Macrobiotics is a system of living, eating and healing that originated in 19th century Japan. This Japanese philosophy now enjoys a worldwide following attracted by its principles of harmonious living with nature through a balanced whole foods diet, an active lifestyle and respect for the environment

Japanese macrobiotics, living with nature Macrobiotics is a system of living, eating and healing that originated in 19th century Japan. This Japanese philosophy now enjoys a worldwide following attracted by its principles of harmonious living with nature through a balanced whole foods diet, an active lifestyle and respect for the environment

Have you ever heard of a diabetic tiger or an asthmatic cheetah in the wild? Or a rheumatic fish, for that matter? Makes you wonder why in the entire animal world it is the human beings who contract, suffer and die from such a wide variety of diseases. Maybe because we have moved away from the ‘natural’ world, towards habitats and lifestyles that continue to become increasingly complex, extracting from us their pound of flesh for ‘luxuries’ that we demand almost as our right for having moved up the evolutionary ladder?

The past few decades have seen a growing awareness globally of the detrimental effects of rapid industrialization on the environment, and of the hectic, tension-filled, unhealthy lives it spawns. An offshoot of this recognition was the ‘natural food movement’ in the 1970s in the West, wherein people began to consciously move away from chemically grown, artificially flavored and processed foods. Many systems of healthy eating, mostly exclusionist in nature, emerged, such as vegetarianism, veganism and fruitarianism. Part of this wave, and more holistic in its vision than others, was macrobiotics—a Japanese philosophy based on healthy eating that drew inspiration from Taoism, the diet of Zen Buddhist monks and the traditional Japanese way of life.

The word itself derives from the Latin macro, meaning ‘large’, and bios, meaning ‘life’ and was coined by Hippocrates, father of modern western medicine. Hence macrobiotics is ‘a large view of life’—a lifestyle based on an all-encompassing understanding of it.

Modern macrobiotics has its roots in the shiku-yo (food cure) therapy developed in the late 19th century in Japan by a Western-trained army doctor, Sagen Ishizuka. Fed up with allopathic medicine’s ineffectiveness in treating his own chronic illness, Ishizuka researched traditional Japanese medicine and lifestyle, including syozin ryori, the way of mindful cooking and eating in Zen monasteries, and came up with shiku-yo.

One of Ishizuka’s foremost disciples was Yukikazu Sakurazawa (later known as George Ohsawa), who integrated shiku-yo theories with elements of eastern and western philosophy and called the resulting amalgam ‘macrobiotics’. Ohsawa popularized macrobiotics throughout the world through his writings, lectures and his Ohsawa Foundation in California, USA and the Centre Ignoramus in Paris.

In his 1965 classic on holistic living, Zen Macrobiotics, (published by Ohsawa Foundation) which introduced his philosophy to the West, Ohsawa says: ”In keeping with the traditional Oriental belief that no theory without practical technique is useful and that no technique without an uncomplicated, clear theory is safe, my therapy is simple—natural food, no medicine, no surgery, no inactivity.” Ohsawa’s protégé, Michio Kushi, who founded the Kushi Institute in Massachusetts, USA and the One Peaceful World Society, simply calls it “a sensible way of living and eating”.

Wonderfully simple and simply wonderful! Yet in actual practice, macrobiotics entails very careful and conscious eating that translates into a long list of dos and don’ts, mostly stemming from each food’s ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ value.

Macrobiotic philosophy is based on the ancient Taoist belief that everything in creation is made up of two antagonistic but complementary forces—yin (passive, silent, cold and dark) and yang (active, hot and heavy). Consequently, all foodstuffs are categorized as ‘yin’ and ‘yang’. An ideal diet is one that would balance the two forces in the body. ”Health is the natural result of maintaining a dynamic balance of yin and yang in our daily eating and way of life,” says Michio Kushi. It must be noted that yin and yang in food is unrelated to actual nutrient content.

According to Ohsawa’s yin and yang guidelines in Zen Macrobiotics:
• Cereals must always be every meal’s basis. The most ideal is whole, brown rice, which is a perfect balance of yin and yang.
• Vegetables can supplement cereals, but in lesser quantities and less frequently. Eggplant and tomatoes must be avoided, as they are extremely yin.
• Fresh fish can be used occasionally. Animal and dairy products and fruits are to be used in minute amounts.
• All fluids should be taken as infrequently as possible, since they are very yin, especially tea, coffee, colas and sweetened juices. Tea made from fresh herbs, and spring water are thought to be the most balanced beverages.

Ohsawa warns, though, that these guidelines must not be followed rigidly and each individual must keep in mind his own environment and constitution. ”For instance,” he says, ”those who live in a cold climate need foods that are slightly more yang than those who inhabit tropical areas, while the person who works in the fields can tolerate more yin food than the one who has a desk job. Everything is relative to and is determined by the individual.” It reminds one of ayurveda’s directive to adhere to one’s desha (location), kala (time) and prakriti (individual constitution) in food, medicine and lifestyle.

After Ohsawa’s death in 1966, macrobiotics has found many champions around the world, including Michio and Aveline Kushi, Herman Aihira, Tomio Kikuchi and Shazuko Yamamoto. In recent years, to counter the allegation of it being a ‘lopsided and brown rice-centric fad diet’, people like Kushi have moved away from Ohsawa’s brand of macrobiotics. Says Kushi: “His presentation was a bit too restricted. To adapt it into a wide universal way, we have to have much wider interpretations. So I had the so-called macrobiotic diet as the standard, plus environmental adaptations and individual changing and climate change. In that way, the macrobiotic movement began.”

