Macrobiotics: An Ideal Foundation for a Simple Life

Today I am delighted to share with you the very first All the Blue Day guest post from reader and macrobiotic counsellor Madeleine. Madeleine and I started emailing back and forth on various different topics a couple of months ago, since which time she has been gently counselling me in a kinder way to be treating by body. I had a very therapeutic chat and counselling call with her over Skype two weeks ago, my diet is starting to change for the better and a long standing ear condition has already cleared up. Madeleine does not counsel perfection, which is a wonderful relief, but a slow and steady turn around towards eating locally, seasonally and in keeping with what our bodies are asking for. My body still asks for a lot of sugar, but now I have a post-it note on the fridge with a quote from Madeleine: Sugar is not your friend, Jo! Hmmm, yes, I know, it is a dysfunctional relationship but I'm not quite ready to break up and move on yet.. Anyway, enough from me, let's hear about a gentle, earth-centred philosophy of living from Madeleine.

First, a quick exploration of what macrobiotics is, and isn’t.  Macrobiotics is a philosophy and lifestyle which is broad and deep, and not easy to sum up in a few words.  It has its origins in the Zen tradition, and perhaps for this reason it has become known as a ‘Japanese’ diet.  As well, the first teachers of macrobiotics in the US were Japanese, so it’s easy to see how this misconception arose.  In reality, the early exponents of macrobiotics were responding to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II and saw macrobiotics as “a means to create a more peaceful world, and a life of health, peace and longevity for all members of the human race”.  (T.Colin Campbell).  I would add to this that it is a way of living in harmony with nature, rather than working against her, in order to experience great health and look after our earth home.  The principles can easily be applied without the use of any Japanese foods at all.  Many people have recovered from serious illness using a macrobiotic diet, not just physical ailments but conditions ranging from anxiety to drug addiction. Of course, it is always better to prevent illness in the first place, and this is where macrobiotics really shines.

So, how do we do this?  Our daily food choices are powerful, and this is where we begin.  By choosing foods that are local, organic, in season and minimally processed, you are having a powerful impact on your health and the earth at the same time.  In reality, you and the earth are not two separate entities, you are part of the earth and the earth is part of you.  So the things that are good for you are good for the planet, and vice versa.  This is fundamental to macrobiotics.

Barley stew with roast pumpkin, steamed kale and red cabbage pickle, mostly from the garden

How might this look in action?  I live in a cold, temperate climate, and at the moment it is winter.  The foundation of my diet is whole grains, which are nourishing, energising, stabilising to the blood sugar, and have a long shelf-life without the need for artificial means to preserve them.  Warming grains like oats and buckwheat are especially appropriate at this time. Beans, chick peas and lentils are also easily dried and stored for use in the colder months.  They are sustaining staples at a time when foods like eggs and goat’s milk are not naturally available. In my garden root vegetables and greens are abundant at the moment: carrots, turnips, swedes, beetroot, kale, collards, radishes etc. These hearty veggies lend themselves to different methods of cooking such as baking, stews, soups and casseroles and keep us nourished and warm throughout the winter. 

The pantry is stocked with fruits dried over the summer, nuts gathered in autumn and stored in their shells for freshness, as well as some special medicinal foods such as sea vegetables and miso.  I have sauerkraut in the fridge and a stash of pumpkins and sweet potatoes I harvested months ago to get me through to spring.  You may be lucky and have apples and pears stored in a cool part of your house, or dried fruits in the pantry that can be made into sweet and warming compotes.  A basic principle of macrobiotics is to use what grows in a climate similar to the one you live in, locally grown wherever possible. If we can avoid the long-distance transportation of food as well as mass refrigeration, this has huge benefits for us and the planet by reducing carbon miles, delivering us fresher food and allowing us to eat the foods that are best suited to our climate to keep us in good health.  It also helps us to avoid confusion over what to eat in an era when we are saturated with information and really have too many food choices in front of us.

