my thoughts on macrobiotic concepts

I think it is excellent that there is now more of a conversation going on about macrobiotics, as it indicates a regeneration of life and vitality in the subject. As macrobiotics has gone through a quiet phase I also think it is now healthy to go through a period of enquiry and experimentation. We need to do the biological equivalent of evolving to meet a changing world and we need those mutated cells to speed up the process.

This will only happen through people breaking out and trying new ways to reactivate the energy in macrobiotics and other people joining in to support and help build on their success. To make this happen I think it is essential to encourage and embrace new thoughts and actions so that we can see what works and what does not without resorting to criticism and blame.

Here are some random thoughts of mine that have developed over twenty-five years of being a macrobiotic student, running macrobiotic centres in America and London, being a teacher and counsellor, writing books and running a health food shop.

macrobiotic history

To put it all into context we need to take a brief look at the last thirty years of macrobiotics. One of George Ohsawa, Michio and Aveline Kushi and Herman Aihara’s greatest achievements was to successfully introduce or at least popularise a huge range of Eastern / Japanese ideologies, practices and products to the West. Under Michio’s and his colleagues macrobiotic umbrella came Shiatsu, Do In, Nine Star Ki astrology, meditation, Reiki, chanting, the I Ching and oriental diagnosis.

Macrobiotic centres were the place to go if you wanted to learn about ki / chi, yin and yang and the five elements. The macrobiotic community was responsible for bringing tofu, miso, sea vegetables, umeboshi and bancha tea, to the West.

When I first went to America it was even common for people in the macrobiotic community to make their own futons. Members of the macrobiotic community embraced acupuncture, Aikido, Tai chi helped them to become established.

Michio deserves all our gratitude for not only being able to deliver these subjects in a clear understandable form, but also for having the generosity to spend so much of his time giving out his amazing knowledge. Inevitably many of these practices grew up and eventually left the macrobiotic family.

Interestingly once they set up their own schools some tried to actively assert their independence by distancing themselves from macrobiotics. As time went by even subjects like ki / chi, yin and yang and the five elements were no longer the sole preserve of macrobiotics.

Things that were pioneering in the late seventies and early eighties became main stream. Ohsawa’s thoughts on taking responsibility for your life and health, once radical, now rolls off everyone’s tongue. Logically the pool of new things to bring to the West dried up and this coincided with a time when more and more people came to macrobiotics to recover from serious health problems, largely inspired by Dr. Satalaro’s book ‘Recalled by Life’.

Now macrobiotics took a more serious turn with the emphasis on healing. I don’t think it was a conscious decision, simply that people needing help turned up and the macrobiotic community responded. I think this transition from an amazing adventure into eastern philosophy and healing to something more focussed left a lot of people behind. Where was all the excitement, the pioneering spirit now?

To some it just seemed like macrobiotic counsellors were playing at doctors – the very thing George Ohsawa had railed against with his ideas of self-responsibility. That huge transition has now run its course and macrobiotics is now facing another challenge.

macrobiotic philosophy

The first and most important idea to grasp when thinking about subjects like macrobiotics is that concepts and reality are never the same. This is essential to understand our relationship to any ideology. Reality is our unique subjective experience of life. Concepts are human being’s attempts to explain reality.

We never succeed entirely; concepts are always only an approximation that works some of the time. The general rule is that the more complex the concept the further from reality it becomes. Therefore concepts including yin and yang, five elements, twelve theorems and principles, levels of health, judgement, spirals of materialisation, evolution etc are not an accurate description of reality, they are one view of reality.

As much as I like thinking about them there is a clear distinction in my mind between macrobiotic ideology and real life.


It seems to be human nature that when a group of people with similar interests and beliefs get to together they push each other further and further down an intellectual path, competing to impress each other, eager to keep up so each can remain a part of the group. Some of my happiest times have been sitting in a caf? or restaurant with macrobiotic friends discussing macrobiotic philosophy.

The problem with this is that whilst incredibly stimulating for those in the group, the group as a whole sails off into the distance, getting further and further away from reality, loosing their connection with the rest of the world. Inevitably the gap between the group and the rest of society becomes too large for other people to cross and the group becomes isolated.

