What Is a Macrobiotic Diet?

Millet and cashew stir fry with chilli and lime sauce
 Dorling Kindersley: Charlotte Tolhurst / Getty Images

The macrobiotic diet, revered by some for its healthy and healing qualities, is a diet with roots in traditional Japanese food, which gained popularity in the west in the late 20th century, starting around the 1960s. 

A macrobiotic diet emphasizes eating very little animal products of any kind, though it does allow for a small amount of fish, so it is not technically a vegetarian or vegan diet but is actually a pescetarian diet.

Instead, a macrobiotic diet includes mostly unprocessed vegan foods, such as whole grains (particularly brown rice), some fruits and plenty of vegetables, beans, and legumes (such as lentils and peas) and allows the occasional consumption of fish. Along with most meats and dairy, according to the definition of a macrobiotic diet, sugar and refined oils are to be avoided.

But a macrobiotic diet is not just a "vegan plus fish minus sugar diet", as it does have a few more rules. Perhaps the most unique qualifier of the macrobiotic diet is its emphasis on the consumption of Asian vegetables, such as daikon, and sea vegetables, such as seaweed, as well as fermented foods such as Japanese miso and natto (fermented soybeans), pickles and fermented sauerkraut. A fully macrobiotic diet will also eliminate processed foods, such as coffee, alcohol, any kind of sugar, fruit juices, white rice and white flour and all food additives and preservatives.

So what does a macrobiotic diet have to do with vegetarianism or veganism? While a macrobiotic diet is very similar to a vegan diet.Many people who follow macrobiotic principles also choose to eliminate all animal products, and actually follow a vegan macrobiotic diet. And, if you're following traditional macrobiotic principles and eating mostly whole grains and vegetables and only eating fish once a week or so, you'll definitely need to understand the basic principles of veganism and plenty of vegan recipes as well!

Why Follow a Macrobiotic Diet?

In some ways, somewhat like veganism, a macrobiotic diet is more of a philosophy than a diet, and following a macrobiotic diet is more of a lifestyle than it is a way of eating. The philosophy behind a macrobiotic diet is based on the Chinese Taoist concepts of yin and yang, that is, that there are complementary forces in the physical and spiritual world which should be balanced. Strict adherents to a macrobiotic diet try to balance out the perceived yin and the yang qualities of different types of foods and ingredients. 

Proponents cite a long list of advantages and reasons to follow macrobiotic principles, including reduced cardiovascular and chronic disease risk. Some of these advantages, however, are due to the general reduction of animal product consumption and processed foods, and not wholly attributable to the specifics of the diet per se. 

So Is a Macrobiotic Diet Healthy?

Is it healthy to reduce the amount of sugar, processed foods, and animal products you eat and instead eat a diet of mostly whole grains, beans and legumes, and vegetables? Absolutely! If you are used to eating lots of dairy, meat, and packaged and processed foods, you will probably notice a huge difference when switching over to a diet based on mostly whole, plant-based foods, whether you follow macrobiotic principles of including lots of Japanese sea vegetables and fermented foods or not and whether or not you know anything about yin and yang food qualities. In other words, yes!

Will eating this way bring you closer to a spiritual truth, make you become one with nature, extend your lifespan and prevent or even reverse some diseases, as some proponents claim? Maybe, maybe not, but it certainly won't hurt in these regards!