What is a macrobiotic diet?
A macrobiotic diet is a diet based on healthy food. It in¬cludes a lot of foods that nutritionists and health au¬thorities around the world are pretty much in consen¬sus about: things like whole grains, organic vegetables, and tofu. And the idea is to try to minimize and avoid foods that can be hazardous to your health, like high fat foods, highly sugared foods, and highly processed foods. Macrobiotics is actually a way of life based on the idea of living in harmony with nature. It’s not a new idea; in fact, it has been around for centuries. The term makro¬bios was used by Hippocrates to describe a way of living for health and longevity. We have basi¬cally revived that very old concept and brought it up to date.
How do people go about living in harmony with nature?
One of the first things we recommend people do is to look at what they eat everyday. Because, as modern nutrition and medicine are discovering, food is a key factor in health and sick¬ness. There is plenty of evi¬dence linking the modern high fat, highly processed diet with heart disease, cancer, and other chronic ill¬nesses. So as a first step, we would suggest that people begin to review how they eat and start to return to a more tradi¬tionally based diet.
Do you avoid meat?
In most circumstances, yes. I myself have not had meat in over forty years.
The reason I ask is because some people give the public the impres¬sion that the reason they don’t eat meat is simply an animal rights con¬cern, when in fact, for many people it is quite different.
You’re not say¬ing that you have a moral problem with live¬stock or meat?
There are ecological and environmental problems with the way the cattle industry is conducted today. There are very clear problems. And there is the is¬sue of the way animals are treated in the food in¬dustry, in which we find a total disrespect for them as living beings. We agree with those concerns.
Am I right to say that that is a different concern than saying you shouldn’t kill any animal for food?
Yes. If you’re an Eskimo and you live in northern Alaska, you are not go¬ing to be able to grow cabbage. So, in order to sur¬vive, you have got to eat whale meat, seal fat, and other types of animal food. That we would say is an ecological or macrobiotic lifestyle, in that niche.
And certainly fish is part of the macrobiotic diet, at least for some.
Yes. So the ethical concern is there but it is not the overriding concern. Harmony with the environment, what works from an envi¬ronmental point of view, is our primary concern.
Studies of dietary habits in around the world indicate that a plant based eating plan is more likely to promote health than a meat eating plan. Particularly the fats in meat are bad for you. Do you con¬cur with this?
Yes. The evidence is now overwhelming. As a re¬sult, a lot of people have stopped eating meat in the last five or ten years and have switched to low fat foods, like fish or seafood, or high pro¬tein soyfoods. Many people now agree that a high meat diet is not go¬ing to benefit your health. Your risk of heart disease, colon cancer, prostate cancer, and many other illnesses increases when you eat a high fat, high meat diet. So these studies more or less confirm what many people al¬ready know.
The extreme growth in the rate of heart disease is really an American and Western civilization problem, isn’t it?
Definitely. When you look at Japan, the Philippines, Africa, and other parts of the world where people do not consume much animal food, their rates of heart disease are much lower than those in the United States and other devel¬oped countries. The same is true of many types of cancer. Populations with a low consumption of animal fat have much lower rates of colon, prostate, breast, and other com¬mon forms of cancer.
What about dietary supplements. Are they a part of macrobiotics?
Ultimately, our goal is to get all the nutrients we need from our daily foods. If we are eating a well bal¬anced diet, with plenty of vari¬ety, then we don’t need to supplement artificially. As a temporary measure, people eating a mod¬ern, unbalanced diet may some¬times use them. But for long term health and well be¬ing, we don’t recom¬mend them.
Am I correct in saying that the macrobiotic diet has some roots in Japanese diet?
It incorporates elements of traditional Japanese diet. It’s not a Japanese diet, but incorporates traditional di¬etary practices from a variety of cultures. For example, your grandmother prob¬ably ate whole wheat bread, sauerkraut, and cabbage from her gar¬den, and ate much less animal food than we do today. Native Americans ate corn, beans, and squash, all of which are part of the macrobiotic diet. If we go back a couple of generations, peo¬ple were more or less eating along the lines of mac¬robiotics. There were only about five or six chemicals in the food supply before World War II. Now there are several thousand. At the turn of the century, everyone was pretty much eating organic food. And if you look at their health patterns back then, you will see that heart disease was a very rare condi¬tion, believe it or not. Cancer struck one out of twenty seven people at the turn of the century. Now it strikes one out of three. These changes correlate to the shift away from a more traditionally based diet to the modern, high fat, highly pro¬cessed diet.
What is the difference between a vegetarian diet and a macrobiotic diet?
Macrobiotics is not against the use of animal food, some an¬imal food, de¬pending on the circumstances. Macrobiotics is not a rigid diet. It’s more like a set of principles that we can use to modify our diet based on our personal needs.
What are those principles?