I believe this happened within macrobiotics. For this reason macrobiotics became a force that only appealed to those with an overwhelming reason to eat macrobiotically – hence its reputation as a cancer diet. These people have little interest in the concepts; they just want to get better. The concepts alone are no longer appealing enough to bring in large numbers of new people – times have changed.

the concepts

Where concepts are important is that they colour our perception of the world we live in. If you understand the concept of yin and yang you will have different ideas on diet and health. Concepts allow us to discuss our subjective experiences of reality in a way that can challenge us mentally to think about a subject in more depth.

The only real reason to cultivate another belief system is to give a different meaning to your life. If as a result of starting macrobiotics someone believes they are more in control of their life and that makes them feel good, the concepts that lead to this are helpful. If however the concepts lead to a fear of food, confusion and anxiety they are not helping.

The concept itself, whether yin and yang, the five elements etc is not the issue; the only consideration is the result of believing that ideology. It is not essential to be consciously aware of concepts; they may be interesting, enlightening and inspiring, but not essential to acquiring knowledge.

In fact you do not need any of the macrobiotic concepts to eat macrobiotically. Anyone can acquire everything they need to eat macrobiotically just by living with other people who eat that way. For example most people acquire the knowledge to eat Indian cuisine by going to Indian restaurants, children naturally acquire a second language by living in a different country. If you eat macrobiotically for long enough you will know what it feels like to take in living whole foods and develop the sensitivity to know which foods disagree with you and which help you recover from illness.

Ultimately you will intuitively know which foods are best for you. I believe that now in macrobiotics we only need the concepts that attract and encourage interest in macrobiotics and allow a person to develop and deepen their practice. It is not worth getting hung up or attached to any concept, concepts are useful as stepping stones. I have even heard concepts described as useful lies, they provide a working framework within which to experiment; they are not reality and certainly not the truth. Too many concepts can put people off a subject, making it difficult to understand and giving people more reasons not to do it.

macrobiotic reality

Reality is how you feel after drinking some bancha tea, giving a hug, smelling a flower or simply laughing. Paradoxically macrobiotic teaching that aims to have us really live the Big Life has tended to be very dry and concept orientated. In my training only the cooking and eating of the foods and giving and receiving shiatsu were reality based.

By putting so much emphasis on concepts we neglect to build a solid foundation to macrobiotics and that it becomes ephemeral, transient and nebulous – it becomes something that is all in the head; it can become a self-indulgent form of mental masturbation. Not something that people are going to queue up to get involved in.

people on the outside looking in

As a subject macrobiotics is not readily accessible, understandable or clear. This has nothing to do with the name (which I like); it is that unless the whole basis of macrobiotics is communicated properly over a long period of time it can be complex, confusing and ambiguous. Of course such contradictory characteristics can also be strengths but they do mean that in its current form macrobiotics will never have mass appeal; to gain mass appeal the whole diet and philosophy needs to be summed up in a word or sentence.

Think of all the long term popular diets; Vegetarian (no meat or fish), Vegan (No meats, fish or dairy food), Food Combining (high protein foods and high carbohydrate foods at separate meals), Raw Food Diet (the title says it all), Atkin’s Diet (high protein low carbohydrate) or High Carbohydrate Diet (it’s in the name). Glycemic Index (Eat food that contain sugars that break down slowly).

All of these rely on only one concept. You can understand them immediately and they quickly become part of the global conversation. Even practices like homeopathy are based on one concept. It is not just a question of redefining macrobiotics it is a question reinventing macrobiotics so it has one prime concept that is clear and understandable. At this point in time I am not sure that many of the concepts are helping. Nor do I perceive that those people practicing macrobiotics use them anyway.

