What is the macrobiotic diet?

The word ‘macrobiotic’ is derived from the Greek words, ‘macro’ meaning large and ‘bio’ meaning life. The diet of the same name was first developed by a Japanese philosopher called George Ohsawa. He believed in a holistic approach to health incorporating many lifestyle aspects, from diet – including the ‘yin and yang’ energy of foods – through to exercise and meditation.


The macrobiotic diet also aims to avoid foods containing toxins, and to work in harmony with nature.

Check out all you need to know about diets to take a closer look at the paleo diet, dopamine diet and intermittent fasting diet. and check out some of our delicious plant-based recipes.

Selection of macrobiotic diet foods

How does the macrobiotic diet work?

The macrobiotic diet focuses on choosing organic, locally grown and seasonal produce. It is not so much a ‘diet’ as a lifestyle system. Put simply, it’s less about controlling weight and more about creating a balanced lifestyle, with food being one of the cornerstones of the philosophy.

How do I follow the macrobiotic diet?

Followers tend to adopt the diet in slightly different ways with some adhering strictly to the rules on food preparation, cooking and eating, while others are more relaxed, adopting the rules in moderation only. For example, some followers adopt an organic, vegan diet with no dairy or animal sourced foods, while others eat small amounts of organic meat or fish.

More like this

What foods can I eat on the macrobiotic diet?

The diet is divided roughly as follows:

  • 40-60 per cent is wholegrains such as brown rice, barley, oats and buckwheat
  • 20-30 per cent is fruits and vegetables
  • 10-25 per cent is beans and bean products such as tofu, miso and tempeh as well as sea vegetables such as seaweed

Some people also include small amounts of pickles and fermented vegetables, nuts, seeds, and occasionally some organic meat or wild-caught fish.

What foods should I avoid on the macrobiotic diet?

Foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar as well as processed foods and artificial ingredients are to be avoided on the diet. Meat, dairy and eggs are avoided by some, as are animal fats and genetically modified foods.

The macrobiotic diet also incorporates lifestyle recommendations, including:

  • Only eating and drinking when body cues are triggered
  • Chewing food thoroughly until it liquefies
  • Using natural materials such as wood, glass and china to cook and store food
  • Avoiding microwave ovens and electric hobs
  • Purifying water before cooking or drinking it
  • Avoiding flavoured, caffeinated or alcoholic drinks.

What’s the evidence for the macrobiotic diet?

There is some research to suggest a macrobiotic diet, when done in moderation may have some benefits for some people. From a nutritional perspective, studies report that the composition of the diet may exceed recommended daily amounts for certain nutrients but fall short on others. However, its plant-focused nature offers anti-inflammatory benefits that may help lower the risk of chronic disease.

Research also suggests that a macrobiotic regime may have a positive effect on heart health with studies reporting lower blood lipids and cholesterol plus benefits for managing blood pressure. This is, in part, thanks to the plant-based, low-fat, high-fibre nature of the regime.

The dietary aspects of the plan are also considered to be beneficial for those with type II diabetes as well as non-diabetics who may experience reactive hypoglycaemia (extremely low blood sugar within four hours of a meal).

Eating a meal of tofu and vegetables

Will I lose weight on the macrobiotic diet?

If weight loss is your goal, adopting a macrobiotic way of eating may be right for you but be careful that you don’t replace protein-rich foods with too many starchy carbs, such as grains and rice.

Is the macro diet healthy? Our nutritionist’s view…

The macrobiotic diet is typically rich in nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables and wholegrains. It's important to note that because of its restrictive nature it may fall short of meeting the variation and calorie needs for certain groups, especially children.

As such, for the young, elderly and those who are ill or have been diagnosed with a chronic illness, like cancer, following a diet which restricts certain food groups may severely limit their nutrient intake. For example, studies have shown that certain minerals and vitamins may be limited, including calcium, iron, vitamins B12 and D, as well as protein.

That said, there are elements of the diet that may be helpful, as long as it is followed in a moderate manner. Eating more fruit and vegetables, lowering your salt, sugar and fat intake may all have a positive effect, specifically for heart health and potentially for reducing the risk of certain cancers.

However, it is important to say that many experts believe these same benefits may be achieved by following a healthy, varied and balanced diet.

Can the macrobiotic diet help treat chronic illnesses?

Anecdotal reports have suggested a therapeutic effect for some patients with chronic illness. However, to date, scientific studies have been unable to prove effectiveness which means further research is needed before any claims may be warranted.

There are risks associated with nutritional inadequacies; social limitation due to the strict nature of the plan, as well as a possible delay in pursuing more conventional medical treatments, are the prime causes of concern. Advocates of the macrobiotic diet claim that following the plan may help with chronic illnesses including cancer. However, Cancer Research UK states that there is no evidence that the macrobiotic diet treats or cures cancer and warns that it may have detrimental effects.

Chilli tofu with brown rice and vegetables

Should I try the macrobiotic diet?

People who follow a macrobiotic diet for an extended period may enjoy lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of heart disease. Diabetics and those with poorly managed blood glucose may also find long-term adoption helpful in managing their blood glucose levels

It may be a useful diet for women of reproductive age because those who follow a macrobiotic diet appear to have a moderately reduced level of circulating oestrogens, which possibly helps reduce the risk of certain cancers, including breast cancer. This effect is probably due to the diet being rich in wholegrains which may also benefit post-menopausal women. Wholegrain foods supply a bounty of helpful compounds, specifically phyto-oestrogens including lignans, which may help maintain insulin sensitivity and weight management after the menopause.

However, for others, in particular children and young adults, the associated nutrient inadequacies may have an impact on general health and longer term growth, although specific studies are limited. Such negative effects may depend on how strictly an individual follows the diet’s principles.

Please note: if you're considering attempting any form of diet, please consult your GP first to ensure you can do so without risk to health.

Enjoyed this? Now try...

What is a plant-based diet?
How to eat a balanced diet
Six things you should consider before starting a diet

This article was reviewed on 15 December 2023 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.


Have you tried the macrobiotic diet, or do you have any further questions about them? We'd like to hear from you in the comments below...

Comments, questions and tips

Choose the type of message you'd like to post

Choose the type of message you'd like to post