Introduction to Macrobiotics

by

Anna Kane

According to the Web...

Macrobiotics is one of the many alternative diets that has gained popularity in the United States over the last couple decades. Michio Kushi introduced macrobiotics to New York City in the 1970's. Proponents of macrobiotics contend that it is not merely a diet, but a philosophy that, if properly observed, will ensure emotional, physical, spiritual and mental well-being. Good physical health is necessary before emotional, physical and spiritual wellness can be cultivated. See Foundation for the Macrobiotic Way

Macrobiotic theory is based on the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang as interpreted by George Oshawa, a self- proclaimed expert in the macrobiotics world. The principle of yin and yang as applied to food creates a spectrum with yin at one end and yang at the other. Whole grains are at the center of the spectrum, and are considered the best food to eat. Drugs are the 'most yin', with sugar, cheese, fruit, water, nuts, vegetables and beans falling progressively closer to the center of the spectrum. Refined salt is the 'most yang' with eggs, meat, fowl, and fish approaching the mean. The standard macrobiotic diet recommends that 50-60% of calories come from whole grains, 25-30% from land vegetables, 5-10% from sea vegetables and 5% from soups. Only 6% of calories should come from protein. Fat should be avoided. Only foods that are natural and organic should be eaten if at all possible. The macrobiotic diet emphasizes adopting one's diet as seasons and environments change. In spring and summer food that requires less fire in cooking should be eaten. Only in colder months, when food is used as a source of heat, should fire be used in cooking. Therefore, people who live in hot places should eat foods that require little or no cooking. Only in very cold climates should foods like meat, that must be thoroughly heated, be eaten. Furthermore, macrobiotics urges an increased intake of vegetables that are in season. General macrobiotic recommendations encourage chewing all food until it is a liquid. Cold drinks should be avoided. Each meal should be ended when one is 80% full which is believed to ensure a body weight that is 20% less than the average recommended weight. Mental and spiritual health should be maintained through meditation, breathing exercises, and regular physical activity. The Alchemycal Pages

The proper macrobiotic diet balances yin and yang, which leads to harmony, peace, happiness and health. The World Wide Web houses pages of extensive discussion on how to eat macrobiotically. There are long lists comparing foods and characteristics that are yin to those that are yang. There is great discussion about proportions of food that should be eaten when observing a macrobiotic diet. There are illusions to the efficacy of a macrobiotic diet in curing cancer, but no explanation of how, when or why. There is no evidence of a biological benefit to eating a macrobiotic diet. There are no scientific studies that support the nutritional value of a macrobiotic diet. There is no explanation of why eating the proper balance of yin and yang foods yields physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well being. The philosophy of macrobiotics is strictly theoretical. The macrobiotic diet was created not by scientists, but philosophers of a kind who claim they have the key to healthy living. However, there is no empirical evidence or scientific proof that supports the foundations upon which macrobiotics is based.

Scientific Analysis



There is extensive proof that a macrobiotic diet does not promote optimal physical health. Strict adherence to a macrobiotic diet has even been linked with malnutrition and stunted growth. A study in the Netherlands examined the growth in height and weight of children aged 0-8 who were fed on macrobiotic diets. In families consuming dairy products three times a week or more (12 of 173 macrobiotic families) the average birth weight after adjustment for sex, parity, height of parents averaged, and smoking, was 350g higher than in families that consumed dairy products less than once per month (43 of n=173). In families consuming fish at least once per week (40 of n=173) adjusted birth weight was 180g higher than in families consuming fish less than once per month (24 of n=173). Thus, birth weight shows a strong positive relationship to the consumption frequency of dairy products and fish which are restricted in a macrobiotic diet (Dagnelie et al., 1988).

