Macrobiotics – ‘A Way of Life’

In an Indian scenario today, everyone takes to fad diet and temporary cures for weight loss, with very little thought given to ‘prevention’ of weight gain or an ailment. Here comes an approach that talks about ‘prevention’ of any health condition and reversing ailments from a simple migraine to a cancer. Why ‘prevention’ because that is a permanent solution for the body being in complete balance. Macrobiotics in India started when Mona Schwartz an American by birth migrated to the North of India and started an organic society called ‘The Shakhambari Society’ in Dehradun – ‘The Shakhambari Society’ grew its own brown rice and organized small organic markets for the locals. She mentored Shonali Sabherwal (who had contacted Mona to help with her father’s prostate cancer) who then decided to go through a structured program in the US qualifying to be a Macrobiotic Counsellor and Chef from the Kushi Institute. 

In the West, the Macrobiotic diet came out of the closet in the US after Madonna adopted it in her life, and from being a cancer-curing diet suddenly assumed the avatar of a ‘celebrity-diet’. The principles of a Macrobiotic diet (which was not termed the Macrobiotic diet at the time) were first set forth by Sagen Ishizuka a Japanese army doctor. Ishizuka, established his own system of nutrition and medicine using the Oriental framework. He first used these principles on himself as he was suffering with kidney and skin disease. His learnings lead him to write and publish two books: Chemical Theory of Longevity published in 1896 and Diet for Health published in 1898. His own philosophy helped cure many people. 

Macrobiotics as a term was first used to by Hippocrates – the father of Western medicine to describe people who lived healthy long lives. Physicist Christoph Wilhem Hufeland, then used Macrobiotics or the ‘big view of life’ (In Greek ‘macro’ means ‘great’ and ‘bios’ meaning life) in his book Macrobiotics: The Art of Prolonging Human Life

George Ohsawa was a student of Ishizuka and the founder of Macrobiotics, he formulated his own philosophy on diet and health by familiarizing himself with Hufeland’s work. He also spent time in India studying the Charaka Samahita, incorporating some of the ayurvedic practices in the Macrobiotic approach. Ohsawa himself recovered from tuberculosis of the lungs after using healing foods recommended by a military doctor. He came up with his own philosophy on Macrobiotics and travelled the world spreading his ideas. One of Ohsawa’s students, Michio Kushi, decided to propagate this approach in America in the 1960’s. Led by Michio, Macrobiotics first started as a movement, where people met in small groups, cooked together and shared thoughts on the Macrobiotic diet and lifestyle. He also started with being a natural foods distributor and then established the Kushi Institute in 1978. 

The healing powers of the foods used in macrobiotics came into focus when Dr Anthony Sattilaro published his book Recalled by Life wherein he traced his journey of recovery from prostate cancer. This was when macrobiotics first gained popularity as a cancer-curing approach. And then the approach gained momentum as the secret behind these healing foods were revealed by people who adopted them into their lives. 

What is a Macrobiotic diet?

Apart from the fact that Macrobiotics makes the tall claim of changing your blood condition with the food you eat in 4 months and change cellular condition in 2 years, a couple of things set it apart from being just a diet and putting it on the mantle of an ‘approach for life’. Just as Eastern philosophy believes that every living thing has ‘life force’ or ‘prana’. A Macrobiotic view also believes that this ‘life force’ or ‘qui’ translates into two polarities ‘yin’ and ‘yang’. These two energetic processes can be extended to foods, cooking styles, diagnosing health conditions, looking at a person’s nature, physical activity, body organs, just about everything. So when balance has to be made for a person with an ailment the Macrobiotic nutritionist will analyze everything using these two aspects to make balance. 

A simple example would explain this: while animal food is yang (contracted) vegetables compared to animal food is yin (expansive) or while baking is yang (contacted), boiling compared to baking is yin(expansive). This is a very simplistic example of what constitutes yin versus yang. Similarly if looked upon a larger canvas, how would the diet of someone living in a tropical climate (like India) very ‘yin’ in let’s say a Mumbai be any different from someone living in a temperate climate like the Berkshires in the US – very yang? Also, constitutionally how yang or yin are people, the foods they consume and also the way they lead their lives. 

Yin and Yang defined

Yin is dark, passive, downward, cold, contracting, and weak.
Yang is bright, active, upward, hot, expanding, and strong.

