The Macrobiotic Diet: What You Should Know

Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD on August 15, 2016Written by Corey Whelan

macrobiotic diet

What is a macrobiotic diet?

Macrobiotics is a lifestyle stressing balance and harmony. It includes a rigorous diet plan, gentle exercise, and behavioral changes. All are geared towards obtaining a natural and calm way of life. Although no scientific evidence backs up the health claims associated with macrobiotics, many people report enhanced health and greater well-being when following its principles.

Some people turn to macrobiotic diets in pursuit of better health. Others try it when they have a diagnosis, such as heart disease, obesity, or premenstrual syndrome, in the hopes that macrobiotic eating will alleviate their symptoms and support recovery.

Macrobiotic eating places a strong focus on natural, organic food. It also advocates for complete elimination of chemicals and artificial ingredients. This no-chemical rule extends to personal hygiene products, as well as other products used in the home.

The types of foods allowed vary slightly depending on the person. Several factors determine what you eat, including your:

  • existing health issues
  • gender
  • age
  • geographic location

Who may benefit from the macrobiotic diet?

Try this if you:

  • have heart disease
  • have diabetes
  • are at risk for breast cancer

No scientific evidence or research suggests that macrobiotic eating can cure disease. However, macrobiotic eating may provide health benefits to some people when used as a complementary therapy.

The macrobiotic diet is largely vegetarian. It significantly limits animal fat. For this reason, it may be beneficial for people dealing with heart disease and high cholesterol.

Its emphasis on vegetables makes it high in phytoestrogens. These are naturally occurring chemical compounds found in plants. Phytoestrogens may help reduce circulating estrogen levels in some women. According to a 2001 study, this may reduce breast cancer risk. Updated research needs to be done to confirm or deny these findings.

Macrobiotic eating may also be beneficial for some people with diabetes. This is because it completely eliminates sugary foods and soda from the diet. This diet also puts a strong focus on high-carbohydrate whole grains. Although whole grains have less impact on blood sugar than processed carbohydrates, this may not be advisable for all people with diabetes. However, a 2014 study does confirm that a macrobiotic diet is more beneficial than a standard diet for people with diabetes.

Which foods are included?

Macrobiotic eating relies heavily upon consumption of whole, organic grains. Whole grains usually make up around 50 percent of each person’s daily food intake. Good examples are:

  • bulgur wheat
  • buckwheat
  • brown rice
  • quinoa
  • wild rice

Whole cereal grains are considered preferable to whole-grain pastas and breads. That said, these types of processed food are permissible in small quantities.

Certain vegetables locally grown and in season should make up approximately one-third of your daily food intake. Vegetables you can eat daily include:

  • kale
  • cauliflower
  • broccoli
  • pumpkin
  • bok choy
  • onion
  • radishes
  • carrots
  • parsley
  • green cabbage

The rest of your daily food intake may include:

  • pickles
  • beans
  • soy products, such as miso
  • sea vegetables, such as seaweed
  • vegetable oil
  • natural seasonings, such as naturally processed sea salt

Food preparation techniques, including steaming or sautéing, are recommended.

Soup made of the following ingredients can also be a daily staple:

  • vegetables
  • lentils
  • seaweed
  • sea salt
  • soy products, such as tofu and miso

Which foods should be limited or avoided?

Some foods can be eaten occasionally, or a few times each week. These include:

  • organic tree fruit and berries
  • seeds
  • nuts
  • cucumbers
  • celery
  • lettuce

The following organic foods are meant to be eaten very rarely, or only a few times each month:

  • fish
  • seafood
  • dairy
  • eggs
  • poultry
  • meat

Foods to eliminate include:

  • certain vegetables, including potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes
  • caffeinated beverages
  • alcoholic beverages
  • processed foods, such as white bread and store-bought cakes and cookies
  • any food with artificial ingredients
  • sodas, both diet and regular
  • sugar and products containing sugar or corn syrup
  • molasses
  • vanilla
  • pork
  • tropical fruits, such as pineapples and mangos
  • hot, spicy food
  • seasonings, such as garlic and oregano

You should eat in a focused, thoughtful, and slow manner without distractions, such as the television. You should only eat food to satisfy hunger, and you should chew it many times until it’s nearly liquefied. You should drink water or other beverages, such as dandelion root tea, brown rice tea, and cereal grain coffee, only to satisfy thirst.

What are the downsides to the macrobiotic diet?

Downsides:

  1. Some may find this diet to be too restrictive.
  2. Many of the approved foods are high in salt.
  3. The diet is lacking in certain nutrients.

Despite its potential benefits, macrobiotic eating isn’t right for everyone. If you love spicy food or can’t live without that first cup of coffee or occasional margarita, you might find the macrobiotic diet too restrictive. It’s also top-heavy in foods that are high in salt. This generally isn’t ideal for those with high blood pressure or kidney disease.

For some people, macrobiotic eating causes too high a reduction in body fat. Because the diet is low in animal fat, fruit, and dairy, it can provide too little:

  • protein
  • iron
  • magnesium
  • calcium
  • vitamins, including B-12

People who adhere stringently to macrobiotic eating often frown upon taking multivitamins to supplement this loss of nutrients.

Macrobiotics isn’t recommended as a substitute for medical care or traditional therapy for anyone dealing with a diagnosis, such as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.

How to get started with the macrobiotic diet

Before beginning a macrobiotic diet, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor or a dietitian. If you do decide to try it, you may need to make some changes to your kitchen, including your refrigerator.

The way food is cooked and prepared, and the types of kitchen utensils used, are important. Cooking in microwave ovens or with electricity generally isn’t recommended. Macrobiotic cooking is meant to be a tranquil, soothing experience. It typically involves the use of:

  • natural, untreated wood
  • stainless steel
  • enamel and ceramic pots, pans, and cooking utensils

You should eliminate plastics from the kitchen and replace them with glass or stainless steel.

The bottom line

For those who can avoid nutritional deficiencies, macrobiotic eating can provide health benefits. You should never use it as a replacement for traditional medical treatments. People with specific medical conditions, such as cancer or obesity, should get a doctor’s approval before starting. Those who are simply interested in pursuing better health may also benefit from a doctor or dietitian’s input before starting.

Check out: 20 Healthy meals under 400 calories »

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