The first principle is to eat along the lines of traditional di¬etary prac¬tice, what people did for thousands of years. If you look back, even in biblical times, whole grains and vegetables were considered the staff of life. We say respect that; it worked, it went on for thou¬sands of years. Agriculture was self sustaining, people continued. The sec¬ond principle is to change or modify your diet accord¬ing to your climate. So as I said earlier, if you move up north to the polar re¬gions, it’s very eco¬logical to eat a diet based on animal food. Whereas if you live in India, then it is ecological not to eat much animal food and to use grains and other plant foods as your main foods. We need to be flexible and adapt our eat¬ing according to where we live.
If you live in the United States, what would the macrobiotic prin¬ciples for diet be?
Practically speaking, your main food would be complex car¬bo¬hydrates, especially whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat, bar¬ley, oats, millet, and other high fiber grain products. Secondary foods would be vegetables, things that you grow in your garden, things that grow in your area. The third category of food would be vegetable protein sources like tofu, tempeh, pro-cessed soy foods, whole beans, and things like that. But your intake of animal food would be much less than what most peo¬ple are eating at present. You see, animal food is now the main food in the American diet, although people are moving away from it. That dietary pattern very sim¬ply doesn’t work for our per¬sonal health or for the health of the planet.
What does it do for our health?
It increases our risk of heart disease. It’s well known that foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol, meaning most animal foods, will increase your risk of developing a heart attack or stroke. That’s well known. In fact there was a study not too long ago. They took people off of those foods, put them on a semi macrobi¬otic diet, and were able not only to lower their choles-terols, but also ac¬tually reverse severe deposits of arte¬riosclero¬sis. It was a breakthrough study be¬cause it showed that heart disease could be reversed without drugs or surgery, but with diet and lifestyle alone.
Can a macrobiotic diet be of benefit to someone with an established ill¬ness?
Yes. I have worked with many people with estab¬lished ill¬nesses who were able to experience remission or recovery as a result of adopting macrobiotics. I helped edit several books that featured the personal sto¬ries of people from all walks of life who recovered from a variety of cancers with the help of the macrobi¬otic diet. People with similar experiences have written a variety of other books, some of them best sellers. A good example of the way that mac¬robiotics can change an estab¬lished health problem is the speed with which high cholesterols drop to within normal after a short time on the diet.
What do doctors and nutritionists think about mac¬robiotics?
There are many different opinions, just as there are many opin¬ions about what type of approach to take for a certain ill¬ness. There is no unified consensus yet. Some doctors are eating macrobiotically. Others are eat¬ing semi macrobiotically or going toward it. Some feel that there is not enough scien¬tific evidence to prove that macrobi¬otics can help in the recovery from illness, while others recommend macrobiotics to their pa¬tients. So there is no unified ap¬proach yet. But we hope that a consensus will emerge. Because nutrition is an area of medicine that has been neglected for many years, and is only now getting the attention it deservesThe principles of macrobiotics derive from a phi¬losophy of life, but inter¬estingly enough, they dovetail with the latest find¬ings in modern nutrition, like those of the China Study. So a conver¬gence is taking place between mac¬robiotics and the leading edge of science and nutrition. Macrobiotics, in a way, an-tici¬pated the preven¬tive guidelines of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and other public health organizations. More than fifty years ago, George Ohsawa, Michio Kushi, Herman Aihara, and other macrobiotic educa¬tors were already saying that the modern diet was a primary factor in cancer and heart disease, and that a low fat diet based around whole grains, beans, and fresh local vegetables would help pre¬vent these illnesses.
If you eat meat only five times a week, how does that affect your health?
Well certainly it is better than ten times a week. And that is bet¬ter than fif¬teen times. So it is a question of relativity.
I probably eat meat five times a week, usually with dinner, or if I go out to lunch. To what degree does that hurt my health?
Try to look at it this way. Think about how a hun¬dred years ago, when people ate meat, how it was eaten. It was often cooked in a big pot with a lot of veg¬etables, like a stew. And the portion of meat was often quite small. Plus, they were eating high fiber brown bread and other whole grain products along with it, to¬gether with side dishes of fresh farm and garden veg¬etables. Nowadays, if you go to a restau¬rant and order meat, practically all that comes out is a huge slab, maybe with a small salad and some French fries. That’s a big prob¬lem. So if you are going to keep eating meat, that’s your choice, but at least try to reduce the amount and balance it with some healthy foods.
I do a lot of running, a lot of jogging, and have a busy work sched¬ule. Is it possible to maintain a high level of energy without supple¬menting my diet with meat?
