Macrobiotic Diet Overview

Scorecard

Overall
Weight Loss Short-term
Weight Loss Long-term
Easy to Follow
Nutrition
Safety
For Diabetes
For Heart Health

Scores are based on experts' reviews

Pros & Cons

  • “Real” food emphasized
  • Filling
  • Lots of grunt work
  • Somewhat pricey

Do's & Don'ts

Don’t: Consume dairy, eggs, poultry or red meat See more Do's & Don'ts

Overview

Type:

Balanced.

Resembles these U.S. News-rated diets:

Vegetarian Diet, Vegan Diet, Raw Food Diet

The aim:

Disease prevention, optimal health.

The claim:

You’ll ward off and cure diseases—including heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer, some proponents say—and live a healthy, happy, long life.

The theory:

Food is among the most important influences on our health, and only when you find a diet that’s right for you can you achieve total well-being. The perfect plan will emphasize whole, “living” foods that balance your body while putting you in harmony with the world around you.

How does the Macrobiotic Diet work?

It depends—there isn’t “a” macrobiotic diet. The approach has been around for centuries and has adherents around the globe, so there are many variations. Yours will be based on what your body “tells” you to eat.

Most macrobiotic diets derive from a common menu, however. They’re essentially vegetarian (some nearly vegan) and emphasize natural, organically and locally grown, whole foods. Whole grains—brown rice, barley, oats, rye, buckwheat—make up the bulk of your day’s foods. Vegetables, including the leafy green, root, and sea varieties, along with beans and soybean products like tofu and tempeh, are also encouraged. Fruit, fish and seafood, seeds, and nuts might be on the menu once or twice a week, but dairy, eggs, poultry, red meat, and anything artificial, processed, or with chemical additives will almost certainly be absent. For more on the macrobiotic diet’s principles, expand this section.

The desire to achieve inner balance is the driving force, according to Modern-Day Macrobiotics (North Atlantic Books, 2006). Whole, living food is thought to possess abundant energy, and where it grew and how it was prepared, among myriad other factors, affects how that energy will flow. When you eat, the energy is transferred to your body, changing the way you feel. Choosing carbs that are low on the glycemic index—a measure of a carb’s effect on blood sugar—as well as offsetting sodium intake with potassium, and acidic foods with alkaline foods, will also help you stay balanced and healthy.

A host of other rules may accompany the diet, depending on your approach. For example, the Massachusetts-based Kushi Institute suggests chewing each mouthful of food at least 50 times (to aid digestion), rejecting electric stoves and microwave ovens, and only cooking with earthenware, cast iron, or stainless steel pots and pans. Some approaches may recommend meditation, or include instruction on Buddhism and the Asian philosophy of yin and yang.

Will you lose weight?

Probably. While the macrobiotic diet lacks robust clinical studies examining its weight-loss potential, its ban on processed food and emphasis on healthful and filling whole grains, vegetables, and bean products will likely yield weight loss. Just build in a “calorie deficit”—eat fewer calories than your daily recommended max, or burn off extra by exercising—and you should see the numbers on the scale budge. How quickly and whether you keep the weight off, however, is up to you.

The approach also shares tenets with vegetarianism, and vegetarians tend to eat fewer calories and weigh less than their meat-eating counterparts.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

It’s likely. Some research suggests positive effects on levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, a fatty substance in the blood that in excess has been linked to heart disease. Macrobiotic diets are low in fat, especially the saturated variety, and high in fiber, due to an emphasis on vegetables, whole grains, and bean products. And they’re in line with the medical community’s widely accepted definition of a heart-healthy diet that keeps cholesterol and blood pressure in check and heart disease at bay.

Can it prevent or control diabetes?

Possibly.

Prevention: Being overweight is one of the biggest risk factors for type 2 diabetes. If a macrobiotic diet helps you lose weight and keep it off, you’ll almost certainly tilt the odds in your favor.

Control: A small study showed type 2 diabetics on a macrobiotic diet lowered their levels of A1C, a measure of blood sugar control. Because there are no rigid meal plans or packaged meals, you can ensure that what you’re eating doesn’t go against your doctor’s advice.

Are there health risks?

Not likely, but double-check that you’re not skimping on key nutrients. B-12, for example, is an essential vitamin that is mostly found in animal products, fish, and shellfish; if you’re omitting these foods, you could come up short. Same goes for vitamin D if you’re not getting enough dairy or fish (or sunshine). A very early version of a macrobiotic diet that recommended consuming just brown rice and water put followers at risk of severe nutritional deficiency and even death.

How well does it conform to accepted dietary guidelines?