Yang Foods Yin Foods
Heavy, hard, dense
Grow downwards
Fibrous, dry, warm, cooked
Meaty, salty, keeps longer
Dry, cool, vegetables that have slow growth patterns
Grow upwards
Wet, cool, raw,Spicy, sweet, juicy, oily, perishes
Thick, rapidly growing vegetables

So very simply, yang seeks yin and yin seeks yang to balance one out. An example: It’s the dead of summer and you go out for a swim. When you get back home you find yourself gulping down bottles of water because your body fluids have dried up. If you don’t drink enough, you’ll find yourself dehydrated, and possibly with dry skin the next day (ever noticed how your heels tend to crack during the summer months?). This will soon lead to a contracted condition, resulting in a dry digestive system, which may lead to constipation. This is termed as a yang condition. You will need fluids, yin, to balance you out. Yin here being water 

Macrobiotics Counsellors use the Traditional Chinese Medicine framework and are also trained to analyse how organs function within the body, by using facial diagnostic techniques and touch meridian analysis. These diagnostic tools are used to arrive at a diet that is optimum given a person’s health condition. 

What do you eat on a Macrobiotic diet?

The basic diet comprises of: 

  1. 40-50% whole grain
  2. 25% Seasonal vegetables
  3. 10% protein foods like legumes and fish
  4. 5% Soups and Good quality fermented foods
  5. 5% Sea vegetables (Indianized with the use of spirulinaas Sea vegetables like kombu, chlorella, hijiki, arame are not available in India. However spirulina which is also a sea vegetable is. It’s rich in chlorophyll, which has magnesium a necessary co-factor for the absorption of calcium and vitamin D, also sea vegetables are rich in trace minerals which most diets are lacking)
  6. 5% Fruits, nuts or seeds.

How does a Macrobiotic diet work?

Very simply, it focuses on choosing the right foods and cooking styles and putting them into practice, using the Oriental framework to understand the energies of foods, constitutions, cooking styles, and organs. The Macrobiotic approach cleans out the ‘nadis’ – or ‘meridians’ in the body for optimum functioning of the body, essentially impinging on the same tenets of a ‘sattvic’ diet. 

It encompasses lifestyle practices and foods that take us back to simpler eating, eating local/seasonal foods, avoiding refined, processed foods, modern day genetically modified foods, minimize animal foods, dairy and sugar in all forms this includes alcohol in minimal consumption. Dairy is replaced with brown rice milk, or milk made from nuts and seeds (e.g., almond milk, pumpkin seed milk and cashew milk) and yogurt, buttermilk can be made from these. It focuses is on vegetables (of which leafy greens and in India spirulina is emphasized), whole grains, beans/legumes, good quality fermented foods and in a tropical climate like India fruits; foods are cooked in cold pressed oils and sea salt.As an approach,it also takes into consideration the balance between acid and alkaline forming foods, those foods which are low on the glycemic index, and sodium and potassium balance within the body. It brings into play the use of foods to boost one’s moods as well, supplying one with an abundant of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine all coming out of natural normal foods. 

Whole grain, beans/legumes/, vegetables can be cooked in any which way one likes keeping in mind that meals are cooked in sea salt and cold pressed oils-the stress in on cooked foods, adapted to the cultural context of where one is cooking. So a whole grain, beans (whole or split) or vegetables can be cooked differently if one is in the South of India as opposed to the North, in terms of preparation. 

However, what sets Macrobiotics apart from other techniques, is the use of cooking styles to impart energy and restore balance in the body (applying the yin and yang concepts to cooking). One such style is nishime: water-less cooking–vegetables cook in their own juices and this style balances out blood sugar levels; the style itself works like a steam engine, as a heavy cast iron pot is used to cook the vegetables and very little water say a tablespoon for 1 cup of vegetables is added – once the lid is shut one does not touch the pot for 20 minutes. This style makes for a perfect balance of these two polarities of yin and yang, and is used a lot to help someone get more energy and also discharge soft dairy like cheese, ice-cream from the body. Another example is that of a pressed salad, where a vegetable is shredded and then pressed with sea salt for upto an hour, provides good fermentation at a meal. The energetics of this cooking (applying the yin and yang concepts) style releases pressure in a person, besides providing good fermentation. These cooking styles and using a combination of other cooking styles like sauteeing, boiling, blanching at one meal is always emphasized, to also allow for different energies that a person can take away from a meal. 

Culturally and historically India is naturally receptive to the Macrobiotic ideal. Our cuisine is predominantly one of whole grains and vegetables. In fact, we as Indians do not have to make major shifts in attitude to adopt a Macrobiotic diet; it only requires some readjustments. 

