a type of apricot. It is similar to what the Chinese call sng buay. It is salty and sour.
Umeboshi has important medicinal qualities. It is particularly helpful for:
- Discharge problems – anything coming out from the body, such as runny nose, diarrhoea, vomiting as well as excessive urination, perspiration, period, etc.
- Digestive problems – indigestion, lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea, flatulence, etc
- Infections – including bacterial and viral infections.
Umeboshi can be eaten on its own, mixed with water, tea and other drinks, in soups, made into a sauce, and so on.
A type of starch, made from kuzu root which is a very strong, gigantic root about the size of a man.
Kuzu is very rich in minerals. Use in place of corn starch for thickening sauces and soups.
Spices – go mild
Spices have strong yin or expanding energy. They help people living in the tropics to keep cool naturally. Although they are considered “hot”, they induce perspiration and have an overall cooling effect.
But because they are strong yin, spices tend to be weakening. So go easy on them. At most, your food should have a mild spicy taste rather than a strong spicy taste.
People who enjoy spicy food, however, are probably eating far, far too much spices. This arose from three reasons:
- Increased consumption of meat, where spices are required to hide the offensive meat smell.
- Modern cultivation which makes spices freely and cheaply available.
- Taste buds that have gone “dead” so that more spices are needed to excite the taste buds.
By getting yourself more accustomed to so-called “bland” foods, you can revive the sensitivity of your tastebuds to the point where “bland” foods actually taste delicious. Some macrobiotic friends have reduced their intake of chilli and spices by more than 90 percent. And they now enjoy their food more than ever.
Chilli has the strongest effect among spices. Minimise chilli, or avoid if you are unwell.
Water – watch your urine
“8 glasses a day” – the standard advice given about how much water to drink, is totally meaningless. It does not take into account factors such as the person’s :
- overall diet – those who take plenty of salt, meat and dry, baked food need to drink more; those who eat plenty of fruits and vegetables do not need to drink as much.
- environment – does the person work and live in the sun in an island like Singapore (hot and humid), in an air-conditioned environment (cool and less humid) etc?
- level of physical activity.
- body condition.
The macrobiotic recommendation makes a lot more sense – watch your urine. If you urinate often, say, more than five times a day and if you wake up at night to urinate, you ought to drink less. Same if your urine is transparent and almost colourless. However, if your urine is dark, you need to drink more. Ideally, urine should be light yellow, like the colour of light beer.
Bottle spring water, or filtered tap water, is recommended.
DO NOT drink distilled water. It is very weakening. Initially you may feel better because of its cleansing effect, but in the long term, it weakens you badly.
Likewise, bottled mineral water may be too yang, containing too much minerals.
Also, do not use water filters and other treatment devices that use electricity, since eletrical energy imparts a weakening effect to the water.
Beverages should be non-stimulating as these have a more gentle, less extreme effect on the body. They include:
- kukicha or bancha – a tea made from twigs rather than leaves
- roasted brown rice / roasted barley tea
- grain “coffee”
- barley water
- soy milk – but not excessively as it can be mucus forming
- rice milk and other grain milks
- vegetable juices like carrot and celery
- fruit juices – again not excessively as they can be weakening
- herb teas
Persons with poor health are better off avoiding:
- alcohol – those made from grains like beer, whiskey and rice wine are milder than those made from fruit, like grape wine
- chocolate drinks like Milo, Ovaltine
- cokes, sodas and other soft drinks
- noni juice – very extreme yin energy, can be very weakening
FOODS TO AVOID
Overall, the following foods are not recommended for regular consumption:
- Meat and meat products, including chicken and eggs
- Milk and dairy foods
- Sugar, including honey – the recommended sweetener is malt, which is a complex sugar made from rice, barley or other grains
- Food chemicals such as MSG and chemical colouring, flavouring and preservatives
- Artificial foods such as artificial sweeteeners (saccharin, aspartame or “Equal”) and artificial fat (olestra or “Olean”).
Some of these foods may be enjoyed by those in good health as occasional “party foods”.