The idea that you need meat for vitality is a myth, a total myth. Some of the top marathon and tri ath¬elon athletes in the world today are not eating meat. They are eating complex carbo¬hydrates. Complex car¬bohydrates are now consid¬ered to be the best foods for stamina, endurance, and energy. As far as main¬tain¬ing an active schedule, the additional stamina and energy that you get from eat¬ing well makes that much easier. With a lit¬tle guidance and imagination, includ¬ing cooking classes, you can adapt a healthy diet to a mod¬ern, fast paced lifestyle.
I don’t have time to go to a natural foods store. Where else can I find healthy nat¬ural foods?
Many supermarkets are now selling organic vegeta¬bles, tofu, whole grain breads and pastas, and other natural foods. There are mail order companies that will ship macrobiotic staples to your door. When you buy organic veg¬eta¬bles, not only do you benefit your health, you sup¬port your local organic farmers and the local ecology.
When you say organic vegetables, do you mean vegetables grown with¬out pesti¬cides?
Yes, chemical free.
How does that affect your health?
There is plenty of evidence linking pesticides in the food supply to cancer, to behavioral disorders in chil¬dren, to all kinds of health problems. As you go up the food chain, from plant to animal foods, pesticides con¬centrate to a much higher degree. They concentrate especially in animal fat. If you are eating meat, eggs, and plenty of dairy food everyday, then you are getting, in addition to a lot of cholesterol and saturated fat, a pretty hefty dose of pesticide and other toxic residues. If you eat grains and other vegetable quality foods, even if they are not organic, the concentration of residues is far less. Toxic chemicals don’t bind with plant tissues in the way they do with the sticky fats animal foods.
We have one of the most massive, expensive health care systems in the world and yet very little en¬ergy is put into preventing illness before it hap¬pens. Do you feel that is why more and more people are reaching out to pro¬grams like yours for dietary and lifestyle guidance, in order to prevent get¬ting sick?
Yes. The focus of the modern health care system is not really health, it’s sickness. People go to doctors when they get sick or have an emergency. But the point is, how do you prevent those things from hap¬pening? That’s where mac¬ro¬biotic education comes in.
Many doctors tell me they wish people would take more re¬spon¬sibility for their health and do the right things as far as eat¬ing the right foods and exercising. There is enough evidence showing that chronic ill¬nesses are lifestyle related. They are not just freak acci¬dents or things that happen for no reason. They are events that we create through our behavior, our diet, and our way of life. If we create those problems, then we have the power to prevent them from hap¬pening or to solve them if they do happen. A good example is heart disease. It’s very clear that if we eat plenty of sat¬urated fat and cholesterol, our cholesterol level is go¬ing to go up, our blood fat level is going to go up, and the deposition of fats in the arteries and blood vessels is going to continue. If we don’t eat those foods, and eat a vegetable quality diet, including plenty of whole grains and fresh veg¬etables, those things won’t happen and we can prevent that prob¬lem from oc¬cur¬ring. It’s very simple.
I have a friend whose child is developing very early. The child’s pe¬dia¬trician al¬luded to the fact that sometimes the growth hormones in animal foods can cause children to go into puberty early. Have you ever heard of this?
Yes. There was a well known case in Puerto Rico about ten years back. In a little village, children five, six, and seven years old started to go into full puberty. Little girls started to develop breasts and boys failed to develop male characteris¬tics. Investigators traced the problem to a local chicken processor who was using several times the legal amount of synthetic estro¬gen in the chicken that people in the village were eating. Growth hormones may play a role in the increas¬ing in¬ci¬dence of breast cancer, including among men. Last year, there were four thou¬sand cases of male breast cancer in the United States. Incidentally, the issue of synthetic hormones in the mod-ern food supply is well covered in John Robbins’ book, Diet for a New America.
How do you feel about frozen and canned foods?
Whenever possible, it is better to use fresh foods. There is an in¬tangible quality to food, the so called “aliveness” of food that is dif¬ficult to measure sci¬entif¬ically. That intangible quality is ac¬tually quite impor¬tant for health. Obviously something that is freshly picked is going to have more aliveness than some¬thing that has been in a can or freezer for several weeks or months.
Are dairy products part of the macrobiotic diet?
Usually not. Dairy products are linked with a vari¬ety of health problems, from colic in infants to breast cancer in adults. Dairy foods are a major cause of aller¬gies. The best nutrition for an infant is found in mother’s milk, not cow’s milk. And once that natural pat¬tern of feeding (breast feeding) is established, it doesn’t make sense to introduce cow’s milk once the baby has been weaned. Many peo¬ple go directly from breast feeding to in¬troducing whole cereals and other vegetable quality foods.
