What is Macrobiotics?

(Greek: Macro = Big, Bios = Life)

Many people have become aware of the word “macrobiotic” in recent years via the media: a macrobiotic lifestyle has been attributed to a number of ‘A’-list celebrities who have recognised its rejuvenating powers.  Whilst it is certainly true that people who follow a macrobiotic diet do look younger, this is only a micro part of the macro story.

If they are maintaining a bona fide macrobiotic lifestyle, all these celebrities are essentially doing is eating pure foods in harmony with their environment, taking exercise and leading their lives in a balanced way.  However, as with anything of any inherent value in our universe, to get to the true nature of macrobiotics is to embark on a journey of learning and genuine satisfaction that will last the rest of your natural life.

Hippocrates, father of Western medicine, used the word “macrobiotic” to describe individuals who rarely needed his expertise: people who were generally healthy and lived a long time.  This idea of ‘macrobiotic people’ eating a simple, balanced diet that allowed them both health and longevity was later taken up by other classical writers such as Galen, Aristotle and Herodotus.

Indeed, eating simply was, for most of our ancestors, not a matter of choice at all.  People ate with the seasons and ate what grew naturally around them: a diet that would have consisted largely of whole grain cereals, vegetables and fruit.  Civilization itself grew up around the first areas to undertake widespread cultivation of grain: “the Fertile Crescent” situated near the Euphrates in modern Iraq.

Our diet in the West has changed more in the last 100 years than over the course of our entire human history.  Unless our ancestors were wealthy, meat, dairy and sugar were rarely eaten at all.   Now they are consumed on a daily basis by most people and are the biggest single contributory factors to cancer, heart disease, mental illness and obesity.

What sugar alone does for violent mood swings in a human being is already well documented. Sugar’s ability to act on brain chemistry and metabolism in this way technically renders it a drug. Yet we have no problem eating it or giving it to our children.

The potentially irreversible harm inflicted on our planet by the meat production industries is also now widely accepted. Aside from the dangerous levels of CO2 associated with meat production and the barbarity of actual slaughter, the cereals used to feed these animals, if redistributed to humans, could solve the problem of world hunger tomorrow.

These facts alone are increasingly making a macrobiotic approach to eating seem more and more attractive. In 50-100 years from now humanity will certainly be forced to reconsider what foods we can still produce on dwindling landmasses submerged by global warming.

As at the dawn of our civilization in the Fertile Crescent, the most likely candidate for what can sustainably feed the largest number of people at the lowest cost both financially and environmentally, will be grain.

To bring macrobiotics up to date, the ideas expressed by Hippocrates 2000 years ago resurfaced again in late 19th century Japan. Dr. Sagan Ishizuka was a high-ranking army doctor who noticed the increasing incidence of disease in a population whose traditional diet was being systematically replaced with Western alternatives.

In 1896, he published “Chemical Theory of Longevity” and in 1898, “Diet For Health” and was so successful in his practice, he was forced to limit the numbers of people he saw to 100 per day! Ishizuka’s healing technique was based on the following five principles:

  • Foods are the foundation of health and happiness.
  • Potassium and sodium are both antagonistic and complimentary elements in food and determine its “yin/yang” quality.
  • Grain is the natural staple food of man.
  • Food should be unrefined, whole and natural.
  • Food should be grown locally and eaten in season.

Point 2 is of particular importance in macrobiotic eating because, as far as possible, ingredients for a meal should be balanced according to their “yin/yang” (potassium/sodium) ratio. Point 5’s reference to seasonal eating is also important in terms of health and well being: in winter, for instance, it is beneficial for the body to have “strengthening foods” to help fortify your immune system. During summer, “cooling foods” are more preferable.

One of Ishizuka’s success stories was a young man named George Ohsawa. Dying of tuberculosis in the early 1920’s, Ohsawa decided to follow the five principles in an effort to save his life. He recovered and spent the rest of the life he was given, writing and speaking about the benefits of a macrobiotic lifestyle. Today, Ohsawa’s work goes on at the Kushi Institutes, founded by Michio Kushi, in the U.S. and Europe.

To sum up this brief introduction and by way of outlining the benefits of following a macrobiotic lifestyle:

George Ohsawa’s Six Attributes Of A Healthy Human Being

Vitality: a sustained abundance of energy.

Appetite: for food and life itself, satisfied in a balanced way.

Deep Sleep: needing no more than six hours.

Memory: pure food allows proper function of the nervous system enhancing memory and all brain function.

Humour: pure food = pure mood with implications for not just ourselves but the entire planet.

Justice: pure food deepens our appreciation of the Natural Order, cause and effect and that all our actions, however small, have a lasting impact.

Further Reading