Macrobiotics and cancer

In a first ever conducted study using a Macrobiotic approach to cancer researchers at Tulane University discovered that a 1 – year survival rate amongst patients with pancreatic cancer was significantly higher amongst those who modified their diet using the Macrobiotic approach versus those that did not modify their diet at all. For prostate cancer patients they found that those who ate a Macrobiotic diet survived 177 months versus 91 months amongst people who did not make changes in their diet at all. (Source: James P. Carter et al., ‘Hypothesis: Dietary Management May Improve Survival from Nutritionally Linked Cancers Based on Analysis of representative cases,” Journal of the American College of Nutrition 12:209-226, 1993) (source: www.kushiinstitute.org) 

Mina Dobic who is a 20 year cancer survivor using Macrobiotics says and author of ‘My Beautiful Life: How I conquered Cancer naturally’ is a practicing Counsellor, Chef and teacher in California. Her clients include Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Guy Ritchie, Madonna, Alcia Silverstone and Steven Seagaland this is what they say about her: Dr. Benjamin Spock renowned Pediatrician and Author says that Mina Dobic has inspired many who are really sick and have needed help. Her advice has helped him through his illnesses as well. Madonna attributes the health of her family and herself to Mina and her advice. In fact Michio Kushi himself (the founder of the diet in America) has said that Mina is committed to the liberation of humanity and one peaceful world-she has helped many from sickness to health and happiness. 

Christina Pirello who runs many cookery shows on American television and a strong proponent of this approach, healed from last stages of leukemia and then established her own cooking school in 1988. Today 27 years later, she is an example and inspiration on what the healing power of foods can do and how food choices have an impact on our overall state of wee-being. 

Should we follow a Macrobiotic approach to life?

While Macrobiotics does advocate giving up or minimizing dairy, sugar, refined flours, alcohol and animal foods. It does not advocate that if you don’t do this, you cannot live a life. What it beautifully does is make you walk a path and see which turn you’d like to take. If you get completely healthy, what would you choose to keep and get rid of, once you know and apply the principles. Of course for those with health ailments its does become a little stringent. However, for those that want to apply it to their daily life it advocates ‘Living with Freedom’ do not be bound by rules but also do not be ignorant of them. 

There have been views that the diet maybe deficient on B12 as this is obtained from animal foods, but experienced practitioners will take care of this once you are on the program and help you incorporate foods that will give you abundant B12. B12, is replenished with miso paste and fermented foods. If the diet is rich in leafy greens and sprulina, calcium and vitamin D deficiencies are taken care off. There have been questions about the protein content that comes out of a Macrobiotic approach, which gets addressed with balanced meal plans, and vegan protein powders if required. While strong Macrobiotic advocates say that nightshade vegetables like: eggplant, tomatoes, okra, potatoes and peppers should be eliminated or minimized, it is a matter of choice depending upon where one lives. Macrobiotics also believes in eating locally and looking at climatic conditions and these nightshades are fine to eat in a tropical climate like that of India. 

Healthy every day, every minute or up and down for the rest of one’s life? This is a choice that every individual must make for oneself. A Macrobiotic approach makes one live with freedom, knowledge and awareness at each step; understanding that the only way to being healthy is being conscious of what we eat, respecting the environment and being in sync with it. 


  1. It is a broad varied diet primarily consisting of grains, vegetables, fish, beans, seeds, fruit and nuts.
  2. Many people claim that eating a Macrobiotic diet has helped them to cure from ailments and recover from illness.
  3. It is a flexible approach to eating that can be used over a few days or for life.
  4. Using macrobiotic principles you can chose and prepare foods to change the way you feel.
  5. You can eat anything as long as you know what the likely influence of that food is and are sure it will lead to good health.
  6. The high fiber used in macrobiotics keeps your digestive system healthy.
  7. Being low in saturated fats, a macrobiotic diet enhances your blood quality, improving your circulation and heart.
  8. Low on the glycemic index, macrobiotic foods encourage even blood sugar levels. Making it easier to lose weight and enjoy emotional stability.
  9. The foods are well balanced in terms of acid and alkaline as well as sodium and potassium.
  10. The predominance of complex carbohydrates means that the meals provide plenty of sustainable energy, leading to greater stamina.
  11. Generally, Macrobiotic diet plans are high in proteins, iron, calcium, and other minerals and vitamins.
  12. Macrobiotics is a complete approach to healthy eating that encompasses everything from selecting good ingredients, to cooking methods and eating.
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