People are most likely to adopt something from someone else’s experience of reality. ?I started a macrobiotic diet and within a few days my energy levels shot up, I lost excess weight and just feel so much better.? This is their reality and no-one can argue with it. Compare this immediacy with trying to get a friend to eat macrobiotically by explaining the concepts.

macrobiotic teaching

In my experience I found that even the basic cooking became a prisoner of conceptualisation. During my time in America in the early eighties far too much emphasis was put on important things like how to layer vegetables in a nishime dish (and worse the vital categorisation of vegetables for the nishime in terms of yin and yang was contradicted from one teacher to another so it was confusing to know what the layers should be) with the result that students became fanatic disciples or felt disempowered and fearful in terms of something as simple as cooking vegetables.

Some teachers even made an issue out of which direction to stir a soup! This would be acceptable if the teachers could explain it. Just saying you stir in a certain direction because energy spirals into the planet isn’t enough. Who is to say that going with the flow is better than stirring against it? Surely it all depends on whether you want the energy of the food to be more active or peaceful.

As water does not consistently form a spiral in one direction when draining through a plug this ought to lead to questions and discussion regarding whether the energy spirals into the planet in one way all the time. What does happen to the spiral once it has passed through the plughole? Why would your pot of food necessarily be in the centre of a spiral of energy?

I use this to illustrate that by giving out even one poorly thought out concept during a class, students will either become very dogmatic or begin to question the validity of everything else that is claimed in the name of macrobiotics. Worse we invite ridicule of macrobiotics when the students go out and tell their friends about what they have learnt.

Non-credo needs to start with those teaching it. Ideas that started out as fascinating insights into the world we live in soon ended up being regurgitated as macrobiotic principles by people that did not really live, practice or understand them; a vital insight becomes nothing more than a stagnant second or third hand opinion. Theories that had not been put through any rigorous intellectual analysis or practical testing found their way into the growing jungle of macrobiotic philosophy.

Macrobiotic teachers went through a phase of feeling they had to put in every concept, even though they clearly could not engage in a meaningful discussion with students if they went ‘off script’. I remember going to classes where the teacher could not even explain why there were basic contradictions in the concepts they put forward or why the macrobiotic version of yin and yang differed from the Chinese version.

When the teaching of a subject degenerates to this level the concepts become a major handicap to the whole movement. I have also noticed that in teaching macrobiotics on more advanced courses there is an element of pressure on the teacher (self imposed?) to impress his or her audience, to come up with that amazing revelation, to prove a depth of understanding not witnessed before.

I am sure it is part of human nature and we all have these little impulses to shine. In macrobiotics it meant that there was little consistency in how the concepts were interpreted and expressed. All the teachers I have met have been sincere and well intentioned and I think it is nothing more than general human nature that these situations arise – they are certainly not unique to macrobiotics.

I think we need to recognise that students generally put more value on a well-organised course that methodically and carefully takes them through to completion and leaves them with a feeling of having something tangible and lasting to offer the world . Many trainings in similar fields are skills based. In macrobiotics this would be the cooking, diagnosis and working with people; unfortunately too many macrobiotic classes have involved someone talking whilst everyone else sits down taking notes.

the macrobiotic diet

I also think we now need to get away from classifying food as part of the macrobiotic diet or not part of the macrobiotic diet; or that foods are good or bad. Instead we need to be able to explain the likely effects of eating different foods and let people choose if that is something they want. More advising than prescribing. For example it is possible to describe why you might want to drink coffee and what the possible ill effects could be, or under whic circumstances you would want to avoid it, without declaring it inside or outside the diet.

Clear, simple guidelines are important for people starting a new way of eating, for example ?try the standard macrobiotic diet for three months?, but they do not need to be put forward as the macrobiotic diet in its entirety. Michio’s ‘Standard Diet’ is an amazing piece of work and a very well thought out diet plan. This alone stands out as one of the greatest contributions to macrobiotics.

From my experience it works in terms of helping recover from poor health. However, if macrobiotics is more than recovering from health then long term practitioners should not feel confined by a particular version of the macrobiotic diet. As far as I am concerned it is fine for someone to eat macrobiotically in terms of whole living foods for one day a week as a form of cleaning out his or her digestive system, to try it for three months to improve a health complaint or do it for life. It does not have to be all or nothing.