You may be wondering, is it a vegetarian diet?  It is for many, but it can also include fish a few times a week, particularly if you live in a coastal area.  What about meat?  My own preference has been to avoid it since childhood, but I acknowledge that this does not suit everyone.  What is worth considering is that before fridges were invented, you simply could not eat meat day in, day out.  Many people now eat some form of meat or chicken at every meal.  This is simply too much animal protein, and is also one or the reasons for many of the degenerative diseases people are experiencing.  Most of the diseases of the 21st century are diseases of excess - that is, we have too much food available to us 24/7, and the convenience of refrigeration and transportation has also allowed us to eat in a very unbalanced way. Mass production of meat is also cruel and unsustainable.  

What I pick dictates what I cook

What about dairy?  Dairy is a very concentrated food that is best minimised or avoided for good health.  For most people it is mucous-forming and causes weight gain.  Many people also find it upsets their tummy as we lack the enzymes to digest the lactose.  It is the perfect food for calves, however!

You can simplify your food choices enormously if you avoid processed, pre-packaged foods and foods containing sugars and white flour.  And it goes without saying, that foods containing colouring, artificial flavouring and preservatives are off the menu too.

There have been many food fads over the last few years, most of them extreme, costly and unhealthy.  With so many choices - paleo, keto, gluten-free, high-raw vegan - people are understandably confused.  Any diet that is based on ‘super foods’ shipped from far away (often at the expense of the people who used these as their traditional foods), large quantities of the same food year round (eg kale smoothies with frozen berries from far away) is not sustainable and not healthy.  Similarly, diets that require you to eat large quantities of meat or fat are not healthy and sustainable over the long term and can cause serious health issues.  

A simple winter breakfast: chestnut rice (steamed leftovers) with black sesame seeds, marinated pan-fried tofu and steamed collard greens

It is interesting to note that all of the people living in the so-called Blue Zones follow dietary and lifestyle patterns similar to those I have outlined here The Blue Zones are the 5 regions where people have the best health and greatest longevity.  They are:  Ikaria in Greece, Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, Nagoya Peninsula in Costa Rica and the Loma Linda Adventist community in California).  Their diets are varied but typically their food comes from  right outside their back door, or nearby.  In all five of the Blue Zones meat consumption accounts for less than 5% of the diet.  In most, but not all cases, animal foods should be avoided where a serious health condition is present.  For those in good health a small amount may be consumed as seasonally available. 


Early autumn harvest

Here a a few general lifestyle suggestions to get you started on a simple macrobiotic path.

Allow fresh air into your home every day, even if only for a short time in cold weather.
Walk in the fresh air every day.
Get a moderate amount of sun on your skin whenever you can.
Keep your home clean and orderly.
Use only natural products to clean your body and your home. Many of these products can easily be made at home for minimal cost.
Wear natural fibres to allow your skin to breathe and exchange energy with the natural environment.
Use natural materials for your bedding and if possible sleep on a natural mattress such as a wool or cotton futon.
Stay active and minimise screen time. Avoid screens and electrical gadgets in your bedroom.
Express gratitude daily for your food and all who helped to bring it to you, from the farmer to the truck driver. Be grateful for your loved ones and every good thing in your life.

Long grain brown rice with onion, spinach and lemon, Greek beans with fresh tomatoes and herbs and a simple salad - a summer meal from the garden
Observe nature. At the moment it is winter here and all of nature is resting. Are you? You need this time to rest and restore ready for the germination of new ideas and projects in the spring. Sleep more if you need to.
Cook seasonal foods in a way that is appropriate to the climate, the season and you health.
If possible, grow at least some of your food. The food grown organically at your back door is the true 'super food', not the goji berries and maca imported from far away at great expense to you and the planet. If you don't have a garden consider sharing a garden, getting an allotment, joining your local community garden and supporting your local farmers.

