Pondering macrobiotics

In the last few years, there seems to have been a resurgence in the interest in macrobiotics in Japan. At least it does seem so judging from the magazine articles and cookbooks devoted to the subject.

If you're unfamiliar with macrobiotics, it's a form of almost-veganism (macrobiotics does allow for some fish) with quite idiosyncratic theories. It originated in Japan, was exported to the West, and gained popularity in some circles, especially the ones devoted to alternative lifestyles (like hippies and such). There's a tendency in Japan to get overly impressed by anything (or anyone) in Japanese culture that gets popular in other countries, which I think accounts for at least part of the renewed popularity of macrobiotics - or makurobi as it's abbreviated to - there. The macrobiotic diet has a lot of similarities to the traditional, or pre-WWII, diet, but isn't quite the same. It's also not the same as sho-jin cooking - elegant vegan cuisine that was originated by Zen Buddhist monks.

I've been generally trying to increase my repertoire of vegetable and grain based dishes this year (though I'm not a vegetarian), so I've done quite a lot of research into makurobi these past few months. There are plenty of very appetizing looking cookbooks coming out regularly, and I've collected quite a stack of them.

Yet it's quite unlikely that I'll be turning into a full-fledged macrobiotic convert any time soon. The main reason is that I can't fully buy into one of the central philosophies of the religion - I mean, theory - that of yin and yang foods. Basically the theory is that all foods have yin (dark or cold) and yang (light or warm) energies, and we are better off eating close to the center of the yin and yang scale. Foods that are at the center are generally things like whole grains, beans and other pulses, root vegetables (but not potatoes), and so on. Since macrobiotics did originate in Japan, brown rice is the king of grains.

At the extreme ends of the scale are things like white sugar and white flour, both yin, and meats, which predicably are yang. Fair enough I guess, since most current nutrition research seems to say that we should be eating less of these foods. Where things get a bit problematic for me is when fruits, vegetables and other things which all other sources say are good for you also get placed around the yin - yang scale and are deemed not good. The nightshade family is the one that stands out here - this includes things like tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes. These are supposed to be very yin, and to be avoided.

Well okay I thought when I first read this - tomatoes and eggplants are summer vegetables, full of water, and might be considered cooling (so are things like summer squash, melons and cucumbers). But don't you want your body to be cooler in the warm months? Besides, tomatoes are full of good nutrients. Also, while in Japan tomatoes and eggplants are often eaten cold (in salads, or grilled and chilled), in other countries they are more often eaten in hot dishes. It's rather hard to me to accept the idea that a Middle Eastern dish with tomatoes and eggplants in it is purely 'cold'. Macrobiotic thinking is also rather anti-hot spices, believing them to be too stimulating. I doubt this philosophy would have made much headway in say, India.

Things like eggs and all dairy products are also extreme on the yin yang scale - dairy is very yin, eggs are extreme yang. If there was a number one evil food according to macrobiotic thinking, it could be the egg, which is supposed to be so full of extreme yang energy that it could almost make you lose your mind, or at least any sense of 'balance' you can hope for. The egg's parents are also considered evil, because chickens have a lot of nervous, twitchy energy. Apparently if you eat too much chicken, you'll start acting and looking like one. In the one English book I've gotten about the subject, "The Hip Chick's Guide To Macrobiotics", it says this (page 108):

These days, because chicken is considered the 'good' meat, chicken eaters eat lots and lots of it with impunity. Ever notice people with chickenish noses? Or birdlike haircuts?

This is one of the statements made in the macrobiotic literature that made me shake my head in disbelief. Eating chicken turns us into chicken-like people...where the heck is the logic in this? On another page of The Hip Chick's Guide, the author (who is a comedienne by trade it seems, though she 'completed her macrobiotic training at the Kushi Institute' and is a 'macrobiotic chef, cooking consultant and hypnotherapist'.) she makes the case for whole grains over meat, fresh fruit and other foods by saying it doesn't decay like those other foods do. Well of course it doesn't - it's dehydrated. Instead of comparing a steak, a banana and a glass of milk with a grain of brown rice, she should have compared a piece of beef jerky, a banana chip, and a spoonful of skim milk powder, no? (I'd recommend getting this book only if you're already a convert to macrobiotics incidentally; avoid it if you're a skeptic or it may turn you off completely. If anyone can recommend a good, level-headed book about macrobiotics in English please let me know.)

Another statement was in a Japanese book written by one of the grand old men of the macrobiotic movement, Michio Kushi, where he stated that women who had moles on their breasts will not only have difficulty getting pregnant, but will also, if they do become pregnant, be likely to have a miscarriage or for their babies to die very young. This mind boggling statement made me almost throw out all the literature right there.