Kushi has even incorporated many spiritual exercises into macrobiotics. He has enlarged its focus from a dietary system to one that is concerned with the environment, and world peace, even social action and says, ‘Peace does not begin with any political party, religious movement or social platform. It begins in kitchens and pantries, gardens and backyards, where the physical source of our daily life-food, the staff of life, our daily bread—is grown and prepared.

“Brown rice, miso soup, whole grain bread, fresh vegetables—these and other whole, unprocessed foods are our ‘weapons’ to turn around the entire world. The energies of nature and the infinite universe are absorbed through the foods we eat and are transmuted into thoughts and the actions that spring from them. By becoming one with our larger environment and observing the universal laws of change and harmony, we are capable of restoring balance to our planet.”

By following a few simple steps you can welcome macrobiotics into your life.

• Know that macrobiotics is based on living in harmony with nature through a balanced whole foods diet, an active lifestyle, and respect for the environment.

• Eat only when hungry.

• Chew well (around 50 times per mouthful) as it is important for good digestion.

• Eat in a relaxed manner. Sit with a good posture and take a moment to express gratitude for the food.

• You may eat two or three times a day, as much as you want, provided the portion is balanced. It is best to leave the table satisfied but not full.

• Drink moderate volume of fluids, only when thirsty.

• For the deepest and most restful sleep, retire before midnight and avoid eating late.

• Wash as needed, but avoid long hot baths or showers that deplete the body of minerals.

• Use cosmetics and cleaning products that are made from natural, non-toxic ingredients. Avoid those perfumed with chemicals.

• Prefer cotton clothing, especially for undergarments. Avoid wearing synthetic or woolen clothing directly on the skin. Avoid excessive metallic accessories on fingers, wrists, or neck.

• Spend time outdoors if strength permits. Walk on grass, the beach or on soil for up to half-hour every day. Spend some time in direct sunlight.

• Exercise regularly, as your condition permits, including walking, working in the garden, yoga, martial arts, and dance.

• Include some large green plants in the home to enrich the air’s oxygen content. Open windows daily to permit fresh air to circulate, even in cold weather.

• Keep your home in good order, especially where food is prepared and served.

• To increase circulation, scrub the entire body with a hot, damp towel every morning.

• Avoid electric cooking devices or microwave ovens. The use of a gas or wood stove is preferred.

• Use earthenware, cast iron, or stainless steel cookware rather than aluminum or teflon-coated pots.

• Minimize use of television and computers. When using a computer, protect yourself from potentially harmful electromagnetic fields with a protective shield over the screen and other safety devices.

• Sing a song!

Most practitioners innovate in the kitchen, using basic macrobiotics ingredients like brown rice, tofu (soy cheese), soy sauce, seaweed and seasonal vegetables in prescribed proportions to cook up creative meals.

Here are simple ones for you to try.

Brown Rice with Deep-Fried Tofu and Vegetables
2 cups organic brown rice, washed
1 cup deep-fried tofu, cubed
2 tbsp bonita (dried fish) flakes (optional)
½ cup onions, diced
¼ cup celery, diced
¼ cup carrots, diced
½ cup fresh green peas, boiled until tender
4 cups water
Pinch of sea salt

Place the rice, deep-fried tofu, bonita flakes, onions, celery, carrots, water, and sea salt in a heavy pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the flame to medium-low and simmer for 50 minutes to one hour. Remove the cover. Mix in the cooked green peas. Remove and serve.

(From Rice is Nice by Wendy Esko, One Peaceful World Press)

Brown Rice Kofta Curry
For koftas:
1-2 cups boiled, short grain brown rice
Some grated tofu
1-2 onions chopped fine
Curry leaves
1 tsp garlic paste
1 tsp grated ginger

For curry:
½ cup carrot chopped fine
½ cup green onions chopped fine
½ cup cabbage chopped fine
½ tbsp vinegar (preferably organic)
1 tsp soy sauce (preferably organic)

To make the koftas, mix all the ingredients, make balls and shallow fry. For the curry, in a wok or deep dish, add oil and saute onions. Add the vegetables. Sprinkle vinegar and soy sauce. Toss this mixture on low flame. Add water. Once the curry comes to a boil, thicken with rice cream. Stir for 2-3 minutes and add koftas. Serve hot.

(Recipe courtesy Mona Schwartz)

George Ohsawa formulated 10 diets according to percentages of various foods, with the best diet (in terms of balancing yin and yang) being one that consisted only of cereals (No. 7). This diet plan is highly unconventional vis-à-vis current nutritional beliefs.
Diet No. Cereals Vegetable Intake Soup Animal Food Salad Fruits Dessert Beverages
7 100% As little as possible
6 90% 10%
5 80% 20%
4 70% 20% 10%
3 60% 30% 10%
2 50% 30% 10% 10%
1 40% 30% 10% 20%
-1 30% 30% 10% 20% 10%
-2 20% 30% 10% 25% 10% 5%
-3 10% 30% 10% 30% 15% 5%