The macrobiotic lifestyle is simple, but not always easy!  Preparing nourishing meals from scratch takes time and energy.  This way of life requires mindfulness, effort, and the re-prioritising of your time and money (yes, organic/non-toxic can be expensive!)  But in return it can give you health and  energy to power your dreams and live your best life. When you embrace this lifestyle you will find excess weight drops off effortlessly, niggling health complaints vanish, you sleep better and you simply feel happier.  I hope you will feel inspired to give it a go!

Miso soup ingredients and fresh collards

I have literally only scratched the surface of eating a macrobiotic diet here, but hopefully it gives a starting point for those interested in pursuing a more natural diet and lifestyle.  It is worth noting that a macrobiotic diet for a person in good health is very different from the diet appropriate for someone dealing with an acute or serious medical condition.  As always, consult your doctor before beginning a new eating or exercise regime.

Recommended reading: a great book to help you get started is The Ultimate Guide to Eating for Longevity by Denny and Susan Waxman. I will have a website up and running in the spring with plenty of information, recipes and resources.

Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us all! Madeleine will be happy to answer questions in the comments with the proviso that the information she provides is of an educational nature only, and is not to be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment:) Madeleine is also available for more detailed nutritional counselling at macrohealth88 at gmail dot com, and would be delighted to hear from any or all of us:) She loves discussing healthy eating and strange and wonderful medical conditions:) :)


Jo said…
Hello all, whew, what an afternoon. I managed to completely and utterly fail to bring Madeleine's article into blogger in a state that even vaguely resembled her original composition! I have eventually recompiled it, not without some issues. Apologies to everyone who tried to read it in its earlier, insane format. On top of everything blogger has just today introduced a new blogging interface, and frankly, new and 'improved' technology is almost always a mistake. Nothing I can do will convince it to show the link I tried to add to the book Madeleine recommended, so please do look it up. I tried!
Having typed some of this article out by hand due to blogger also disliking dot points, I have been struck by some very sane advice. So simple, but cutting through so much of the thoughtless ways that we fail to take care of ourselves and the earth. Show gratitude every day. Yes. Sometimes it is as simple as that:)
Thanks Madeleine, and all of you in this community who remind me of the simple truths of every day life:)
Treaders said…
More and more as time has gone by I'm drawn to the vegan way of eating. I think their arguments make a lot of sense to me. Just today I received my Forks Over Knives cookbook (I've seen the movie) and I've just finished reading "Eating Animals" - it's very well written and thought-provoking. In just 10 days of not eating meat (which was pretty easy) and limiting dairy (not cut out completely), the "bloat" in my stomach has gone and I no longer feel that I need to clear my throat all the time. I know this way of eating works - it's just a matter of sticking to it. I'll be so happy to read more of Madeleine's posts in future!
Jo said…
I have a question (there have been so many, and now another one!). Yesterday was PMT day for me. I wasn't hungry, but I get the munchies every time and snack all day. There is no sugar in the house so it was dried fruit, nuts, all the olives, then I found the last remaining cheese and ate quite a lot of crackers, cheese and pickles, which in my opinion is still the food of the gods! Needless to say woke up feeling very much not wanting to eat breakfast or any other meal for quite some time. What is a good thing to eat when the hormones hit?
Anonymous said…
Hello Jo,

note the swing from yin to yang in your food choices! The best way to avoid cravings, particularly for sugar/sweets, is to eat your meals at set times each day where possible, and base each meal upon whole grains like oats, brown rice, barely etc...This helps to stabilise blood sugar which should stop you reaching for sweets.

When we eat sugary things (yin) the body then seeks to balance with salty foods (yang). So the key is to eat things towards the centre of the balance chart I sent you - whole grains, beans, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and fish if you like, should stop the swing.

Alcohol, fruit juice and excess liquids in general (all yin) will also see people reaching for the salty snacks. Having healthy snacks prepared ahead of time, as well as some hearty soups in the freezer, is the best way to prevent unhealthy snacking.