The lack of scientific backing for many of the claims is what brings macrobiotics down for me. In fact, I do find this whole Infinite Universe thing that surrounds macrobiotics to be quite illogical and laughable in some respects. You can't be convinced to follow a philosophy if some of the statements made therein make you giggle.

However, there do seem to be some recent attempts to reconcile scientific research with macrobiotic thinking, at least according to the Wikipedia page. What I've seen in the current crop of Japanese books about macrobiotics is the tendency to play down the philosophical and cult-like parts and to focus almost solely on the benefits of a mostly vegan, sugar, dairy and egg-free diet. (Orange Page, a popular magazine, has a number of "mooks" (magazine-format books) devoted to the subject, which all bear the motto in English on their covers, 'No Milk, No Eggs, No Sugar'.)

What I do get out of the current crop of macrobiotic cookbooks are many clever and tasty ways of dealing with vegetables and whole grains, and cooking 'sweet' things without adding sugar, which is not a bad thing. I'm not likely to be giving up my fresh tomato salads and grilled eggplants anytime soon though, and despite having some jerk chicken for dinner last night my nose is still quite small and round.

Filed under:  essays japanese nutrition

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Hello! I've been following your blog lately- you do a really wonderful job!
As a scientist, I've been always skeptical about health/food-related fads especially in Japan, because they are often scientifically incorrect.
I'm all up for eating healthy, "real" food, but this macrobiotic stuff is not very convincing.
As you pointed out, like eating tomatoes to cool your body during hot summer and root vegetables to warm up your body during winter, eating fresh seasonal ingredients makes more sense to me than being strict about what you can and can't eat.

Thank you for sharing your research, which I'm probably too lazy to do for myself.
I sometimes eat at a macrobiotic cafe and gardens in Austin and I do feel remarkably good afterwards. I blush a little to say it, but it is a feeling of balance and centeredness.
How much that has to do with the food or the loveliness of the place, or just their concerted intention toward balance I don't know.
Giving up eggs and dairy is a tall order! Just last night I overheard the nutritionist at my health food store tell another customer whey protein rates a 104 on the absorption scale, and eggs rate 100 which is considered perfect.
Be nice to have my balance and my protein too! Assuming George Ohsawa, the founder of macrobiotics was on to something. He reportedly did cure himself of terminal TB.

Thank you very much for an objective blog entry on this type of diet. I was lucky to find your blog through someone else's and it's one of my top favorites within my Google Reader queue.

I have been a vegetarian for the past year, with the occasional gone wild occasion such as christmas day and one dinner in Florida in early spring, but oh well...

To make a long story short, I've been thinking I should look up macrobioticism just for the same reason you mentioned in your article: for more creative and interesting ways to cook grains and vegetables. It's too bad some folks aren't as careful with their statements such as those you mentioned about the beaked people and the mole ladies' fertility success rate. Besides those occasional faux pas, gladly, most other authors seem to have their bearings.

All the best to you and please keep your excellent blog entries coming!

My best friend has a copy of this Christina Pirello book, which is OK, but this Holly Davis book is FABULOUS. It's Australian, by a ex-macrobiotic natural foods person.

I was just reading that skin tags (which can look like moles and tend to appear on the neck and chest) are more common in pregnant women. So that's kind of the opposite of what that guy said. Although... I suppose it might be possible that if a woman has skin tags when she's not pregnant, that might mean that her hormones are somehow already similar to pregnancy-mode hormones? And therefore her body might be less receptive to pregnancy because her body thinks it's already kinda pregnant? Or something... Anyway all the women on my mother's side of the family, including me, have skin tags (starting after puberty) and melasma (another condition associated with pregnancy), and irregular periods, plus most have had fertility difficulty.

the exert about breat moles creep me out a bit. because i am a 28 year-old that wants to have children in my early 30's. shesh, i was born with a bunch of "beauty" moles, so what the heck does that mean for my future?

i am already a vegetarian and have convereted my other half to one as well. He drinks milk, I make my own soy milk, but we both enjoy egg whites and we adore real cheddar cheese!

i was begining to wonder why my haircut resembled that of a fighting rooster.

adore your site its mag!!!


I doubt that the moles mean anything, and I brought it up as an example of the totally unscientific claims made by some macrobioticians (if that's a word)...it's bound to really scare some people, which is not good.

Hi Maki:

I finally connected your name to this site, which I already had a link to (duh!) Like you I love brown rice and think it's healthier because of the vitamins and fiber in the husk. But I've come to take with a grain of salt what some of these so-called nutty "experts" have to say here about science. From how wild the statements are it seems like they just get bored one day and make things up! It's sure no reason to cut out eggplants and tomatoes or any fruit either. I think when it comes to what we eat we need to use our common sense and not buy into any extreme food "religion". As Michael Pollen says in "Unhappy Meals", "nutritionsim" is big business for those who want to sell us something, whether it be cookbooks, supplements or special food products.