The ‘all or nothing’ approach (I am not really sure where this came from but again may be part of human nature – a group of people doing something together see someone wandering from their version of the set path as a threat / failure / letting down the group / compromising the principles?) has led to guilt, regular secret binges among people involved in the movement and a kind of emotional pressure that people outside the movement rightly interpret as fanaticism.

selling macrobiotics

I think we need to let go of the feeling that we need to sell macrobiotics, to argue the case or even to persuade. This would effectively prevent people making ridiculous claims on its behalf and create the impression we are fanatics out to convert people. Why not let it grow organically by example, by people simply having good experiences with macrobiotics; make it a happy movement that people feel naturally drawn to.

I suspect that macrobiotics will always be something of a specialist approach to food and health and it will mostly appeal to those who have the time and desire to take on something more challenging. Regardless we need to make sure that everything within macrobiotics makes it accessible and easy for them to continue.

growing the macrobiotic movement

One other casualty of over conceptualisation has been the ability of macrobiotic leaders to reproduce themselves. In nature every organism has to survive and reproduce. In macrobiotics during the eighties the demands to master all the concepts to the extent that people could go out and teach macrobiotics themselves became so great that the new generations of teachers and counsellors never really made it.

People studied for years but never got the blessing or encouragement from their peers to go out and make a career of it, with the result that the whole movement imploded. I always found Mishio, Aveline and Shuzuko very encouraging and was present when they encouraged others but there was also a group of people who had studied for many years with them who may have felt that having spent so many years in macrobiotics ourselves we want everyone else to reach the same level before also being a teacher, cook or counsellor.

Looking back it should have been possible in the early eighties to have had a macrobiotic teacher / cook / counsellor in every large town, as has happened with other practices. Our failure to reproduce has meant that macrobiotics has not been taken out into the community and spread on a one to one basis. People need to have a clear vision of the end when embarking on a training of any kind and this has not been clear to potential recruits.

honesty and maturity

We need a frank and honest appreciation of what macrobiotics is and what it can do. Yes it is the best diet I know for healing, but it has limitations. It does not work for everybody and it is not necessarily appropriate for everybody. A true master is someone who knows the limitations of what they do.

Most people would rather get advice from someone who has the maturity to advise on what something cannot do rather than listen to a zealot whose perspective is blinded by naive enthusiasm. I think the ability to acknowledge one’s limitations comes out of confidence in what you do. Bravado and bigotry can be a mask for insecurity and lack of understanding. There is nothing wrong with accepting the problems and challenges that macrobiotics has and it certainly does not weaken the strength of the argument.

keep it simple

In my opinion to make macrobiotics more appealing we need to prune out all the concepts that get in the way of people starting and practicing macrobiotics. This is not a criticism of any of the concepts but simply that there are too many of them. One should be enough, possibly three at the most. At the same time we need to meditate on what makes macrobiotics different, special or interesting. What should that concept be? If I were to choose one concept it is; ‘That people and food both contain energy, and that when you eat, your energy changes according to the foods you choose and the attitude you have towards your food.’

This encompasses the way foods grow and their preparation for the table and a description of the nature of the energy of the food and our attitude; yin and yang and the five elements provide good working models, but as they have been borrowed from traditional Chinese medicine (and in the case of yin and yang altered) this needs some thought. We only need to be experts in one thing to be of value to society.

All that is required is one concept that people can understand, feel inspired by and use in their daily life. Later if they wish to deepen their interest, they can embark on a structured program of study and possibly start a career of their own in macrobiotics. To be successful the concept needs to be one that generally has a happy outcome for all those that use it.

It certainly needs to be free from inducing the fear factor, a guru mentality, fanaticism, isolation, or obsession. Although as a concept this might seem removed from current nutritional thinking in my view we need to be different and distinct to stand apart from the wealth of nutritional based diets that come and go.

I welcome all the views that people have and I am always interested in listening to those that are different to mine. For me now is the time to get back to basics and focus on one thing we can do well. Personally I have a great appreciation for my journey through macrobiotics and enormous respect for all those that helped me along the way.

I would not change any part of my experience so far – I have met incredibly stimulating people who have enriched my life immeasurably. It worked for me but I am also aware it did not for many others. Let’s renew the spirit with new open discussions and explore new ways to move forward.