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The macrobiotic approach to diet, and your life

In the first edition of a column on the macrobiotic diet and gut health, India's leading macrobiotic coach Shonali Sabherwal lays out the basics

Whole grains and legumes form the cornerstone of the macrobiotic diet
Whole grains and legumes form the cornerstone of the macrobiotic diet (iStock)

During the covid-19 pandemic, everyone suddenly seems to have realized the value of keeping up one’s immunity. Social media has been flooded with ‘kadha’ recipes and and nutritionists have been talking almost exclusively about foods that boost immunity and impact your health. Amidst all the clutter, here’s an approach that has always talked about keeping the blood condition and cellular structure health and using food to bring the body into complete balance.

Not many know this but macrobiotics in India took off when Mona Schwartz, an American by birth who migrated to India, started a society to promote organic foods called ‘The Shakhambari Society’ in Dehradun. ‘The Shakhambari Society’ grew its own brown rice and organized small organic markets for the locals. I had the good fortune of being mentored by her when I contacted Mona to help with my father’s prostate cancer. She at the time thought that it was better I go through some formal training, so I landed up at the Kushi Institite, USA to certify myself as a macrobiotic nutritionist and chef.

A bit about the history of macrobiotics: In the West, Macrobiotics as a term was first used to by Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, to describe people who lived healthy long lives. In the 18th century, German physician and naturopath Christoph Wilhem Hufeland used the term macrobiotics or the ‘big view of life’ (In Greek ‘macro’ means ‘great’ and ‘bios’ meaning life) in his book Macrobiotics: The Art of Prolonging Human Life. The principles of a macrobiotic diet were first set forth by Sagen Ishizuka, a Japanese army doctor. Ishizuka established his own system of nutrition and medicine using the Oriental framework. He first used these principles on himself as he was suffering from kidney and skin disease. His learnings led him to write and publish two books: Chemical Theory of Longevity (1896) and Diet for Health (1898).

George Ohsawa, who is considered the founder of the macrobiotic diet, was a student of Ishizuka; he formulated his own philosophy on diet and health by familiarizing himself with Hufeland’s work. He also spent time in India studying the Charaka Samahita, incorporating some of the Ayurvedic practices into the macrobiotic approach. Ohsawa himself recovered from tuberculosis of the lungs after using healing foods recommended by a military doctor. One of Ohsawa’s students, Michio Kushi, decided to propagate this approach in America in the 1960s. Led by Kushi, macrobiotics first started as a movement, where people met in small groups, cooked together and shared thoughts on the macrobiotic diet and lifestyle.

The healing powers of the foods used in macrobiotics came into focus when Dr Anthony Sattilaro published his book Recalled by Life in which he traced his journey of recovery from prostate cancer. This was when macrobiotics first gained popularity as a cancer-curing approach. And then the approach gained momentum as the secret behind these healing foods were revealed by people who adopted them into their lives.

What makes macrobiotics more than just a diet?

Just as Eastern philosophy believes that every living thing has a ‘life force’ or ‘prana’, a macrobiotic view also believes that this ‘life force’ or ‘qui’ translates into two polarities, ‘yin’ and ‘yang’. These two energetic processes can be extended to foods, cooking styles, diagnosing health conditions, looking at a person’s nature, physical activity, body organs— just about everything. Another unique facet, which is being touted a lot these days, and has been the cornerstone of the macrobiotic approach, is "feeding" the good gut bacteria and the inclusion of fermented foods in every meal. So when balance has to be made for a person with an ailment, the macrobiotic practitioner will analyze everything using these two features to create that balance.

The theory of energetics in the macrobiotics approach

Yin is dark, passive, downward, cold, contracting, and weak.

Yang is bright, active, upward, hot, expanding, and strong.

So very simply, yang seeks yin and yin seeks yang to balance one out. An example: It’s the dead of summer and you go out for a swim. When you get back home you find yourself gulping down bottles of water because your body fluids have dried up. If you don’t drink enough, you’ll find yourself dehydrated, and possibly with dry skin the next day (ever noticed how your heels tend to crack during the summer months?). This will soon lead to a contracted condition, resulting in a dry digestive system, which may lead to constipation. This is termed as a yang condition. You will need fluids (yin) to balance you out. Yin here being water.

Principles of a Macrobiotic approach

The macrobiotic approach seeks to eliminate foods that cause the acidity of the blood to increase (i.e when its pH value goes down) over time, and some of these are: dairy, sugar, refined flour, processed and refined foods, refined oils, excessive fruit juices, artificial sweeteners, excessive alcohol, minimal animal protein, chicken and eggs. Dairy is replaced with brown rice milk, or milk made from nuts and seeds (e.g., almond milk, pumpkin seed milk and cashew milk). The diet focuses on vegetables, whole grains, beans/legumes, good quality fermented foods and in a tropical climate like India, fruits; foods are cooked in cold pressed oils and sea salt. As an approach, it also takes into consideration the balance between acid and alkaline forming foods, those foods which are low on the glycemic index, and sodium and potassium balance within the body. It brings into play the use of foods to boost one’s moods as well, supplying one with an abundant of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine all coming out of natural foods.

Whole grain, beans/legumes/, vegetables can be cooked in any which way one likes keeping in mind that meals are cooked in sea salt and cold pressed oils—the stress is on cooked foods, adapted to the cultural context of where one is cooking. So a whole grain, beans (whole or split) or vegetables can be cooked differently if one is in the southern India as opposed to the north, in terms of preparation.

The glue that binds everything together, is the inclusion of fermented foods like: sauerkraut, kimchi, non-dairy kefir, tofu, tempeh, quick pickles. This is done to seek the beneficial probiotics to assimilate meals, and inoculate good gut bacteria, to keep things moving positively and impact all other systems.

The end goal of a macrobiotic diet is to keep inflammation down, which is a huge contributor to disease, keep the gut clean, keep insulin stable, impact the hormonal system positively—and subsequently, achieving calmer moods and minimize stress.

Shonali Sabherwal is a macrobiotic nutritionist and the author of three books, The Beauty Diet, The Detox Diet, and The Love Diet.

Also read: The unique link between the gut microbiome and ageing

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