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reader comments: macrobiotics

14 May 2003
You say that

Macrobiotics is a way of life characterized by a special diet said to optimize the balance of yin and yang. George Ohsawa (1893-1966) started the macrobiotics movement with the publication of his Zen Macrobiotics in 1965. Michio Kushi popularized the movement in the United States. The basics of the diet itself were established by Sagen Ishizuka, a 19th century Japanese army doctor.

It's also a fact that the expression macrobiotics was first coined by a German Dr. Christoph von Hufeland (please see Basic Education: A Brief History of Macrobiotics pages 2 and 4 of the macrobiotic newsletter Non Credo.

Meanwhile, in the 18th century West, the German doctor Christoph von Hufeland (physician to the philosopher/poet Goethe) published the book Makrobiotik: Die Kunst das Mensliche Leben zu Verlängern (”Macrobiotics: The Art of Prolonging Human Life”) in the late 1780s, which was later translated into English in 1796. Hufeland made recommendations to follow a simple grain-and-vegetable diet with good chewing habits, promoted exercise and self-healing, recommended breast-feeding for children, and warned of the dangers of eating meat and sugar. (Jack, 141)

“The medical art must consider every disease as an evil which cannot be too soon expelled; the macrobiotic, on the other hand, shows that many diseases may be the means of prolonging life,” Hufeland observed in his book, exhibiting the kind of Yin/Yang thinking found in the East. Hufeland emphasized a natural approach to daily health: “The healing power of nature must, above all things, be supported from the beginning, because it is the principal means which lies in ourselves for rendering the causes of disease ineffectual. This may be done by not accustoming the body at first too much to artificial assistance; otherwise Nature will be so used that she will depend on foreign aid, and at length lose altogether the power of assisting herself."

There are several persons presently writing about the Hufeland and the scientific connection to macrobiotics (and over the years there are an abundance of noted doctors who have supported macrobiotics and some who have done scientific studies to support some of the claims made by macrobiotic educators), if one were interested and cared to look.

reply: Thanks for the info on Hufeland.

There have been studies that have compared the cholesterol and blood pressure of people on vegetarian macrobiotic diets with people matched for gender and age in the Framingham study. Those on the macrobiotic diets have lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels. This is true. However, I nowhere claim the diet is unhealthy or has no benefits. I claim that selecting food on its alleged metaphysical properties is unjustified and the claims that some have made about the cancer-prevention benefits of the diet are unfounded.

I got involved in macrobiotics not because I was physically sick with cancer, heart disease or something but because the Standard American Diet (S.A.D., please see Food and Healing by Annemarie Colbin 350 pages Ballantine Books [January 1996] ISBN 0345303857 ) depressed me psychologically [and contributed my addiction to sugar, drugs and alcohol) and most other vegetarian diets confused me but the macrobiotic diet gave me a sense of clarity, serenity, and well being.

Macrobiotics may or may not help a person recover from degenerative disease, though I believe that persons can recover with its help (but never cure themselves, that is to reverse the disease in such a way that the disease could never come back, no badly how one treated themselves).

Macrobiotics is a combination of a physical practice and a belief system (yin and yang) which people who want to use one need to consider the other to make it work (if a person eats a macrobiotic healing diet, it is believed that if they don't have an understanding of what the food is doing for them, that they may or may not benefit from it whereas persons who are convinced that there is something behind the diet that makes it work like the yin/yang philosophy, those persons stand a better chance at achieving recovery or whatever realistic goals that they wish to.

People who believe solely in nutritional theory (that is, that they themselves haven't done the scientific investigation into how the body works and how certain chemicals, vitamins and minerals work in their bodies to feed them and provide them with nourishment, health and well being, but instead believe what others have told them nutritional foods and substance will do for them) are themselves no more than believers.

In a matter of fact, most people who throw out the comment that they won't do something unless it's backed by science, are not scientists themselves but people who believe in science and the scientists and their promoters.

So whether one believes in yin and yang theory or the science of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, calories, vitamins and minerals, really does not matter as much as what does work, for them.

reply: I disagree and explain why in my entry on the pragmatic fallacy.

