If macrobiotics is not a philosophy you’ve yet looked into, chances are the term conjures up visions of image-obsessed celebrities and other food fanatics and a dietary regime of extreme complexity and rigidity.
While there is an element of truth to this stereotype, you may be surprised to learn that macrobiotics, practised intelligently, is all about freedom. The term macrobiotics actually means “big life” (from the Greek “macro” which means “big” or “great”, and “bios” which means “life”).
Now the macrobiotic diet, as it’s typically taught and practised, is too high in grains (as much as 30-50% of the diet or more for many followers) and in cooked food generally. This often stops those who understand the many benefits of eating raw, and drawbacks of eating grains, from exploring macrobiotics. In my opinion that’s a shame as there are four very sound principles at the heart of macrobiotic philosophy. Here they are:
1. Live in tune with nature
One of the deepest ways in which we connect with nature (or not) is via the foods we eat. The healthiest diet for each of us is the one that provides us with all the nutrients we need to thrive, and the minimum in the way of toxic wastes.
At the heart of macrobiotic philosophy is the recognition that nourishing our bodies and minds with natural foods brings individual health and peace and also contributes to planetary health and peace – while consuming the standard processed diet does the very opposite. Processed foods create chaos in the body, and chaos in the body equals chaos in the mind. Living out of harmony with nature is the root of all physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dis-ease – and of many of our social ills, too.
“It makes sense that eating foods created by nature helps us harmonise with natural rhythms, while eating foods made in a factory helps us harmonise with video games,” writes Jessica Porter in The Hip Chick’s Guide to Macrobiotics. “We can eat in ways that repress our life force, making us passive automatons within our culture. Or we can eat to be free, connected and responding to the natural world that created us. The more we eat natural foods and understand the laws of the universe, the more our spirits play freely within it. True freedom depends upon discovering one’s own inner compass and following it.”
We will never find that compass as long as we are strung out on the synthetic foods and substances that make up the standard diet and lifestyle, so the first principle of macrobiotics is staying as close to nature as possible in all things. As far as diet goes, this means favouring unprocessed or minimally processed foods, and opting for organic wherever availability and budget allows.
2. Balance the yin and yang in your diet, and life, and avoid extremes of either
Here macrobiotics builds on ancient Chinese medicine – a healing tradition dating back thousands of years. Everything in the universe can be viewed through the lens of yin and yang. Yin force creates expansion and outward movement, yang force creates contraction and inward movement, and according to this philosophy all things are created and held in balance by these two complementary forces.
Yang is male, hard and logical while yin is female, soft and intuitive. But it’s more complex than that because everything in the universe is a mixture of both yin and yang – the point is, one of these always dominates. The above applies to you and I and also to all the foods we might eat.
In very general terms, foods that are denser, heavier and hotter (for example, meat) are considered yang, while foods that are lighter, softer and colder (for example, fruit) are considered yin.
Meat and refined salt are classed as “extreme yang” while sugar, alcohol and other drugs are considered “extreme yin”.
Crucially, extreme yang and extreme yin do not balance each other out. Instead they create a jarring state of imbalance in the bodymind – one that scatters our thoughts and drains our energy. When we eat like this every day, we will not have the “big life” that is our birthright. We can’t possibly express our authentic nature when we are continually being pulled off centre by these extremes.
However, extreme yang does attract extreme yin, and vice versa, and the average person is continually swinging between these two extremes in their diet and lifestyle – for example, the stressed city lawyer who eats meat at every meal (extreme yang) and also smokes and has to have a beer after work (both vices being extreme yin). Sadly most children in our culture live in a similar state of imbalance, consuming extreme yang foods (meat, crisps and other salty foods) and extreme yin ones (dairy and white processed foods, including refined sugar) on a daily basis.
According to macrobiotic philosophy – and common sense – we, and our children, will achieve a greater level of health and harmony by avoiding these imbalancing foods and substances.
3. Eat locally and seasonally
Our ancestors had no choice but to do this. Our bodies are designed to eat, and expect to eat, foods that grow close to where we live, and it has only been possible to do anything other than this for a very brief period of our evolutionary history.
In macrobiotic thinking, the balance of yin and yang needed in our diet depends on the climate we live in. In cold climates, which are more yin, yang foods grow. In warm climates, which are more yang, yin foods grow. Therefore, the best way to adapt to our environment is to consume foods that grow in it – and if we consume imported foods, to favour those grown in areas with similar climates to our own.
Tropical fruits are very yin and one attribute of this is that they are cooling in the body, to balance the extreme heat in the environment in which they grow. When someone living in the UK or North America consumes tropical fruits every day they will become weakened and find it much harder to adapt to the colder weather.
As well as eating locally it’s also important to eat seasonally. So those of us living in colder climates need to consume more cooked foods, especially during the colder months of the year. Those living in warmer climates will achieve greater balance on fewer cooked foods and more raw foods – and those of us in the UK can also thrive on this style of eating during the summer months.
4. Eat the diet right for you, and understand the law of change
Men and women have different dietary needs. So do parents and children, athletes and office workers, and of course those living in tropical regions and those living in temperate ones.
Macrobiotic philosophy recognises that diet is a very individual matter. We should eat according to our sex, stage of life, occupation, lifestyle, location, constitution and also current condition – as well as according to our personal preferences and cultural heritage.
However, the diet and lifestyle that is best for us today won’t necessarily be best tomorrow. Change is the one constant we can be sure of in life. Each of us is a dynamic system, continually interacting with, and being influenced by, everything in our internal and external environments. Since the body is always adjusting to changes in these environments, its needs are constantly changing.
So this is not about finding the diet and lifestyle that will work for you forever – a quest that’s guaranteed to be futile – but about developing the awareness and intuition to continually adapt what you’re doing to suit where you are (on all levels) at any given time, and where you’re trying to get to.
The above is an excerpt from my article “Macrobiotics: diet for a big life” which appeared in the Jan-Feb 2012 issue of The Mother magazine.