A follow up study was done using the same population of families in the Netherlands. Growth was charted for children in macrobiotic families. During the first four months of infancy there was little difference in growth rates for children fed on macrobiotic diets and those who consumed dairy, fish and meat regularly. However, from age four to eighteen months growth rates in height, weight, arm circumference and arm muscle area were significantly lower in children on macrobiotic diets than in children on omnivorous diets. Children on omnivorous diets grew in weight at a rate of 4.4 kg per year compared to 3.1 kg per year for children on macrobiotic diets. Omnivorous children grew 16.7 cm per year in height, whereas children on macrobiotic diets only grew at a rate of 13.2 cm per year. Arm circumference growth velocities for omnivorous children was 2.3 cm per year compared with 1.0 cm for macrobiotics. Arm muscle area growth was 624 mm squared for omnivorous dieters and 413 mm squared for macrobiotic dieters. All of these figures are statistically significant and reflect a deficiency in the macrobiotic diet.

Low rates of growth in length were associated with the low protein intake of children on macrobiotic diets, while low rates of growth in weight and arm circumference were associated with the low energy (fat) intake (Dagenlie et al, 1991). In addition, only six percent of children on macrobiotic diets met the U.S Recommended Daily Intake for Vitamin B12. Iron deficiencies were found in 15% of macrobiotic infants as compared to none in the omnivorous group. Fat must be included in the macrobiotic diet as an energy source that will promote normal growth in weight in children. Animal protein must be included to ensure continual growth in height. Products of animal origin will also provide a good source of vitamin B12.

Vitamin deficiencies, stunted growth in height, weight and arm circumference in children and low birth weight in infants are all induced by a macrobiotic diet. Proponents of macrobiotics maintain that physical well-being must be maintained in order to achieve spiritual, emotion and mental well-being. Clearly, a diet that does not provide the nutrients necessary for normal development does not promote overall wellness. If children on macrobiotics are not receiving the necessary nutrients for normal physical development, there is a possibility that their mental development is stunted also. Work is currently being done to test this hypothesis.

The macrobiotic diet does promote exercise and meditation as a means to promote mental, spiritual and emotional prosperity. However, doctors have recommended exercise as part of a healthy diet for years. Many ancient Asian philosophies have taught meditation for centuries. Thus, while beneficial for health, exercise and meditation can not be considered unique to or precedented by macrobiotic theory. Indeed it seems that exercise and meditation will be less beneficial for individuals on a macrobiotic diet as compared with individuals who eat a variety of foods that includes protein and fat.

Conclusion

Information on macrobiotics that can be found on the World Wide Web must be analyzed scientifically and logically in order to determine its validity. Scientists have shown, in many documented, replicable studies that macrobiotics leads to a deficiency in vitamins that can cause stunted growth in infants and children and low birth weight. Macrobiotics discourages the intake of meat, fowl and most fish, all of which provide protein and fat that are essential for development. The restrictive nature of macrobiotics designates food as good or bad. The American Dietetic Association maintains that "nearly all edible foods may be classified as natural and health foods because they contribute nutrients to [one's] diet, and when properly used in a balanced diet, promote physiologic and psychologic health" (A.D.A., 1975). The ADA's assessment of a balanced diet seems more logical. A wider variety of foods will provide a wider variety of vitamins and nutrients. A diet that excludes many foods eliminates the consumption of a variety of vitamins and minerals that are essential to a balanced diet. Ironically, advocates of a macrobiotic diet maintain that their philosophy of health is built around balance. However, the very essence of a macrobiotic diet deprives an individual of ever achieving a balanced diet. All of the scientific studies advised people on macrobiotic diets to increase their consumption of fish, fat and dairy products in order to maintain normal development in children and obtain the proper vitamins and nutrients.

 

References

American Dietetic Association. Position Paper on food and nutrition misinformation on selected topics. Journal of American Dietetic Association. 1974;66: 277-80.

Dagnelie P.C., Van Staveren W.A. and Hautvast. Stunting and nutrient deficiencies in children on alternative diets. Acta Paediatr Scand. 1991;347: 111-118.

Dagenlie PC, Van Staveren WA, Klaveren JD and Burema J. Do Children on macrobiotic diets show catch up growth? European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1988; 42;1007-16.

 

 

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