A macrobiotic diet is a type of diet that consists primarily of whole grains, cereals, and vegetables. Early versions of a macrobiotic diet encouraged eating only cooked whole grains, but these more extreme regimens are no longer used because of their potentially dangerous health effects.
The new approach? The macrobiotic diet “promotes whole foods vs. processed foods,” says Audrey Young, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian in Newton, Mass.
The Ins and Outs of a Macrobiotic Diet
A macrobiotic diet is not only intended to change the way you eat, it is also designed to change the way you live. Young says that the typical macrobiotic diet encourages meditation and slowing down your lifestyle.
Most macrobiotic diets include elements of Buddhism, along with a simple eating plan that eliminates dairy products, meats, and fatty foods due to their so-called toxic effects on your body. On a macrobiotic diet, about half of your calories will come from whole grains, and the rest from fruits, vegetables, and soups. In addition, white fish, nuts, seeds, pickles, Asian condiments, and certain teas can be consumed on occasion. Certain vegetables, including potatoes, tomatoes, asparagus, and avocados, are restricted. Also, the foods you eat on a macrobiotic diet should be organic.
When it comes to cooking on a macrobiotic diet, foods are considered sacred, so you should prepare your meals in a peaceful environment. Your pots, pans, and utensils should be made of specific materials, like wood, glass, and stainless steel, and you should not use the microwave or electricity.
As with most diets and lifestyles, there are potential benefits and drawbacks. A macrobiotic diet can be beneficial if done in a healthful way, but may also have certain risks if poorly planned.
Macrobiotic Diet: The Pros
Improvement in dietary intake. Macrobiotic diets consist primarily of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, which are an important part of a healthful diet. There is plenty of evidence that incorporating these foods into your diet can improve your health.
Reduced risk of certain diseases. Eating a low-fat, high-fiber diet rich in fruits and vegetables can reduce your risk of developing several diseases, including cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer. Researchers are examining whether a macrobiotic diet may be able to prevent cancer.
Macrobiotic Diet: The Cons
Nutrient deficiency. “Some of the concerns [associated with a macrobiotic diet] are getting a deficiency in protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D,” says Young. But she adds that you can meet all of these nutrient needs if your diet is properly planned. For instance, you can get iron from beans and pumpkin seeds.
Unrealistic limitations. One red flag of a macrobiotic diet is that it restricts or limits a number of healthful foods, like avocados, dairy products, and eggs, says Katherine Tallmadge, MA, RD, national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and author of Diet Simple: 192 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits and Inspirations. “Rigid rules take the joy out of eating and the joy out of life,” says Tallmadge. “A whole avocado is only 220 calories; it is mostly fat, but it is heart-healthy fat. And we know that dairy products lower blood pressure and they have the calcium for bone.” As far as the effects of eating eggs, Tallmadge says that “the longest-living people on Earth [the Japanese] are the biggest egg-eaters in the world.”
Unintended weight loss. People with cancer often try a macrobiotic diet, but unintended weight loss can be a dangerous side effect of following one. Since you often have higher calorie and nutritional needs when you have cancer, it is important to talk with your health care team before making drastic dietary changes.
No supplementation. Macrobiotic diets generally discourage vitamin and mineral supplements. “For that reason, it might be tougher to meet those nutrient needs,” says Young.
A macrobiotic diet can be a healthful eating and lifestyle plan if you make sure you are getting the nutrition you need. If you’re serious about trying it, Young suggests working with a registered dietitian when adopting a macrobiotic diet so that your nutritional needs will be met.