Diet Spotlight: The Macrobiotic Diet

01/11/2010 13:49 | Updated 22 May 2015

It's a favourite with Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow, but can a macrobiotic diet work for you too? We take a look at what's involved when you go macrobiotic.

What is a macrobiotic diet?

Originally created by the Japanese educator George Ohsawa, the macrobiotic diet is one that focuses on simplicity as the key to good health. More than a diet, the macrobiotic way of eating is part of a whole philosophy that works together to create a balanced, zen-like state, promoting physical and spiritual health.

What's involved?

The diet itself focuses on locally grown, natural foods that are traditionally cooked by baking, boiling and steaming. It is primarily vegetarian, focusing on low-fat, high-fibre foods like wholegrains. The macrobiotic diet also emphasises phytoestrogen-rich foods such as soy. Foods are eaten in their most natural state, with processed foods prohibited. There are also rules governing how you eat, ensuring that food is eaten slowly and chewed thoroughly.

So, how does it work?

Advocates claim the macrobiotic diet prevents illness while promoting good health and harmony with the world around us. Using yin-yang ideology, the diet is believed to detoxify the body, reduce cholesterol and lower blood pressure. In turn, this reduces the chances of a heart attack and other illnesses related to fat intake. Weight loss is also a common side effect.

Macrobiotic foods are selected according to how they work together to achieve a balance of yin and yang, culminating in a combination of salty, sharp, sweet and bitter foods. For instance, yin foods are cold and sweet, while yang foods are hot and spicy. Foods that are prohibited are either considered to be toxic to the body, or are thought to contain too much of one element, thus disrupting the zen-like balance.

What will I be eating?

You'll mainly be eating wholegrains, which make up 50 to 60 of your daily intake, with one third of this total coming from raw veggies and the rest from steamed, boiled, baked or sautéed food. Beans, which make up 10% of your daily diet, can either be cooked or you can use bean products such as tofu. You can also have soup, which macrobiotic fans suggest having twice a day, but go for soy-based products such as miso and shoyu.

Fresh fish and other seafood are allowed in small amounts, but red meat, chicken and dairy are avoided. Snacks of nuts and seeds are allowed in moderation and you can eat fruit too. However, tropical fruits such as pineapple papaya and mango are not allowed as they are not local foods for Brits.

You can add flavourings to food, but these can only be sea salt, brown rice vinegar, ginger root, fermented pickles, roasted sesame seeds, shoyu and roasted seaweed, while most of the food is cooked in unrefined vegetable oil, mainly dark sesame.

Unsurprisingly, there are rules governing puddings too. You can have some in moderation but naturally sweet foods such as fruit and natural sweeteners like rice syrup, amazake and barley malt are preferred. Sugar, chocolate, carob, honey and molasses all have to be cut out.

What are the pros and cons?

The biggest advantage of the macrobiotic diet is that it focuses on foods that are often missing in our own diets, such as fibre-rich wholegrains and plenty of vegetables. The diet is also low in saturated fat and high in phytoestrogens, which are known to help balance out female hormones.

The major downside is its restrictive nature - see the instructions above! Such a strict list means you can miss out on essential vitamins and minerals including iron, magnesium, calcium and many B vitamins. You could end up with low energy levels and muscle loss, while Gwyneth recently admitted she's suffering from a bone-thinning condition, which may have been triggered by her restrictive diet.

Is the food expensive?

Macrobiotic diets focus on locally grown, organic produce and changes are made based upon what is seasonally available. This can be expensive if you always shop at a supermarket, but farmers' markets can help lower the cost and you can always start growing your own fruits, vegetables and herbs.

How long before I see results?

Due to the restrictive nature of the macrobiotic diet, you will be consuming fewer calories so weight loss will start to happen within a few days. However, the aim of the diet is not to shift a few pounds but to change your whole approach to eating. Seek the advice of a qualified dietician or nutritionist who specialises in macrobiotic diets before you decide to begin.


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