Bob Dylan’s still around, making music in Modern Times (his latest studio CD). Tie-dyed designs are the new darlings at trendy boutiques. And another ’60s icon, the macrobiotic diet, is back too—but with a more balanced approach.
Then and Now
For a movement that aims to promote better health, macrobiotics has a somewhat checkered past. Its original popularizer, Japanese philosopher George Ohsawa, claimed that “all diseases can be cured in 10 days” with the diet. The regimen he proposed was a progressively and excessively restrictive one, in which the last stage consisted solely of organic whole grains cooked with salt. Not surprisingly, this extremely limited diet proved to be unhealthy, and it has since fallen out of favor.
Years after Ohsawa’s death, a number of new books have explored macrobiotics, and celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna have talked publicly about their experiments with the diet.
The new version of the macrobiotic diet is generally more balanced than the original. Fish has been added to a more expansive organic menu that still focuses on whole grains, beans and vegetables. The diet promotes certain veggies while avoiding others. Cabbage, parsnips, carrots and onions get the thumbs up, while beets, okra, eggplant, tomatoes, avocados, potatoes and asparagus don’t.
Many of those who follow the program swear by it. “The first week I started eating a macrobiotic diet, I felt radiantly happy, much more so than I’d ever felt in my life,” says Mirea Ellis, assistant director of the Kushi Institute in Becket, Massachusetts, the nation’s oldest and largest macrobiotic education center. She says her intractable depression lifted within a week of switching to the diet more than 30 years ago.
However, the scientific evidence to back up such health claims is scant and inconclusive, and many dietitians are circumspect about the regimen. “Because there are no dairy products, a person might suffer a calcium deficiency,” says Marisa Moore, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “There’s also a potential for a protein deficiency.”
On the positive side, Moore says, “macrobiotics encourages more vegetables and whole grains. And it takes the focus away from meat products.” All of which can add up to a low-fat, high-fiber diet that reduces the risk for heart disease, certain cancers and other diseases.
Yin and Yang
To fully understand macrobiotics, you need to explore the philosophy behind it. The Kushi Institute website describes macrobiotics as “the art and science of health and longevity.” Based on the idea that the food you eat can have a profound impact on your health, Ellis says that macrobiotics attempts to guide people to eating in a way that’s more balanced in the Asian principles of yin and yang.
“The principles look holistically at each type of food and consider the effect on the human system, primarily aiming for a more balanced condition in each individual,” Ellis explains. In practical terms, that means foods that are believed to upset the body’s energy balance are off-limits. Along with the vegetables mentioned, the list of foods to avoid ranges from hot dogs and chicken to coffee and ice cream.
Ellis advises consulting with a qualified professional before adopting the diet. That’s especially important if you’re pregnant, nursing or seriously ill, or if you’re using the diet with a child. With careful planning to make sure daily nutritional needs are met, macrobiotics just may be on the comeback trail