A Note From the Editors
The Spruce Eats does not endorse this diet; rather, we are providing some information that can contribute to your decision. Please talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian before making any significant changes to your diet.
The macrobiotic diet has been around for hundreds of years and started as a way to eat that focused on nutrient-dense, seasonal foods harvested locally. This diet also focuses on balancing life, restorative exercise, and the elimination of any chemicals or artificial ingredients in both food and personal health products. Since coming to the United States in the 1970s, the diet has become a bit of a fad, both for good and not so good reasons.
Macrobiotic Diet Basics
The macrobiotic diet has been around since the 4th century BC, started as a concept in ancient Greece by the philosopher Hippocrates. It was then, as it mainly is today, a way of eating seasonal, local foods, mainly plants, exercising outside, sleeping well, and balancing life to the best of one's ability. Prussian physician Dr. Christoph Wilhelm Hufelan was the next to reintroduce the macrobiotic diet in 1796 with his book, Macrobiotics: The Art of Prolonging Life.
Again this concept faded away until the mid 19th century when, in Japan, Dr. Sagan Ishizuka started incorporating the macrobiotic diet principles into his own practice, which had relied heavily on Western medicine. Ishizuka had witnessed poor health among his army patients who weren't eating well, so he implemented a diet based on unrefined, whole, and fresh seasonal foods, cutting out any artificial ingredients, dairy and non-fish protein. The menu included foods such as whole grains, sea veggies, beans, locally grown and seasonal produce, nuts, seeds, and the occasional fish.
Like the other doctors before him, once Ishizuka died his practice faded away, and once again the macrobiotic diet was somewhat forgotten. That is until the 1920s when George Ohsawa, who was dying of tuberculosis, found Ishizuka's research and decided to try the macrobiotic diet himself. The results were extraordinary and Ohsawa made a full recovery. Ohsawa, along with his wife Lima, started teaching the philosophy and principles behind the macrobiotic diet, and eventually, the concept grew from Japan to Europe, and then all over the world. The macrobiotic diet was well received in the United States thanks to Michio Kushi, a student of Ohsawa and the founder of Erewhon Natural Foods, who popularized it in the 1970s.
The macrobiotic diet has changed over the centuries, and become more of a diet fad and lifestyle. It revolves around three main food principles including: Yin and yang, which, in the context of food, means ingredients that warm up the body also give the body more energy, and are the yang, where yin foods cool us down and can be more refreshing; the second is acid and alkaline, meaning one should consume foods with a high pH balance in order to create an alkaline-forming diet; finally, harmony with nature, one of the main reasons the macrobiotic diet is plant-based. This diet also follows the principles of loving life and following the five elements—fire, wood, water, metal, and earth—though these don't relate to the food as much as they do the lifestyle of the macrobiotic diet.
How to Cook For the Macrobiotic Diet
The main methods of cooking on the macrobiotic diet include steaming, sautéeing, eating raw, boiled, and baking. The main thing to think about when cooking for this diet is what is being prepared.
What to Eat on the Macrobiotic Diet
- Grains: The main crux of the macrobiotic diet is whole grains, and many meals contain around 50-percent of this food. This includes anything from millet to quinoa to wheat berries.
- Produce: Fresh, seasonal, and locally sourced vegetables are another major part of the diet, especially leafy greens like kale, bok choy, and chard. This part makes up about 30-percent of the daily food intake, and vegetables can be steamed, boiled, sautéed, or baked. There are some who follow the diet that recommend avoiding nightshades such as potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers, as well as beets, summer squash, and spinach, but these foods are not rigorously prohibited. However non-local fruit is highly discouraged.
- Protein: A bit of fresh seafood or fish for protein is allowed, though it's not usually eaten every day. Mostly the protein in the macrobiotic diet comes from beans, especially soybeans. While processed food, in general, isn't part of the diet, soybeans made into tofu, bean curd, or tempeh are allowed. Soy also comes into play in miso form, namely as a soup. A broth-based soup, in fact, is to be eaten twice a day, every day. Lightly roasted and salted nuts and/or seeds too can be added, but no more than one ounce every few days.