The China Study came out with an interest¬ing find¬ing that relates to the issue of dairy products. Chinese, histori¬cally, have not used dairy products so you would think they would have high rates of osteo¬porosis and bone thin¬ning be¬cause of a lack of calcium in the diet. However, the opposite is actually true. The study re¬vealed that the Chinese have incredi¬bly low rates of osteo¬porosis compared to the United States where plenty of dairy foods are eaten. So the idea that you need dairy prod¬ucts to prevent osteoporosis is in¬correct. Studies in other parts of the world have shown that people who eat a lot of grains, veg¬etables, beans, and other vegetable quality foods and who con¬sume few dairy products have the lowest rates of osteo¬poro¬sis. In fact, there are studies showing that the high in¬take of protein involved in dairy or meat based diets may cause the body to lose calcium and may actually be a cause of osteoporo¬sis.
Are there alternative sources of calcium, or is the need for calcium overblown?
No, we need calcium but there are better sources than dairy foods.
Such as tofu, such as beans.
Tofu is in every supermarket, yet some people still don’t know what it is. It’s a soybean product, right? It is a bean curd.
Yes. It’s quite delicious. Children love it. Children love tofu. Green leafy vegetables, the ones your grandmother told you to eat more of, are good sources of calcium. Another good source, and I know this may sound new to some peo¬ple, is sea¬weed (sea vegeta¬bles). Vegetables from the sea are very rich in cal¬cium and other min¬erals. One type of sea vegetable that we use has fourteen times as much calcium as the same amount of milk. It’s called hijiki. It’s quite de¬li¬cious and very nutritious. All seaweeds are incredibly rich in valuable nutrients.
I saw an interesting study recently. I don’t know if it is related to what you are saying but it showed that young kids who watched the most televi¬sion had the most obe¬sity. And I’m not sure why that is.
It is completely related. One reason for that is the lack of physical activity that comes with watching tele¬vision. Another is that children often snack while sit¬ting in front of the T.V. A third reason is that most of the ads directed at chil¬dren on Saturday morning tele¬vision are for high fat, highly sugared junk foods. Children who see these foods advertised on television have a tendency to want to eat them more often.
Your question raises a problem that is directly con¬nected to diet, and that is the decline of the modern family. Problems such as di¬vorce, separation, and fam¬ily violence directly tie in with modern di¬etary pat¬terns. The fact that families don’t eat together any more is a major factor in family separation. In the past, par¬ents would prepare food for their children and put a tremendous amount of love and care into their cook¬ing. I think we need to take a look at what modern eating habits are doing to family solidarity, not to mention family health.
A popular impression of macrobiotics is the image of a lot of whole wheat flour and a certain style of eat¬ing. Yet in looking at macrobiotic lit¬erature, I’m led to believe that macrobiotics offers a resolution for a wide range of problems. Why do you think the mac-robiotic way of eat¬ing is at the core of solving so many dis¬parate problems?
So many social problems are related to health. The economy is a good ex¬ample. If the incidence of chronic illness continues increasing at the present rate, we are going to be in a situation where medical costs will start to consume the entire GNP. That kind of situation would bankrupt the world economy. The esca¬lation of medical costs is a direct result of the modern decline in personal health, and that, in turn, is caused by what people are eating.
Destruction of the environment is also related to modern eat¬ing habits. The modern food system is a major contributor to the deple¬tion of natural re¬sources, the release of chemicals into the envi¬ronment, and the disruption of planetary ecology. Take for ex¬ample, the prob¬lem of ozone depletion. The chemicals that de¬stroy ozone are those used in Styrofoam containers for fast foods, as well as in air condi¬tioners, refrigera¬tors, and aerosol spray cans. If we eat macrobioti¬cally, we can get by with much less air conditioning than people use today. People be¬come ad¬dicted to air-conditioning because they are eating too much ani¬mal fat, which causes the body to retain heat. At the same time, foods such as meat, eggs, dairy food, and chicken re¬quire con¬stant re¬frigeration to prevent toxic spoilage. Whole grains, veg¬etables, dry beans, sea vegetables, and other natural foods re¬quire much less refrigera¬tion, even during the summer.
When people eat plenty of animal food, they desire iced drinks and foods such as ice cream to bal¬ance the excessive heat gen¬erated in their bodies, all of which require constant refrigera¬tion. By eating macrobiotically, you are mak¬ing a direct contribu¬tion to the environment. You are also protecting yourself from en¬vi¬ronmental hazards.
So you are saying that your body is like the planet, you have to take care of it.
Exactly. Planetary health, planetary ecology is equal to per¬sonal health and ecology. They’re really the same thing.
Edward Esko is one of the planet’s leading advocates of natural health and living and one of the most active contemporary macrobiotic teachers in the world. He is the author of Healing Planet Earth, Yin Yang Primer, and Contemporary Macrobiotics. Edward has lectured in over a dozen countries, guided thousands of people toward better health through the macrobiotic diet, and has been a tireless advocate of planetary health and peace. Edward is also co-founder of Amberwaves, a non-profit environmental organization headquartered in Massachusetts. Edward is the keynote speaker at the Quantum Wellness event on Friday May 3 sponsored by Renaissance Unity.