Jo said…
Anna, since I quit dairy (except for the occasional sneaky cheese attack) I have noticed the same thing re bloat. Also that perpetual mucous in the back of the throat thing is gone. And my ears have completely unblocked which is a relief because I thought I was going a bit deaf.. Are you finding the switch to vegan is changing everything about the way you cook? Because I am finding that I am doing a lot more cooking/soaking beans etc and SO MANY VEGETABLES which is a good thing, I guess, but cooking.. plus, then I run out of enthusiasm at the same time I run out of all the cooked healthy things and then I just want to run out and buy more bread and cheese.. Madeleine, i wonder if you have some solutions?? You know, apart from me being more efficient..

Madeleine, that would make sense because regular meals aren't really something that I am very good at..
Anonymous said…
Thank you Jo for sharing your space with Madeline, and thank you Madeline for all the information. Both my daughters have autoimmune illnesses, and have restrictions on their diets. I will be sharing this information with them. Loved the post!
Anonymous said…
Jo, it probably feels challenging because it's new. Stick with it, and it will become second nature. A little planning goes a long way, as does freezing a few portions of soups and stews for extra busy days or days where you just suddenly run out of everything.

The thing to remember is that if you don't have your health, you cannot get anything done. So a bit of time invested each day will pay great dividends in wellness and energy!

Don't forget to revisit the vegan bowl idea in the recipe book, it can be adapted seasonally and form a foundation so you always have the start of a meal.

I dedicate a couple of hours twice a week to getting lots of prep done, and this helps enormously. Planning meals, even a loose framework, also helps. I always start with getting the grains and beans soaking or cooking and then look in the garden to see what I'm going to do with them.

Anonymous said…
Patricia, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I hope your daughters find it useful in their quest for better health.

Treaders said…
Hi Jo, since I have fruit and yoghurt every morning I have started using coconut milk yoghurt and it's not too bad - although Greek yoghurt really is the food of the Gods. I quite like almond milk chocolate milk but haven't got round to it in tea. Cheese - I don't eat an awful lot of it anyway although I like parmesan and feta. As for cooking, I tried making my own black bean vegan burgers but nah, I'll give it a miss. It just tasted like so much mush to me. I like my food pretty much separated so I've been making one new dish a day and keeping it in the fridge. Lovely garlic crusted tofu one day. Black bean salsa another, garlic mushrooms, braised aubergine, chick pea curry is easy too. I find I'm missing the texture of meat more than anything, but I just buy a tofu burger or something like that and it's fine. I had to laugh the other day because I bought tofu hot dogs. What the hell for I don't know as I haven't eaten a hot dog since 2003 anyway. It's a challenge but not as bad as I thought, although I'm making no promises as to whether I stick to it or not. The disappearance of the bloat and the mucus is quite amazing though isn't it! Good luck!
Jo said…
Madeleine, after I posted that question I did go straight into the kitchen to put a pot of brown rice on, then out into the garden to pick greens. Once I'd gotten that far it didn't seem too hard to keep going!

Anna, your dinners sound delicious! Red has been making interesting things with tofu such as nuggets and stir fries. I am getting used to using large amounts of brown rice/beans/lentils/various grains plus veg as the basis of my diet. As Madeleine said, it's new and will take a bit of planning and experimentation. I'm not planning to go full vegan, or even vegetarian. I will still be eating fish and some meat, but it will be occasional meat, probably even more occasional than I have now, which isn't very much. But I do think my body is happier like that. Still, life is all one long and interesting experiment, isn't it? And trying new things is unlikely to kill us. Well, depending on what new thing we try of course..
Anne Marie Bonneau said…
Thank you Madeleine for explaining what a macrobiotic diet is! I didn't realize it's a lifestyle. It sounds sensible and healthy for both us and for the planet. And your meals look delicious :)

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