The Macrobioic Diet. Is It A Healthy Eating Plan?

Macrobiotic Meal Chart

(HealthCastle.com) Diet fads come and go, and come again – like fashion they are routinely recycled and adopted. Nowadays, celebrities are often quick to jump on the bandwagon when it comes to diet, health and beauty fads. Regarding the macrobiotic diet, some of the more current celebs converts have temporarily been Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow – and I say temporary since both of whom suffered from the consequence of eating a nutrient-poor diet and abandoned it.

What is the macrobiotic diet?

The macrobiotic diet is the brain child of a man named George Ohsawa who, in the 1920s, claimed the diet cured him from a serious illness – lack of credible documentation and verification notwithstanding. Philosophically it’s based on the Eastern thought of balancing yin and yang, two opposing but complementary energies, that when off balance, lead to illness. This diet was very popular in the 1970s as way to ‘save’ world hunger and resources but has become popular again as people look for the next best thing.

Although there are variations, the diet consists mostly of:

  • Whole grains: barley, brown rice, oats, millet, rye, corn, buckwheat etc. About 50-60% of the calories/diet come from whole grains making up the foundation of the diet.
  • Fresh vegetables: 25-30% of calories/diet.
  • Pulses [chickpeas, lentils, dried peas & beans] and sea vegetables: 5-10% of calories/diet.
  • Nuts & seeds: a few servings per week.
  • Non-tropical fruit: a few servings per week.
  • Fish: once a week.
  • Soy: some advocate daily, some weekly.

Forbidden is:

  • All meat: beef, pork, lamb etc
  • Poultry
  • Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt, kefir
  • Eggs
  • Tropical fruit
  • Fruit juice
  • Soft drinks
  • Coffee & black tea
  • Refined sugars: table, brown, honey, syrup

The term ‘macrobiotic’ is used to describe a lifestyle philosophy of both living and eating that is purported to optimize and maximize one’s life force thereby allowing for the prevention and healing of diseases and to extend the life span. The bulk of the diet is whole grains, vegetables and herbal tea. While it’s ‘OK’ to have fish once a week, many who pursue this style of eating tend to be vegetarian or vegan.

The Pros

  • While I’m hard-pressed to list some pros because professionally speaking, I don’t think this is a healthy way of eating, some of the pros are:
  • It’s based on real food. It lacks junk, no artificial colours, flavours, sweeteners, essentially free of refined sugars and refined fats, no empty calories, no regular or diet soft drinks
  • Whole foods. Essentially all of the foods are whole and not processed.
  • Lots of vegetables. Most don’t get enough vegetables and this plan has vegetables at every meal and we know that vegetables have the most disease-fighting compounds, much more so than fruit.

The Cons

  • Grain-focused. Whole, and even better yet, intact grains [read about that here], can be a healthy addition to any diet but their place needs to be put into context. Grains are difficult to digest and the nutrients in them are not absorbed as well as they are from animal foods, or even low-starch vegetables. This is due to anti-nutrients such as phytates and saponins found in whole grains, pulses and soy [soy can be goitrogenic; compounds that bind and interfere with iodine which can lead to suboptimal thyroid function]. This fact has been know for a very long time. In the context of a mixed diet, one that includes a variety of foods, including animal foods, the limitation of poor nutrient absorption is more of a non-issue.
  • High carb, low protein, low fat. I prefer a higher protein intake. Like most vegetarian, or near vegetarian diets, the macrobiotic diet is very high in carbohydrate. ‘Higher’ protein intakes have many, many benefits including better satiety [feeling more satisfied after eating], protein helps to boost metabolism, as people age they often reduce their intake of protein and are less able to digest and absorb protein/amino acids as well; a lower protein diet like this just makes matters worse. Higher intakes of protein is better at stimulating muscle protein synthesis; a benefit to help off set muscle loss for all ages, especially as we age. It’s quite likely is that you’ll feel chronically hungry on this diet and because it is quite bulky, don’t be surprised if you lose weight and/or have trouble maintaining weight.
  • Restrictive. The diet doesn’t allow for a variety of foods, including so-called ‘sin’ foods, and less variety can mean less overall nutrient intake. A lack of variety can also have a negative impact on quality of life. There’s no evidence, whatsoever, demonstrating that moderate amounts of coffee, caffeine, sugar, beer, wine, cookies, birthday cakes, ice cream, pastries,  etc has a negative impact on longevity or health but in the right time and place, offers a hell of a lot of fun!
  • Micronutrient concerns: nutrients that are at risk of not being consumed in adequate amounts: omega 3 fats EPA & DHA, zinc, protein, B12, iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K2, cholesterol, choline, magnesium, and calories.

Bottom line

The premise of the diet, philosophically speaking, is personal – to date there’s no objective way to measure the presence, or balancing, of yin and yang. From a nutritional standpoint, the diet has too many restrictions for my liking, increases the risk of several micronutrient inadequacies. It’s too grain heavy, low in both fat and protein, will likely lead to weight loss making it unsuitable to stay with long term. If you’re going to try it, be careful, both Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow [and many others] ran into trouble while following to the letter including vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin K2 deficiencies leading to early bone loss.  If you want to try it, my advice is to consult a dietitian and have your weight tracked, and your intake of vitamins and minerals assessed – comprehensive supplementation is mandatory. If it’s something you toying with, out of curiosity, then I’d say skip it.

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