One other thing...in case you are unaware of it, the whole research establishment that supports the nutritional theory that most people believe in are largely funded by the very businesses that depend on people believing in that nutritional theory...the cattle and sheep ranchers, pig farmers, poultry raisers, dairy farmers, sugar producers, and all the other food and chemical producers, processors, distributors and sellers of all the foods, supplements drugs and alcohol that most people in society consume, generate trillions of dollars in the economy and provide funding and support to this research establishment, lobbyists to the government, and education materials for the schools so that everyone will be encouraged to believe only in consuming the products that they produce, so it's kind of ingenuous of one to say that the alternative medicine (and diet) route has no basis for making any real contribution to peoples lives if in fact they don't have the means to provide the scientific research and evidence to support their claims.

reply: Well, that's quite a claim. I don't doubt that various businesses are doing their best to persuade both consumers and scientists of the benefits of their products and that self-interest motivates a lot of research. People don't eat Big Macs because of their nutritional value. But consumers aren't complete idiots. Why more people aren't as concerned as you are about what you eat is a good question, but I don't think the answer lies in some conspiracy of self-interested ranchers and candy bar makers. But it is no accident that diet books are often best sellers. You don't have to be clairvoyant to predict that Americans will spend millions this year on diet and exercise books, devices, plans, clubs, and philosophies.

That said, there will never be any scientific evidence for the yin or yang of beets or any other food.

The macrobiotic movement and the natural foods movement is struggling against the apparent monopoly that the nutritionists have established, and so it's important that persons who attack the movement are challenged and corrected and be given more information than they appear to have gathered on their own, so that they can provide a more balanced account of what it really is contributing.

Do you understand what I am saying?

reply: I think you are saying that by criticizing the notion of choosing your foods by their yin or yang properties I have aligned myself with "the nutritionists" (whomever they might be) and am part of the attack on the macrobiotic and natural foods movement. If so, so be it. But for the record, I have no quarrel with natural foods or a diet of grains, beans, and vegetables. Eat what you want. But as soon as you claim that this or that food is chosen because of its metaphysical properties, expect me to go into attack mode.

Thank you, very much.

Bruce Paine

Bruce's reply:

I want to elaborate on scientific descriptions of phenomena and certain metaphysical ones like yin and yang....when the temperature outside goes from warm to freezing, one puts on something warm without any scientific training and it is a perfect example of choosing warmth or (yang energy) when exposed to cold (yin energy).

When one gets hot and then thirsty (yang), one desires something cool and wet (yin), so what is so metaphysical with that?

reply: Two things: yin and yang.

In macrobiotics one eats something that is slightly yang like brown rice, and one desires maybe some cooked yellow onions, carrots and a hardy leafy green to make balance (a slice or two of natural leavened bread, some beans, sea vegetable, something from the nut or seeds family, and a nonstimulating tea could round out such a meal) and if one is eating wider with fish, maybe a salad, dessert, or a light alcoholic beverage might be appropriate along with some grain and vegetables to make a fuller meal, so eating meat and/or cheese could make one desire strong vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, garlic, tropical fruits, all kinds of stronger flavors, sweeteners, stronger and more abundant alcohols and drugs over an accumulation of eating this way after a long time, so one may not be intellectually using yin and yang but maybe intuitively, (yes, nothing very metaphysical about that, huh?)

reply: Nothing metaphysical until you mentioned yin and yang again.

After all these many centuries of not thinking even scientifically as a human race what we are doing and then someone comes along and points out a way to look at it so even a child could understand it without being a genius, why attack it and say it's not scientific? (It's kind of convenient, when people who are usually not using or practicing science and are approached with something simple and foreign that requires them to think, to say, "Oh that's not scientific!", kind of like Christians that don't consider if what they are doing and thinking every moment of the day is approvable by Jesus and God, when confronted with a foreign idea, might claim that it is against their religion, and so forth.

Give me a break...we can attribute any language or ideas to what we base our decisions and activities on and since most of us are not from the Middle East but adopt beliefs from there, why should it be any different to adopt some beliefs and practices from the Far East (like gunpowder and fireworks that originally came from China or the spaghetti that we attribute coming from Italy but actually also came from the Far East)?

reply: You're losing me here, Bruce.

