The Zen Macrobiotic Diet

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While living in Japan I have come across the Zen Macrobiotic diet in quite a few restaurants, especially in the pursuit of vegetarian food (I will cover the issue of finding vegetarian food in Japan in a future post).

For more information and references you can read the blog post below the video 😊

Background

Macrobiotic roughly translates to ‘longlife’ in Greek. This diet was developed in the 1920s by a Japanese philosopher called George Ohsawa based on principles from Zen Buddhism. It claims to balance ‘ying and yang’ by using specific types of cooking utensils (mainly wood or glass) and encouraging certain food. Some people claim that the Zen Macrobiotic diet is useful for preventing or even treating diseases like heart disease & cancer (references here and here).

The Diet Itself

This diet can vary a lot, rather than being one strict set of rules, but it generally involves (references here and here):  

  • ~50% of dietary intake from wholegrains like: brown rice, oats, rye, millet, quinoa, buckwheat and spelt.
  • ~30% of dietary intake from locally grown, organic and seasonal vegetables.
  • Daily: miso soup, beans, pulses, seaweed, soya, pickles, oils and seasoning.
  • Nuts, seeds and fruit are limited to a few times per week.
  • Meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy are limited to a few times per month.
  • Encourages:  organic, seasonal and local produce, slow eating, thoroughly chewing food, only eating when you are hungry, steaming and sautéing as the main cooking methods.
  • Discourages: nightshade vegetables (like tomato, aubergine, peppers etc), processed foods, sugary food and drinks, caffeine, alcohol, vitamin and mineral supplements. 

Pros:

  • High in fibre, encourages daily vegetables, pulses and soy.
  • Low in processed red meat, saturated fat, sugar and alcohol.
  • Has been associated with a lower risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer (reference here).
  • Slightly more flexible than most ‘diets’.
  • Encourages mindful eating.

Cons:

  • Claims that this diet can treat or cure diseases like cancer or heart disease are NOT backed by science (see here and here for further information on this).
  • Limits some healthy food like: fruit, nightshade vegetables, dairy, nuts, seeds, eggs, meat, poultry and fish.
  • Strictly following this diet could be unbalanced and cause harm by providing too little: iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and protein. This diet also discourages nutritional supplements which can be useful for certain people, including those on a limited diet like this. 
  • Can be high in salt from the daily miso soup and pickled vegetables.  
  • Is ‘black and white’ about which foods are good or bad, this can encourage an unhealthy relationship with food.
  • Encouraging organic and non-processed food for health is overly simplistic and isn’t backed by the evidence base (more information on this here and here, I also plan to cover this in a future post).

Overall:

Compared to other fad diets the Zen Macrobiotic is less extreme and there can be some benefits from it. But it’s really important to note that there is no good evidence that it can be used to cure diseases. You can also get the benefits of the macrobiotic diet by following a less extreme and more balanced approach, like a healthy diet as outlined in the Eatwell guide or the Mediterranean diet. For more tips on healthy eating see here

If you are interesting in finding out more about food in Japan then check out:

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