Fat. You’ll come in slightly under the government’s recommendation that between 20 to 35 percent of daily calories come from fat (largely from nuts and vegetable oils).

Protein. Within the 10 to 35 percent of daily calories the government recommends.

Carbohydrates. At 68 percent of daily calories, you’ll slightly exceed the government’s 45-to-65-percent recommendation.

Salt. The majority of Americans eat too much salt. The recommended daily maximum is 2,300 milligrams, but if you’re 51 or older or African-American, or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, that limit is 1,500 mg. A sample menu from The Macrobiotic Way provided about 2,500 mg.

Other key nutrients. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines call these “nutrients of concern” because many Americans get too little of one or more of them:

  • Fiber. Getting the recommended daily amount of 22 to 34 grams for adults helps you feel full and promotes good digestion. Although the sample menu did not provide fiber content, a diet that relies heavily on whole grains and vegetables should provide more than enough of the nutrient.
  • Potassium. A sufficient amount of this important nutrient, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, counters salt’s ability to raise blood pressure, decreases bone loss, and reduces the risk of developing kidney stones. It’s not that easy to get the recommended daily 4,700 mg. from food. (Bananas are high in potassium, but you’d have to eat 11 a day to get enough.) The majority of Americans take in far too little. The sample menu provided about 3,600 mg.
  • Calcium. It’s essential not only to build and maintain bones but to make blood vessels and muscles function properly. Many Americans don’t get enough. Women and anyone older than 50 should try especially hard to meet the government’s recommendation of 1,000 to 1,300 mg. At 859 mg., the sample menu didn’t cut it.
  • Vitamin B-12. Adults should shoot for 2.4 micrograms of this nutrient, which is critical for proper cell metabolism. B-12 is found mostly in animal products. To get enough, you’ll want to include fish or seafood in your diet. The sample menu didn’t provide an amount.
  • Vitamin D. Adults who don’t get enough sunlight need to meet the government’s 15 microgram recommendation with food or a supplement to lower the risk of bone fractures. Fish and sunlight are your primary vitamin D sources on a macrobiotic diet. The sample menu didn’t provide an amount.

Supplement recommended? No.

How easy is it to follow?

It’s a big departure from the typical American diet, ousting foods—namely animal products—that may cause many dieters to backslide. However, you’re free to tweak guidelines slightly to help keep a firm hold on the wagon.

Convenience:

It’s not the most fuss-free diet around. You have to scour for macrobiotic-friendly recipes and cook in a macrobiotic-friendly way—which could involve rejecting microwave ovens or replacing all of your pots and pans, depending on how strict you want to be. Whether you eat out or drink alcohol will depend on your specific plan.

Recipes. Google searches will turn up plenty of results, but you can also buy a guide or cookbook for more suggestions.

Eating out. Possible, but you’ll likely need to do some menu scanning before venturing out—most items at a burger joint won’t align with your acceptable foods list, for example. Modern-Day Macrobiotics recommends staying simple—order pasta with garlic and olive oil, plain blanched broccoli, and a green salad. You’ll probably have to forget about trying to find the “balance” in the meal—unless you know where the veggies were grown.

Alcohol. Discouraged.

Timesavers. None, unless you hire somebody to plan your meals, shop for them, and prepare them.

Extras. N/A

Fullness:

Nutrition experts emphasize the importance of satiety, the satisfied feeling that you’ve had enough. With so many fiber-packed whole grains and veggies (and without a calorie cap), you shouldn’t go hungry.

Taste:

You’re making everything, so if something doesn’t taste good, you know who to blame.

How much does it cost?

Stocking up on produce and whole grains can get expensive, but bypassing the butcher will help keep the tab reasonable. Plus, beans and bean products are some of the most affordable choices at the supermarket.

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

Anyone can follow this approach—choose your preference for more information.

Most of the emphasized foods conform. A macrobiotic diet need only be tweaked slightly to eliminate some or all animal products.

Yes, you can choose products that are certified gluten-free.

Doable. Eliminating processed foods will help a lot; just don’t season with too much sea salt or soy sauce.

Yes, you have the freedom to use only kosher ingredients.

Yes, but it’s up to you to ensure your food conforms.

What is the role of exercise?

Recommended.

While specifics depend on your particular plan, the Kushi Institute recommends regular exercise—walking, yoga, martial arts, or dance. Keep in mind adults are generally encouraged to get at least 2½ hours of moderate-intensity activity each week, along with a couple days of muscle-strengthening activities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers some tips.


Last updated by Kurtis Hiatt | December 12, 2013

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