So anyway, I'm showing that yin and yang don't really have to be seen as a foreign and/or metaphysical thing but something common in our daily lives, that we can use like every other new thing that we use and integrate in our lives (it did not take us long to integrate these computers in our lives and how many of the users understand the science behind them (it's almost metaphysical how people (consumers]) have taken on all this technology without really understanding all that goes into them [especially not the assembly nor the programming!])

reply: True, and most of us eat carrots without the slightest idea of what they consist of at the cellular, molecular, or atomic level. So what?

So let's stop picking on concepts that we can use and readily integrate into our lives if we wish, and instead focus on stuff which really gives us trouble like fear, greed, and ignorance.

Those are concepts that I feel really need our attention and understanding to make it possible for people to live and work together.

Thank you, very much.

Bruce Paine

reply: I don't see why we can't do both: criticize concepts no matter how useful some people find them AND be concerned with fear, greed, and ignorance. In fact, some people will use certain concepts like "energy" or "yin" and "yang" and play on people's ignorance and greed to get them to buy useless magnets or takionic beads. Like I said above, I have no quarrel with vegetarians or macrobiotics as long as they don't make such false claims as being able to prevent cancer or harmonize your yang with your yin.

30 Jan 2000
I try to follow a macrobiotic diet and believe that it has helped me enormously, but in spite of being macrobiotic, I am in sympathy with some of your criticisms. I do believe that macrobiotics has erred in placing too much emphasis on the metaphysical and not enough on the rational and scientific.

Macrobiotics works, in my opinion, because it is, in many ways closest to the diet that most human beings ate during most of human evolution (the Ice Ages are an exception). This diet emphasizes whole grains, beans, and vegetables -- incidentally, a diet very close to the one recommended by the new Food Pyramid-- and minimizes processed food, sweets, and animal products. It seems to me that eating a diet that our bodies are evolved to eat is sensible.

To me, Yin and Yang are somewhat analogous to the concept of homeostasis, but of course yin and yang are more primitive conceptions that were developed before the advent of the scientific method. If Yin and Yang are viewed in this light, it becomes somewhat more reasonable, although in my opinion, macrobiotics has erred in turning these concepts into dogma instead of using them as the quite useful tools they in fact are. It has also been my experience that balancing food in terms of yin and yang will usually produce a balanced diet, because the yin-yang theory of diet was based on observations, however informal, about what actually works.

But I also have a certain level of skepticism about science for two reasons. The first is that throughout most of human history, humans were able to eat in ways that sustained life without the benefit of biochemistry and modern nutrition. Presumably, they did this by observing the effects that certain foods had on the people that ate them. Humans can make sound decisions without the basis of laboratory techniques, although science can certainly increase the odds of making the right decisions and help to explain why certain choices are good or poor.

Secondly, science makes mistakes. The idea of the four basic food groups was supposed to be based on nutritional science --or so we were taught in school-- and yet those recommendations have turned out to be seriously flawed and have been replaced by the food pyramid. It does seem to me that people eating the broad macrobiotic diet, one that includes fish and plenty of vegetables, would be healthier than those eating a diet based on the four food groups, even though macrobiotics has its theoretical basis in Asian philosophy and the four food groups was supposedly based on science. (Yes, I know--science is self-correcting, but a lot of people developed a lot of health problems while waiting for science to correct itself.) This is not an argument against or an attack on science. Rather it is an argument for understanding the fallibility of any human endeavor.

reply: Science, unlike metaphysics, not only makes mistakes, it uses methods of inquiry that make it possible to correct those mistakes. Positing yin and yang in foods is not the kind of thing that can be corrected because it cannot be proved or disproved. You might as well assign spiritual worth to different foods.

I think it is also true that the massive amounts of funding required to do really good science make it virtually impossible to do first-rate research on every question. This makes it imperative to rely on observation, traditions about food, and "common sense". Of course, these can be wrong also and should not be followed blindly. But it would also be wrong in my opinion to totally disregard them.

The fact that something stands outside of the Western scientific tradition does not necessarily make it wrong.
Maxine Boggy

reply: No amount of money or research can test the metaphysical claims of macrobiotics, which is a completely separate issue from whether the diet is healthy. It may well be, not because of yin and yang but because of vitamins and minerals and that kind of thing.

