Let’s play a little word association game. What comes to mind when you hear the word “macrobiotics”? Brown rice? Seaweed? Energy? Gwyneth Paltrow diet? Macrobiotics is all of those things—and despite its radical reputation, it’s a very healthy diet that’s also approachable thanks to its emphasis on local, seasonal whole foods and mindful eating. The idea is a simple one: Eat in balance…with the seasons, with your body’s needs, with nature. With roots in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the underlying philosophy of macrobiotics is to identify and equalize the energetic qualities of all the foods you consume, which may be yin (cooling, moistening, expanding) or yang (warming, drying, contracting). Master those basics, and you can begin to not only put the foods you eat in energetic order, but learn to use those foods to balance out all the other stressors you have going in your life, whether physical, mental, emotional or even spiritual. Because it seeks to address every aspect of being, macrobiotics may be the most truly holistic diet—though “diet” doesn’t exactly do it justice. “One of the things that distinguishes macrobiotics from other ways of eating is that it’s really a way of life,” says Warren Kramer, a macrobiotics counselor in Brighton, Mass. The word itself, Kramer notes, means “great life,” and that’s an accurate description. It is, in its highest expression, a lifestyle—a diet plan that borders on spiritual practice.
Macrobiotics’ proponents certainly consider a food’s nutrient profile: Is it rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients? But more important still is a food’s energetic quality, and how that affects your physical, emotional and mental well-being. Every food has an inherent vibe, which may be cooling, uplifting, relaxed and expansive (yin) or warming, grounding, active and contracting (yang). All foods comprise both qualities in lesser or greater measures; no food is purely one or the other. In other words, it’s a spectrum—and you make your choices from it to balance your current condition. “We’re eating the energy, not just the nutrients,” says Sanae Suzuki, who turned to macrobiotics when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the early 1990s. Today, the vibrant Suzuki works as a macrobiotic counselor and co-owns the vegan macrobiotic café Seed with her husband, macrobiotic chef Eric Lechasseur, in Venice, Calif. A food’s season, climate and even the direction it grows influence its energy, Suzuki explains. Leeks grow upward and have an expansive yin quality, while root vegetables, such as carrots, grow downward and are considered more grounding and yang. Eating seasonally is a simple way to stay in equilibrium. Summer is hot and a yang time of year when you should eat cooling yin foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables; when it’s cold in the yin seasons of fall and winter, prepare a plate of yang roasted root vegetables. There’s a lot to consider—cooking methods also influence a food’s energy, as do climate, storage and agricultural practices. But in general, macrobiotics favors local, seasonal and organic fare whenever possible. (For recipes from Love, Sanae: My Healing Journey by Sanae Suzuki (Mugen LLC), see pg. 46.) Though it’s not a prescriptive diet, it has a unique understanding of what should be eaten for maximum health. Here’s what’s on the Great Life Pyramid, a macrobiotic food pyramid developed by Michio Kushi, who introduced macrobiotics to the United States in the 1960s and founded the Kushi Institute in 1978:
Whole grains, including brown rice, barley and quinoa, should make up half of your diet. From a macrobiotic standpoint, because they could sprout, whole grains are rich in “young energy” that fosters clear thinking.
Vegetables should make up about 30 percent of your diet. In keeping with TCM philosophy, macrobiotics favors cooked vegetables, which are easier to digest than raw.
Beans and legumes should comprise five to 10 percent of what you eat. From a macrobiotic standpoint, legumes are good living foods (that is, they could be planted and give new life; they offer the same potential energy to you).
Fermented foods play a small but important role. Foods pickled the traditional way—salted and allowed to stand at room temperature—contain beneficial probiotic bacteria, a well-known digestive aid.
Sea vegetables, including kelp, kombu and nori, should make up 5 percent to 10 percent of your diet. Fruit is best consumed in moderation (a few times a week) because of its cooling yin effect on the body. If you eat too much, you can end up feeling lethargic and depressed.
Seafood can be eaten occasionally; a few times a week. In general, seafood is considered yang—though energy can vary from fish to fish.
Meat, eggs, dairy should be eaten minimally. From a macrobiotic standpoint, these are acidic foods that contribute to the accumulation of fat and mucus in the body.