"cooking ‘sweet’ things without adding sugar"

Oh! I do hope you'll be saying more about this!

Sylvia I'm sure I'll write more about it later on, but briefly, they use the 'natural sweetness' of things like sweet potatoes, winter squash, carrots and things a lot. I've also seen non-macrobiotic vegan Japanese cookbooks that are a bit more liberal in their use of things like fruit, not to mention alternative sugars like maple sugar and honey (though I know these are still simple sugars). They certainly aren't as immediately sweet as sugar-based things but the ones I've tried are not bad.

I wanted to comment regarding the energy of the food. I am orginialy from Iran, and we also combine foods in way to balance their energy.(by the way so does India) We don't call it 'yin' and 'yang', the food is catogrized into 'cold' or 'hot', and it is not about temp or spicyness, it is about the kind of energy the food brings.

About your "chicken" comment from Hip Girls Guide....she uses a lot of humor in that book. If there's one lesson in macrobiotics is don't take it all so seriously.

Eating healthy and deliciously need not be mutually exclusive. Vegetables have a lot of inert flavor in them that you can let out if you cook them right. That said, there are lots of ways to cook veggies deliciously! Try the vegetable recipes at tanya's site, I liked them!

New to you website, I'm reading this rather old post. I totally agree with your comments on the rigid Macrobiotic beliefs. Recently I found some very good cook books by Peter Berley: The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen and Fresh Food Fast. To me, this is the sensible and appealing way to cook from a macrobiotic point of view. Delicious recipes, beautiful food, suitable for dinner parties.

Actually, there is a very similar idea about spices in India.

Ayurveda takes the eater's body type into account as well as the season and the innate quality of the food itself - vata (dry, air), pitta (hot, fire), or kapha (earth, cool) - so there are many times when it strongly proscribes spices.

And spicy foods are specially to be avoided by spiritual seekers because they're heating and therefore (one assumes) cause distracting passions.

I think that, unfortunately, there is a lot of miscommunication about modern-day macrobiotics. Many of the older macrobiotic texts do make strange statements, but I think it is important to realized that, like any movement, macrobiotics has evolved over the last thirty years and macrobiotic people today do not think like that.

As for your comments on "The Hip Chick's Guide...", well, she uses a lot of humor in that book, and I wouldn't take that too seriously. That said, consuming a lot of animal food will make anyone very yang (contracting energy), and can contribute to a nervous disposition...whether or not someone looks like a chicken is a matter of personal opinion!

I did want to clarify why macrobiotic people tend to avoid nightshade vegetables. Nightshades are particularly high in oxalic acid, which can make your condition acidic and can actually leech minerals from your body. The same goes for coffee and sugar, which are both very acidic. However, unless you are on a very strict healing diet, you will find macrobiotic people who enjoy pasta with tomato sauce and occasional nightshades.

I would check out macrobiotic couselor Denny Waxman's blog and strengthenhealth.org for a more modern macrobiotic perspective.

At any rate, I think it's great that you are exploring different whole foods recipes and cooking styles, and always enjoy reading your site!

Thanks for a great article that sums up my own feelings too about macrobiotics. I am vegan, but often fall into the bad habit of eating vegan "junk" food instead of a healthier vegetable and grain based diet. I am looking for some inspiration in the recipes of various macrobiotic cookbooks, and there are many intriguing things there. But even if I believed the bizarre claims of yin/yang nature of certain foods (and how did they determine that?), there seems to be no way for the average person to determine how to mix these "energies" because there is no factual basis behind it.

However, apart from the good recipes, I do think that macrobiotics gives a good emphasis on peacefulness, calmness, wholeness, all aspects of being instead of doing, which Western culture tends to ignore.

Loved your post, manly because of the examples you offer that really made me laugh a lot!Yes, there are crazy people everywhere, even eating a balance macrobiotic diet, they do not have any hopes of cure...even under a macrobiotic philosophy.

love the criticism. really well catch!

Like in any other object of study, be careful with what you read! Sources are important, and context wise too (as in systems theory)

Some comments:

Balance between sodio and potassium = balance between Ying & Yang energies (TAO)....factual basis (there are more)of food components. Tomato is high on potassium (Ying), potatos too

seassons are important!! Hot summer days with a good tomato salad balances you! (extreme Yang weather calls for extreme ying energy intake).

Your activity/profession as well - If i am a baker, placing bread and pastery in the oven 8hour per day, I will have requeirments for a more ying energy food intake to reestablish balance (although extremism does call for a extremistic answer, eating a food that is balance will reestablish you balance faster).

