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Macrobiotic Diet – Everything You Need To Know

Published: 13th May 2018. Last updated: 21th July 2019.

Shaun Ward MSc ANutr

Staff Writer


Introduction

The macrobiotic diet was created by a Japanese educator named George Ohsawa in the 1920’s, although it only became well known 50 years later when a student called Michio Kushi started to promote it.

It can be defined as a low fat, high fiber diet, which emphasizes a more plant-based style of eating, despite not being strictly vegetarian or vegan.

The aim of the diet is to live a more “natural and calm way of life”, thus trying to avoid falling into the traps of modern world agriculture and food processing.

Instead, it emphasizes fiber rich foods like whole grains (bulgur wheat, buckwheat, brown rice, quinoa, wild rice), cooked and raw seasonal vegetables (onion, carrot, parsley, chicory, radish, and savoy cabbage), legumes (chickpeas, adzuki beans, lentils, black beans), seaweed, sesame seed, and unrefined sea salt.

Consumption of fish, seafood, dairy, eggs, poultry, and meat is limited to just a few times a month.

Other foods that are limited or eliminated are tree fruits and berries, seeds, nuts, cucumbers, celery, lettuce, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, caffeinated beverages, alcoholic beverages, white bread, cakes, cookies, crisps, sodas, added sugar, molasses, spicy food, and seasonings.

If possible, it is also advised to stick to organic food, that is free from chemicals and artificial ingredients (even extending to personal hygiene products).

In contrast to most diets, the composition of the macrobiotic diet is also individualized and personalized depending on the climate, season, geography, age, gender, activity level, and health status of an individual.

The creators of the diet also tout the benefits of eating in a slow, focused, and thoughtful manner without external distractions.

The Macrobiotic Diet Positives

Below is a list of everything we personally like about this diet:

It May Help To Prevent Diabetes

Many aspects of the macrobiotic diet are well-researched nutritional protocols that may prevent or treat diabetes.

Compared to standard nutritional recommendations for diabetes, patients consuming the macrobiotic diet experience significantly better improvements in fasting blood glucose, post-meal blood glucose, glycated hemoglobin, insulin resistance, and weight loss - despite both diets having the same energy content [1].

Based on the data from observational studies, it is likely that the high intake of fiber on such a diet is mainly responsible for these improvements [2].

Even just focusing on whole grains, rather than refined grains, has shown to independently reduce the risk of diabetes, based on systematic reviews and meta-analysis’ of cohort studies [3].

The focus on green tea, the main source of liquids on the macrobiotic diet, also has some good evidence behind it for reducing fasting glucose and glycated hemoglobin levels, such as a meta-analysis of 17 randomized controlled trials [4].

Not to mention that the drop in bodyweight that most people will experience on the macrobiotic will likely improve insulin secretion. Current studies suggest that 6 months on a macrobiotic intervention will result in an ~10% reduction in bodyweight [5].

It May Reduce Inflammation

There is accumulating evidence that many of the dietary factors recommended by macrobiotics are associated with decreased inflammation [6].

For a start, the macrobiotic diet is low in calories, which will result in less production of reactive oxygen species due to the reduced energy turnover.

As the lower caloric intake will also aid in the reduction of body weight over time, this will reduce the production of proinflammatory molecules from excess adipose cells and reduce the level of chronic inflammation throughout the body [7].

However, as the foods included on the diet are generally micronutrient dense, it is able to maintain sufficient concentrations for most vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants and phytonutrients. A key phytonutrient may be one such as dietary polyphenols, which has gained considerable attention recently for being able to modulate the production and activity of inflammatory molecules in humans, such as TNF-α and IL-6 [8].

When you compare the composition of the macrobiotic diet with the composition of the standard western diet, the differences are clearly apparent, with far superior anti-inflammatory nutritional profile in favor of macrobiotics [9].

In general, the advocacy of a plant-based diet will automatically reduce inflammation in most people, with a greater frequency of fruit and vegetable intake being associated with lower inflammatory biomarkers such as c-reactive protein levels [10]. Dietary fiber intake is also inversely associated with serum C-reactive levels, which could have a synergistic effect with the antioxidants consumed [11].

Interestingly, experts have postulated that the effects of an anti-inflammatory diet in unhealthy adults, which includes fiber and plant sterols, such as the macrobiotic diet, can lower C-reactive protein levels as much as pharmaceutical statins can [12].

It May Prevent Cancer

One of the main ways in which the macrobiotic diet can reduce the risk of cancer is through lowering inflammation, as stated previously, with the latest research on cancer prevention highlighting the importance of reducing inflammation through consuming foods with strong anti-inflammatory properties [13].

However, as a whole, the macrobiotics diet has no real evidence for preventing and curing cancer, and can only be proposed as a possible idea based on the composition of the diet and current anecdotal evidence.

This being said, the macrobiotics diet has still managed to emerge as one of the most highly utilized approaches to cancer management, with many reported cases where cancer patients have turn to macrobiotics as an alternative therapy [14].

It seems as though the reduction in red and processed meat consumption is the most promising factor of the diet for cancer prevention, as these types of meats have been associated with colon, rectal, and prostate cancers [15].

The elimination of dairy intake may also be appeal to some, as dairy and a very high calcium intake is associated with an increased risk for prostate cancer [16], and possibly kidney and ovarian cancers [17].

The emphasis on physical activity, stress reduction, and the avoidance of exposure to chemicals, will also only benefit cancer prevention [18].

The Macrobiotic Diet Negatives

Below is a list of everything we dislike:

It May Lead to Nutrient Deficiencies

It is possible that the macrobiotic diet can potentially cause nutrient deficiencies in some people by eliminating certain food groups.

As the diet is low in animal fat, fruit, and dairy, people may indirectly lower their intake of protein, iron, magnesium, calcium, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Lycopene consumption may also not be optimal on the macrobiotic diet due to the avoidance of the “nightshade” foods such as tomatoes [19].

These concerns with the macrobiotic diet have even been mentioned in the scientific literature [20].

Although most of these nutrients can still be eaten in sufficient amounts if focus is placed on the right foods, it is advised that people on the macrobiotic diet supplement with vitamin B12. This nutrient is only available from animal sources, and plays key roles in nerve health, red blood cell formation, and DNA synthesis [21].

The combination of a low calcium intake, combined with a high fiber content, may also represent a potential issue as fiber is known to reduce the absorption of calcium (plus iron, magnesium, and zinc) [22]. This may decrease bone mineral density, impair normal muscular function, and negatively impact cardiovascular health, unless plant sources of calcium are included in the diet to replace dairy [23].

Calcium supplementation could therefore be a potential option for people following the macrobiotic diet.

Conclusion

The macrobiotic diet is not strictly vegetarian or vegan, but is a good step in the direction of adopting a more wholefood plant-based lifestyle.

There are many benefits to such a diet, including a lowering of inflammation and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.

However, as the diet heavily restricts animal-based foods, and even many types of fruit and vegetables, there is a possibility of becoming deficient in nutrients such as protein, iron, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin B12.

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