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What to Know Before You Decide to Try a Macrobiotic Diet

This diet has been around for awhile, but it's regaining popularity thanks to its focus on whole foods and life balance. Here's what you need to know about the diet and how to follow it.


What is the macrobiotic diet?

This eating approach is inspired by Zen Buddhism: It involves finding a “yin and yang” balance in not only the foods you eat, but in how you cook your food and even how you live your life.  “The macrobiotic diet is a predominantly vegetarian diet high in fiber and complex carbohydrates and low in fat,” says Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN, LDN. “It is specifically marketed to prevent disease and promote optimal health.” The diet consists primarily of whole cereal grains (especially brown rice) along with beans and some vegetables. Thinking of going vegetarian? Here are six ways to get there.

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Weight loss and health issues

Many people turn to the diet to lose weight and help with other health issues such as diabetes. Research suggests that including more plant-based sources like whole grains, beans, and vegetables can reduce the risk of chronic disease, including reducing the risk of diabetes and insulin resistance, heart disease, and high blood pressure. There is even some evidence that the diet can help reduce hormonal levels associated with higher risk of breast cancer. As far as weight loss goes: “There has not been research specifically on a macrobiotic diet for weight loss, although weight loss is likely given its low-calorie nature,” says Stacey Mattinson, MS, RDN, LD. Because the diet encourages people to cut out processed foods and sources of sugar, many find that they naturally shed pounds.

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What’s on the menu

The diet focuses on eating certain foods, but the amount of each food matters as much as what type. To start, all food should be organically grown. Forty to 60 percent of the diet should consist of whole grains such as brown rice, millet, barley, corn, oats, and rye. That’s good, because whole grains can significantly reduce your risk of this cancer. Twenty to 30 percent of the diet should consist of locally grown vegetables. The remaining 5 to 10 percent are reserved for beans and other products like tofu, miso, and tempeh, and sea vegetables like seaweed, nori, wakame, etc. Fresh fish, locally grown fruit, and nuts and seeds can be enjoyed occasionally, around twice a week.


Foods to avoid

You’ll have to skip meat and dairy, refined grains, any type of sugar, chocolate, alcohol, artificial colors or flavors, preservatives, canned or frozen foods, hot spices, and caffeine. There are also certain vegetables to be eaten sparingly, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and asparagus. Need help cracking your sugar addiction?


Balancing your lifestyle

This particular diet is about more than just food. “The macrobiotic diet promotes balance in life and spirituality, and hence, offers more of a lifestyle philosophy,” says Schlichter. “It’s not uncommon to believe in chewing food 50 times before swallowing or expressing gratitude before meals.” Followers of the diet are encouraged to use wood or glass cooking materials and to avoid materials like plastic, copper, and non-stick coatings. It’s also important to listen to your body, stay active, and maintain a positive outlook. These are some things that mindful eaters do at every meal.

Before you begin

Don’t expect too much: As with any diet, it’s important to consider all the pros and cons of following a strict meal plan. The macrobiotic diet has been incorrectly touted as a way to cure cancer—no diet can accomplish that. “There is no evidence to support this, and it can worsen cachexia (malnutrition and wasting) in cancer since it lacks essential nutrients and adequate calories,” says Mattinson. Additionally, following the diet rigidly can lead to a deficiency of vitamins such as vitamin B12, vitamin C, beta-carotene, iron, calcium, folate, and protein, according to Mattinson, so make sure to consult with your doctor whenever you start something new to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need.

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