Anyway, like the infinitive (plus)+ and the infinite (minus)- in mathematics, they will meet both. So Ying & Yang when at extrem bring an unbalance that provokes the other (they meet).

I am from Japan, I am Japanese, I have two microbian friends. One's very open to any other diet, other macrobi-elite. Macrobi-elite seeks every chances with me to try "preaching" her cult. She says "foods creates our body" I say "What kind of idiot doesn't know that?". She says "To cure your fibroid, you need to stop eating" I say "Well, then it will kill the host body = me!". Recently her microbi-cult destroyed her husband's family relationships. Her husband and her brother will never speak to each other again.

Food is important for ALL OF US. Microbic-cult followers believe it's their privilege. "Advising" someone with your food diet is like insulting that person's mother. We learn inherit our food culture from our mothers. We have proud food culture in Japan, and they have in China, in France, in Thailand, in Iceland, in else where in the world. Nobody should say "Ours is better than yours" and in Japanese many "normal food eater" complain about microbi-cult followers for this reason.

Important thing is, don't be an asshole. lol
Otherwise, I don't care what you or others eat, microbiotic has goods and bads. Don't believe something someone says "This cures everything!" it's called a cult.


I think whatever diet we choose we can always take what works and leave /ponder the rest. the way a diet is presented by varieties of human beings says more about the people than the diet itself. I have followed a macrobiotic diet for two years now and have never enjoyed food so much. I completely relate to the yin yang principles ... with yin as the upward, opening, relaxing energy and yang being the downward, contracting, strengthening energy. Its mighty hard to get it when coming from a western perspective but with time and patience this diet is sinking in more and more for me and its been a great journey of discovery. I love it. When i excluded the nightshades as an experiment (I came to macrobiotics accidentally through working for macro friends) I soon found I could eat wheat again.... yihaaaaaa! The thinking behind eating the more balanced yin and yang foods, as oppose to the extreme foods which might be used medicinally, is that the body, having had one extreme (say meat) will then look for the extreme yin to balance it (say alcohol) .. most commonly this combination, in excess = vomit!!! For example! When the body swings from one extreme to the other .. disease occurs. If we choose food from the senses .. we usually eat extreme yin or yang foods ... if we eat balanced (this can develop through practice and learning over time) .. then we can maintain the proper acidity/alkalinity in the body .. and experience macro - bios ... big/long life! Added to the yin yang balance are the five tastes to make a meal complete without having to eat large amounts.
If we eat fruits at the end of summer coming into autumn ... this is too yin (opening) and leaves us vulnerable to colds etc. Strawberries are great for hot days ... but extreme on a cold day. Fruits are better in hot climates ... sour fruits in small quantities in cold climates ... there is a sense to it.... and I eat what I want and have more understanding now of how my body responds. After some time of being ill, this has been very empowering forme. Its not for everyone, I respect that.
Whether we choose macrobiotics or not ... contact with it can result in us learning about our bodies and its needs to whatever degree we let it . Food is a complex issue and can bring many reactions if we experience pressure .... so we can be responsible for that .... and sometimes my own enthusiasm for something has put friends off ..... I admit to that on any subject that I love! And have learned the art of moderation, acceptance and generosity. It takes practice.

Hi Maki

Interesting article on macrobiotics. I also have a love-hate relationship with it. When introduced to macrobiotics (I was fortunate enough to have had a macrobiotic teacher who - sadly - have passed away recently) I was very impressed with the novel approach to food and its effect on the body. The difficulty following the diet was that living in Africa one has very little access to Japanese products, but the local Chinese markets (especially the Taiwanese) do stock some of the Japanese foodstuff. My difficulty with macrobiotics was that one had to cut out fruits and the nightshades (I love tomatoes). Having commenced practice of Buddhism (the Chinese version that combines Chan and Pureland) I found this "discrimination" to food plant food) somewhat strange. Kind of un-Buddhist if you like. Excluding meat from my diet was not that difficult (I love fish) and have always been an admirer of the japanese culture. So the introduction to macrobiotic was like "getting in touch and the feel of Japan". Well (to make along story short), I have rather opted to follow the Chinese way of eating as the Chinese products/foods are more accessible and the Chinese tend to be quiet practical about things. But I suppose traditional Japanese cuisine is very closely related to traditional Chinese cuisine?

By the way the macrobiotic view of yin-yang is contrary to the traditional Chinese view. If you are interested in a good macrobiotic (less fluffy stuff) book then I can recommend Simon Brown's Macrobiotics for Life.
PS I love the Asian food basis of rice (although some bread is fine) i find rice accord much better with my constitution.