How healthy is the macrobiotic diet, and which foods does it allow? Our expert explains the potential benefits and risks of this plant-based way of eating.
The macrobiotic diet was first developed by a Japanese philosopher called George Ohsawa. He believed in a holistic approach to health incorporating many lifestyle aspects, from diet and exercise to meditation and even the ‘yin and yang’ energy of particular foods.
Macrobiotics focuses on choosing organic, locally grown and seasonal produce. Generally, the macrobiotic diet is divided roughly as follows:
- Around 40-60 % of your food = wholegrains such as brown rice, barley, oats, buckwheat
- Around 20-30% of your food = fruits and vegetables
- Around 10% – 25% = bean 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 meat or fish.
The macrobiotic diet also has lifestyle recommendations, including:
- Only eating when hungry and only drinking when thirsty
- Chewing food thoroughly until it liquefies before swallowing
- Only using natural materials such as wood, glass and china to cook and store food
- Avoiding microwave ovens and electric hobs
- Purifying water before cooking with it or drinking it
- Avoiding flavoured, caffeinated or alcoholic drinks
Followers may adopt a macrobiotic diet in slightly different ways with some adhering very strictly to the rules on food preparation, cooking and eating, while others are more relaxed and only follow these rules in moderation.
Advocates of the macrobiotic diet claim that following the plan can 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 can have harmful effects.
We asked nutritionist Kerry Torrens for her view…
What are the benefits of the macrobiotic diet?
Macrobiotics 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.
If weight loss is your goal then by adopting a macrobiotic way of eating you are likely to lose weight but be careful that you don’t replace protein-rich foods with too many carbs. Starchy carbs like grains and rice are easy to overeat. Research suggests that the macrobiotic regime has a positive effect on heart health with studies also reporting lower blood lipids and cholesterol plus benefits in the management of 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 beneficial for those with type II diabetes as well as non-diabetics who experience reactive hypoglycaemia – that is, extremely low blood sugar levels around four hours after a meal.
What are the negative aspects of the macrobiotic diet?
For the young, elderly and those who are ill or have been diagnosed with a chronic illness, like cancer, following a strict diet which restricts certain food groups may severely limit nutrient intake. Studies have shown that certain minerals and vitamins may be limited, including calcium, iron, vitamins B12 and D as well as protein. For those who are already weak and possibly underweight a restricted diet like this may not supply the variation and calories needed to promote recovery and for normal healthy individuals, especially children, a strict regime may limit growth and development.
That said, there are elements of the macrobiotic diet that may be helpful, as long as it is applied in a less restrictive manner. Eating more fruit and vegetables and lowering your salt, sugar and fat intake can have a positive effect, specifically as stated above for heart health and even for reducing the risk of certain cancers. However, it is also possible to get these benefits by following a healthy, 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 such claims may be warranted. The risks associated with nutritional inadequacies, social limitation due to the strict nature of the plan as well as possible delay in pursuing more conventional medical treatments are the prime causes of concern.
What are the long-term effects of the macrobiotic diet?
As previously stated 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 blood glucose levels.
Elements of the diet may be useful for women 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.
On the other hand, 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 macrobiotic dietary 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.
This article was reviewed on 8th November 2019 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.
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