Osteoporosis is a thinning and loss of bone tissue that can result in gradual loss of height, weakness and/or acute or chronic pain in the lower back, loss of teeth due to weakening of supporting bone, stooped shoulders and increased risk of fracture from falls. These fractures occur primarily in the spine, wrist and hip. In the U.S. an estimated 1.3 million fractures occur each year as a result of osteoporosis. Of those who suffer hip fractures, some die shortly after the fracture while as many as 30 percent die within one year. (These deaths may not be directly due to osteoporosis but rather to other health-related problems including being confined to bed following the fracture.)
The most commonly used medical diagnostic technique is a DEXA scan (dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry). The person being scanned lies down on a table while a technician operates a scanner that passes over the bones to measure their density, particularly of the hips and spine. These scans are then interpreted by an x-ray technician and the results sent to the referring physician. In the Planned Parenthood Womens Health Encyclopedia, the author states, Once osteoporosis has resulted in significant bone loss, no known treatment can undo its damage, but treatment can prevent further damage.
The approach of modern medicine to preventing further deterioration of the bone may include hormone replacement therapy (HRT) which usually consists of estrogen or along with some form of progesteronebut may include Calcitonin (to slow the breakdown of bone), Fosamax (a drug that stops osteoclasts from dissolving new bone formed by osteoblasts) as well as various calcium supplements and dairy products considered high in calcium. Its mind boggling to pour over the many studies showing the efficacy of these approaches and there are many different opinions as to what kinds of estrogen or progesterone to take as well as when to take them, how much to take, and so on.
At best this approach is symptomatic and lacks a unifying principal. The macrobiotic approach offers a clear understanding of the cause of bone loss and an approach that takes the healing of the body as a whole into consideration while emphasizing foods specific to bone health and minimizing those that are detrimental.
The bones and skeletal system are hard, dense and compact relative to other systems in the body and are therefore considered yang. Whole cereal grains, beans, vegetables from land and sea and other foods high in minerals such as miso, good quality shoyu and sea salt nourish them. Being yang, bones attract strong yin and are easily weakened by sugar, dairy, chocolate, alcohol, vinegar, fruits and juices (especially citrus), alcohol, drugs and other expansive items. Coffee, caffeinated teas, white flour, honey, oatmeal, potatoes, tomatoes, tropical fruits, and artificial sweeteners are also damaging. These extreme yin foods make the bones expand and fuse and the tissues become tight.
The bones are governed by the kidney and bladder and are specifically nourished by beans and bean products, dried vegetables, pressure cooked grains and a moderate use of sea salt and other condiments. They are damaged by excessive yang such as meat, eggs, poultry, all types of cheese, and hard baked flour products including bread, cookies, crackers and chips.
If you are new to macrobiotics, you can begin to protect your bones by following the standard macrobiotic diet with emphasis on whole cereal grains, rather than refined or cracked grains, as the center of every meal. Buckwheat is considered to be strengthening to the bones but in my experience the main grain should be short grain, organically grown brown rice with millet and barley as secondary grains. Non-genetically engineered corn-on-the-cob may be eaten daily when in season. The occasional addition of a side dish of buckwheat cooked with vegetables or in soup or buckwheat noodles is nice but as I find this grain too contracting to be used frequently. Black rice (such as wild rice) may also be used occasionally.
Flour products should be reduced as much as possible. Noodles may be taken several times a week in broth or occasionally fried. Simple sugars should be avoided and fruits should be chosen from those in season and prepared by baking or stewing rather than eaten raw. Animal food should be avoided with the exception of white meat fish such as cod, haddock or sole. The problem even with white meat fish is that the portion that is usually served is the part with the protein and fat (without the head and bones). Which of us would know where to begin to eat a whole fish served on a plate! (I am currently using a condiment made of chirimen-iko, a small, dried sardine, and roasted sesame seeds since the sardines are in whole form and it seems that their high mineral content will be more easily absorbed if taken with the seeds. I roast both the chirimen and the seeds and grind them in a serabachi as I would in making gomasio.)
Smaller beans such as aduki, lentils, chickpeas and black and yellow soybeans are particularly strengthening to the bones and joints. Dried tofu and okara (from making tofu) are high in calcium and may be eaten regularly as well. Im currently using small amounts of sweeteners in the beans, particularly barley malt and amesake since they both have a more upward energy and help balance the salt in the beans.
A small side dish of sea vegetables cooked with land vegetables (to moderate the contracting quality) can be served twice a week. Wakame can be used often in soups and small pieces of Kombu can be cooked into beans and nishime style vegetable dishes.
Collard greens, kale, turnip greens, watercress, bok choy and other leafy greens are good sources of natural calcium and should be eaten daily. Quick stir-fries and sautéed greens can be beneficial in preventing osteoporosis. My current favorite is sautéed watercress though I try to include a variety of vegetables in stir-fries. Nishime style cooking (cutting in large cubes and simmering for 20 minutes or longer over low flame) is also helpful.
Among people who have practiced macrobiotics for a while and still have weak bones, I think the main problem is with the overuse of salt in all forms is a factor but especially the overuse of umeboshi paste and plums in dressings and sushi. Also the excessive use of vinegar, even of good quality vinegars made from rice or hato mugi, and lemon juice in pressed salads and salad dressings depletes minerals and is best minimized or avoided. And while some macrobiotic practitioners recommend raw oil, I disagree and feel that oil should be used only in cooking.
While I have not emphasized the way of life suggestions in this article, they are part and parcel of a healing program. Moderate forms of exercise such as walking, chi gung, yoga, some group sports as well as cleaning house, sweeping the walk, cleaning the windows, etc. are necessary to improve circulation and keep the energy moving in the body. And, of course, chewing is the best exercise of all and the reason why its really important to keep our bones and teeth strong.
Macrobiotics is, in a sense, a straight and narrow path. It is a study of our physical limits and it is by understanding those limits and honoring them that we ultimately attain maximum freedom. Some people look at older macrobiotic teachers and feel that we are not healthy and have nothing to offer. I think we have a lot to offer; we can teach you our mistakes. We have crossed a bridge from the modern way of eating to the macrobiotic way of eating and have now turned back to build a stronger bridge. One may ask, Why are you building that bridge? We know that one day you will want to cross this chasm and we are building this bridge for you.