Macrobiotics: An Ideal Foundation for a Simple Life
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.