“Macrobiotics is a dangerous fad diet which, in certain cases, can lead to death.”
The above statement comes from a nutrition textbook. Many doctors, nutritionists and dieticians learnt in their nutrition studies that macrobiotics is dangerous.
And so, understandably, they cling to this view without making much effort to find out the truth about macrobiotics – and the background as to how this view arose in the first place.
An opposing school of thought, including macrobiotics, argues that human progress came about because of cooking. Their theory claims our ability to think, plan, calculate, communicate in complex ways and love all came about because we learned to cook.
Breaking down plant fibre with heat makes food easier to eat. As a result, one theory says, humans evolved smaller jaws and that allowed more space in the head for the brain to grow. And so we became smarter.
Hey! If we are so smart, counters the raw foods camp, why is everybody getting sick? Both sides put up convincing arguments.
As a result, followers of macrobiotics – especially those with cancer and other serious illnesses – are often warned by their doctors and other medical professionals that “macrobiotics is dangerous”.
This idea arose during the 1950s and early 1960s, when macrobiotics was first introduced to the West from Japan.
At that time, the overall understanding of nutrition was very poor – the prevalent idea was of the “Four Food Groups” and nutrition professionals believed firmly that meat, milk and dairy products were absolutely essential to health. Today, a large and growing number of nutritional professionals realise that it is possible to eat healthily without eating meat, milk and dairy products.
The understanding of macrobiotics was, at that time, also poor. Many people did not fully understand the teachings and, as a result, ONE person died from supposedly trying to follow macrobiotics.
This lead to a malpractice suit, raids by the US FDA (Foods and Drugs Administration) and the closure of the New York office of the George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation. (The foundation still exists today, in Oroville, California.)
The person who died had tried to follow a “brown rice only” diet. George Ohsawa, whose book Zen Macrobiotics had introduced macrobiotics to many Westerners, had written that such a diet was the “highest level” diet that would speed up spiritual development.
However, that person was apparently also a hippie who was taking drugs, or a woman taking birth control pills (sorry, I am not clear about this detail). So the person was not exactly following macrobiotics.
It is unfortunate that one incident, that happened more than 40 years ago, continues to give macrobiotics a bad name today.
The truth is, macrobiotics does not recommend eating brown rice only. Such a diet is intended as a semi-fast for not more than 12 days. It is not supposed to be a long-term diet. Even then, it is very rarely, if at all, recommended nowadays by macrobiotic counsellors.
At the same time, it is worth noting that such a diet is not exactly dangerous either. In Asia – especially in the past – many poor people practically only rice or other grains, with very small amounts of pickles or other foods. Yet they stay healthy, are able to do hard labour, and produce lots of children – which is a sure sign of good health!
A fad diet?
When macrobiotics was first introduced to the West, it was popular with hippies who were attracted to all things natural, including natural food. Thus, macrobioitics got labelled as a “fad diet”.
It is not a fad. Far from it! Macrobiotic dietary recommendations are based on traditional ways of eating that humanity has followed for tens of thousands of years.
Macrobiotics is not even a diet. It is a set of guidelines which we are to adapt according to our personal condition, our environment and other factors.
More than that, macrobiotics is a way of understanding how food, lifestyle and other factors affect us. Followers of macrobiotics are free – and encouraged – to apply this understanding any way they choose.
A deficient diet?
Today, some nutritionists and doctors continue to claim that the macrobiotic diet is “nutritionally deficient”. Such claims are totally unscientific. They are based on misconceptions rather than fact.
A common misconception is that the macrobiotic diet does not provide enough calcium because it does not include milk and dairy foods.
The diet is actually very rich in calcium as it includes:
- Seeds, including sesame seeds which has about 14 times more calcium than milk.
- Seaweeds, which typically have 7 to 14 times as much calcium as milk.
- Green leafy vegetables, which are also rich sources of calcium.
The calcium in these foods are also more readily absorbed by the body than the calcium in milk. Plus, these foods do not create problems normally associated with milk and dairy foods – problems such as increased risks of female-type cancers among women, respiratory problems like asthma and allergies.
Vitamin B12 deficient?
Another common misconception is that vegetarians – many macrobiotic followers are vegetarian although the diet includes fish and seafood – do not get vitamin B12 because this vitamin is found “only” in meat products.
Firstly, it is not true that B12 can only be found in meat products. This rare vitamin is actually produced by molds, fungi and bacteria. It can be found in several vegetarian foods, including fermented foods such as soy sauce, miso and beer.
A particularly rich source of B12 is tempeh, made from fermented soy beans. In nutrition circles, it is believed that horse meat contains the most B12. Yet nutritional analyses of tempeh – made naturally rather than in super hygienic factories – show that they contain 6 times more B12 than horse meat.
Chicken and eggs?
Doctors have also argued that “chicken and eggs are some of the foods that cancer patients need”.
Has there been any scientific studies which show that chicken and eggs help people to recover from cancer?
When doctors make such statements, they are mixing up meat with protein. Yes, everyone needs protein. And yes, cancer patients who are on chemotherapy need more protein.
But chicken, eggs and other meats are not the only sources of protein. Richer sources include beans and bean products like tofu, tempeh and miso.
Miso, in particular, has been scientifically proven to have anti-cancer properties. There is also much scientific evidence which suggest that a high-meat diet increases the chances of cancer, while a low-meat or vegetarian diet reduces the chances.
At the same time, there are lots of anecdotal evidence of people having recovered from cancer after switching to vegetarian or macrobiotic diets (which includes fish and seafood). I have yet to hear of a single case of anyone recovering from cancer after he or she starts eating meat.
Some people – especially certain Christian groups – meanwhile oppose macrobiotics because they say it is a “cult”.
Cults typically have a master or “guru” whose teachings are blindly followed by their disciples. It is true that macrobiotic teachers like Michio Kushi are sometimes casually referred to as “guru” and they are well respected. It is also true that some people follow their teachings blindly.
But this is not the intention of macrobiotics. A key teaching of macrobiotics is: DO NOT BELIEVE.
Statements about diet and lifestyle are always given with explanations, not stated as truths which followers are bound to believe. Followers of macrobiotics are encouraged to find out for themselves if such statements are true.
Macrobiotics is therefore not a cult.
It is not a religion either. Some of the teachings do have a spiritual content – they talk about the meaning of life, about where we come from and where we are going. These teachings merely help a person understand what life is all about. However, there is never any teaching about following a particular prophet or believing in a particular God.
The concept of yin and yang, which is central to macrobiotics, originated from Taoism. But again, Taoism is more a philosophy of life, not a religion – even though some Chinese regard Taoism as a religion.