- Oils and Spices: To cook foods, avoid olive or coconut oil. Instead, the approved types of cooking oils for the macrobiotic diet include light or dark sesame oil, unrefined vegetable oil, corn oil, or mustard seed oil. Spices can be used and often the macrobiotic diet features Japanese condiments and flavorings such as fermented pickles, shoyu, grated ginger, brown rice and umeboshi vinegars, umeboshi plums, and roasted seaweed.
What Not to Eat on the Macrobiotic Diet
The main thing to remember when cooking for or following a macrobiotic diet is to eschew chemicals, processed food, dairy, and non-fish meat. The list of banned foods also includes eggs, refined sugar, honey, molasses, coffee, black tea, and alcohol. Once those are eliminated, cooking for the macrobiotic diet doesn't prove difficult. More, it's challenging to plan, and takes effort to prepare the right foods for each meal of the day.
Macrobiotic Diet Recipes
The basic cooking techniques in the macrobiotic diet are baking, sautéeing, boiling, steaming, and eating raw. These recipes highlight a variety of ingredients approved in the diet as well as methods to make them, though sometimes olive oil has to be substituted for light vegetable oil.
Nutrition and Benefits
Nutrition is the main reason people go on the macrobiotic diet. It's dense in whole foods, fresh foods, and local produce. There's no sugar, added chemicals, artificial ingredients, caffeine, or alcohol on this diet, all of which can be unhealthy when not consumed in moderation. Due to the lack of meat, nuts, and oils, this diet doesn't give the eater much fat either. While the overall diet plan is nutritious, it may also help with diabetes since there's no added sugar. Another way the macrobiotic diet may help the body is by lowering inflammation, which can lead to many health problems.
While overall nutritious, there are a lot of restrictions in the macrobiotic diet that can make it challenging. Another downside to this diet is a lack of protein, iron magnesium, calcium, and vitamin B12. Because this diet condones artificial ingredients and additives to foods, finding a vitamin supplement to help balance out these deficients can be difficult. The macrobiotic diet also takes a lot of time and energy to make sure enough of the good foods are getting on the plate, which involves planning, shopping, and mainly cooking at home.
The Macrobiotic Diet vs. Vegan Diet
In many respects, the macrobiotic diet is the same as a vegan diet, save for the addition of fish and seafood. The vegan diet doesn't allow for any animal products at all. Both a vegan and macrobiotic diet eschew dairy, meat, eggs, and honey. Overall the macrobiotic diet is more restrictive than a vegan diet since it limits the amount of food one can eat and condones many oils, non-local vegetables and fruit, caffeine, alcohol, and sometimes nightshades. However, unlike the vegan diet, someone on the macrobiotic may wear and buy leather goods.
It's both a truth and a myth that the macrobiotic diet is healthy. For starters, there are a lot of healthy aspects to the diet such as portion control, no sugar, lots of vegetables and whole grains, and no artificial ingredients. But it also lacks protein, can be difficult to maintain, and may not be the best diet for all people, especially those sensitive to salt and those who need more good fats in their daily food intake.
Many people also believe the macrobiotic diet was created by hippies in the 1960s. In fact, this diet dates back hundreds of years to ancient Greece and then Japan, where it really made waves thanks to two doctors who lived almost 100 years apart.
Soare A, Khazrai YM, Del Toro R, et al. The effect of the macrobiotic Ma-Pi 2 diet vs. the recommended diet in the management of type 2 diabetes: the randomized controlled MADIAB trial. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2014;11:39.
Harmon BE, Carter M, Hurley TG, Shivappa N, Teas J, Hébert JR. Nutrient composition and anti-inflammatory potential of a prescribed macrobiotic diet. Nutrition and Cancer. 2015;67(6):933-940.