Macrobiotics – ‘A Way of Life’

History of Macrobiotics

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 ShonaliSabherwal (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 WilhemHufeland, 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 CharakaSamahita, 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 make Macrobiotics different and more than just a 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 practitioner 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.

Principles of a Macrobiotic Approach

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. 

More on the Macrobiotic approach in the next blog…

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