Macrobiotics has a history that dates back a couple of hundred years, but it basically seems to boil down to eating a balanced diet and being mindful of several attributes in your life/diet: your lifestyle, the weather/climate, “yin” and “yang” balance of your food, acidizing and alkalizing qualities of your food, and more. Mastering the premises of macrobiotics seems to be a venture which could take years. After a few books and a week of classes, I’m a bit closer to competence in the theory but still a good way off.
Macrobiotic cooking has been seen by some as a path to healing their bodies and lives, and some have hailed it as cancer preventing and curing. With its emphasis on whole grains and vegetables, macrobiotics is intuitively a health-promoting diet. One thing I like about macrobiotics is that there is a sense in the theory of more than food – there is an appreciation for making one’s body, mind, and overall life better. There is also the idea that you can heal yourself – you can let your body heal itself by bringing it into attunement with your food, your environment, and the universe.
Below: Some popular books on macrobiotics.
Addressing Skepticism and Assimilation
A lot of macrobiotic theory sounds questionable to Westerners (I would know, since I am one ). Yin, yang, the five elements, energy in food — it’s unnatural to talk about such things for us. I believe there is a very strong bias in effect, however. What I mean is that every culture has unique worldviews that color the way they view their lives. In some cultures, even inanimate objects have gender. In other cultures, they also have a spirit. We cannot know if their beliefs are true, but I think sometimes cultures use these spiritual or nebulous concepts to capture an idea that is actually more true and/or accessible than the way Western science explains them.
An example of this is the idea in macrobiotics that different cooking styles imparts different energy to the food. You may not believe this or understand what it means, but you can certainly understand that food that’s steamed with no lid (upward energy) is noticeably different from food that is roasted (inward energy, I believe). And in ways that can be very distinct or subtle, your body handles those foods differently.
Since macrobiotics was popularized by people who subscribed to Chinese medical philosophy and thousands of years of Eastern culture, their worldview is going to differ greatly from ours and I think it’s not useful to merely discard it. In the West we have a tendency to label things as either “true” or “untrue” and “good” or “bad” but I think reality is more complex. I prefer to us my own filter to interpret and accept what makes sense to me.
We have a tendency to assimilate new information. This means we hear it and we try to make it fit or not fit into what we already know – we try to make it similar to our current information. The limitation of this is that if something new comes along and it is so radical that it doesn’t fit into our worldview, then we simply cannot see it as being true and we discard it. An alternative is to expand our worldview and grow, but this is more difficult and requires patience. I am in this phase of my understanding of macrobiotics.
At the core of macrobiotics is the idea that food has energy and we must keep this energy in balance within ourselves and being mindful of the energy around us. Energy can be
Many things affect the energy of food and give indications of what type of energy is in that food. A vegetable (e.g., green onions) that sprout up toward the sky would be an example of upward energy. A carrot that grows below ground would have downward energy. How you cook imparts energy to the food, as well. Steaming imparts upward energy, while pressure cooking imparts inward energy.
One aspect of macrobiotics which was new to me is the idea of the Five Transformations. It’s also still an idea that I’m working on adding to my worldview. The basic idea is that there are five elements in nature that provide a framework for looking and our diets (and probably everything, but I haven’t gotten to that). Each element is associated with a season, a type of energy, kinds of food, etc. For example, the tree/wood element is associated with springtime, green foods, new growth, and upward energy. Keeping these elements in balance is key.
Another key element of macrobiotic theory is yin-yang balance. This is another way of thinking about the energy of food. Yin foods tend to bring expansive and light energy to your body and yang foods tend to bring contractive, heavier energy. Tropical fruit is a typical yin food. Meat is a typical yang food. Imagine how a person who eats tropical fruit all the time would be compared to a person who eats meat all the time. Neither is really healthy, and each would likely be very different in their temperament. This is an example of how the energy of food affects our own energy.
Using macrobiotics to improve people’s health means knowing about yin-yang, the five elements, acid-alkaline balancing, and more. It means knowing how to bring people’s diets and lives into balance. I have a long way to go, but I think macrobiotics will be a good tool for me to use in my cooking and consultation work.
Below: A whiteboard showing the five elements and their associated attributes.
Below: What does it all mean? Time will tell…