25 Sep 1999
A few minutes ago, I saw your webpage:


and I must say, I have never seen so much erroneous information, concerning macrobiotics, collected in one place, at one time.

reply: Thank you. Are you writing to tell me that I have won some sort of award?

1) Michio Kushi is misrepresented, in that drinking only "yang fluids" would not help one suffering from schizophrenia.

reply: Good. I am glad to hear that. But I refer to George Ohsawa as the one making the claims about yin and yang, and their relationship to schizophrenia.

2) Mr. Kushi's "claims" about cancer, among other diseases, have been studied and taken seriously, by many responsible professionals, including medical doctors, medical researchers, the United States Congress and medical journals, such as the Journal of the AMA and the Lancet. Some of his "claims" have resulted in landmark Medical Studies, such as the Framingham Heart Study and ongoing cancer tests. This summer, the Smithsonian Institute opened a permanent Macrobiotic exhibit, honoring his efforts.

reply: Good for Mr. Kushi. This is great news that he is the brains behind the Framingham Heart Study, etc. The Smithsonian also recommends further research on the Loch Ness "monster."

3) The comments on the "metaphysical" selection of foods is humorous. Many macrobiotic books and publications site the mineral and vitamin content of foods, in all food categories, in great detail. Macrobiotic people select foods that have been grown without pesticide residues and the main fare of the diet is whole grains & vegetables (that are high in fiber), while avoiding foods that are high in fat and cholesterol (quite the "metaphysical " coincidence).

reply: I take it you are suggesting that it no coincidence that metaphysics and natural gardening are in harmony.

Most foods served in a macrobiotic household have been cited by the AMA to be chief contributors in preventing heart disease and cancer (e.g., broccoli and other cruciferous foods, oats and other whole grains).

reply: I've never denied it.

Macrobiotic foods contain Isothiocyanates, Lignans, genistein, daidzein and other Isoflavones; while avoiding Monosodium Glutamate, excess sodium and cholesterol. Macrobiotic people are aware of these facts and use a healthy diet as a preventative measure, trying not to overindulge in foods (like steak, hamburger and ice cream) that are obviously bad for our health.

reply: I've never denied it.

This is usually defined, by reasonable people, as being responsible. Metaphysical? Well, I suppose you read an article somewhere....................

reply: Yes, have you ever heard of George Ohsawa, the originator of macrobiotics?

SUMMARY: I would not be bothered or concerned by your cute webpage, with the exception that it could possibly turn away people who could really benefit from knowing about and realizing greater health and happiness.

If you decide that a particular issue deserves your skepticism, it may be wise to spend a little time collecting all of the facts. In the instance of macrobiotics, perhaps you could even try the diet for a few months. But, that would be taking on a lot of responsibility. Easier to type, type, type away.

Hope no one dies unnecessarily.
Wayne Weber

reply: Me, too.

12 Jun 1999
I value your Skeptic's Dictionary. But I don't value the Macrobiotics description. Your negative view could kill people by turning them away from something which could heal their terminal cancer. The reason that macrobiotics is widely misunderstood, is that only very very few people really do it right. Now, if you had health problems and had them healed with macrobiotics you would look deeper into how that works. The understanding of macrobiotics needs a fusion of dualistic and monistic thinking. In order to think that way you have to eat that way. Otherwise your brain will not be able to understand it. That's the true problem. Brains need a clear nutrition in order to be able to connect to the universe, which contains intuition. No good nutrition - no good intuition - no macrobiotics understanding - no true healing. See www.macrobiotics.org and www.physicalsystems.com/macrobiotics/
Rolf Bertram

reply: Testimonials from people who were diagnosed with terminal cancer, tried macrobiotics (or Tk47 or Tibeten bells or ___________) and later had their disease go into remission are unscientific and based on post hoc reasoning. Of course, if you are the one whose disease disappears, you cannot help but think it is a miracle. You certainly are not going to give credit to the M.D.s who gave you chemotherapy and then told you that it was hopeless after putting you through months of agony.

A macrobiotic diet can be nutritious but there is no evidence that macrobiotics has healed anybody's cancer.

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