One increasingly hears, from health up-dates, celebrity interviews, and a wide range of other sources, that someone or other has gone on a macrobiotic diet. It is reputed to cure or prevent a wide range of illnesses, and is often mentioned in stories of people who have survived cancer. (In fact, it is not entirely dissimilar to the cancer-prevention program that has now been adopted by the American Cancer Society.) However, unless you are a student of nutrition and are already familiar with this regimen, you may have wondered what "macrobiotic" means.
The term comes from the Greek words makros (big or long) and bios (life). Indeed, the idea that diet plays a significant role in health dates back to the Greeks (it was Hippocrates who wrote, "Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food."). However, what we today know as macrobiotics dates from the first half of the 20th century and comes to us from Japan.
George Ohsawa was a teacher and writer in Tokyo who desired to synthesize the best of East and West. He believed that modern society would suffer widespread illness if it did not return to a more natural way of life. He maintained that simplicity and balance were important. He reexamined the dietary ideas of Hippocrates and reintroduced the idea of yin and yang, which had been in decline since the advent of modern food and agriculture.
Among Ohsawa's most gifted students were Aveline and Michio Kushi, who brought macrobiotics to the United States. (Actually, Aveline and Michio arrived separately and met in New York, where Michio was doing graduate work at Columbia University.) In the mid-1960s, they moved to New England, where they taught macrobiotics and opened a natural food store called Erewhon. At that time, organic brown rice, miso, tofu, and azuki beans were not readily available in America—but the market was ready for them. Erewhon soon grew to be the largest distributor and manufacturer of natural foods on the East Coast, with a chain of retail stores and a fleet of trucks. And the Kushi Institute became the primary world authority in the field.
Aside from the philosophy of yin and yang, where foods of different energies are to be balanced, macrobiotics teaches that food should be appropriate to climate, season, and personal needs. A macrobiotic diet is, generally speaking, vegetarian and emphasizes eating foods as close to nature as possible. (Meat is just way too yang to eat regularly. On the other hand, sugar is very yin. The idea is not just to eat things that are opposites, but to eat things in the middle, such as brown rice and other whole grains, so you're not pulling yourself back and forth nutritionally.)
It is difficult but not impossible to get enough variety in a macrobiotic diet to get all the nutrients needed. However, those who succeed at following a macrobiotic diet generally have far lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels than the average American. Also, since it is low in protein and high in whole foods, it is very healing for many conditions.
While I, personally, do not have any interest in being a vegetarian, there are several principles of macrobiotics that I have integrated into my own life, especially that of eating things as close to nature as possible (i.e., lots of brown rice and fresh veggies, and no soft drinks). I also find that the suggestions regarding foods appropriate to season and climate often seem to work for me (I can gorge on fresh pineapple with no ill effects when in Hawaii, for example, but suffer painful side effects if I eat it during a Midwestern winter). And of course, soy foods like miso and tofu are a wonderful, healthful addition to any diet, whether you do anything else macrobiotic or not.
If you are interested in macrobiotic cooking, you can visit the web site of the Kushi Institute (www.macrobiotics.org) or pick up a copy of Aveline Kushi's "Complete Guide to Macrobiotic Cooking." Intelligently written, it may inspire you to pay closer attention to how your personal energy is affected by what you eat. Chapters are prefaced with Aveline's own drawings along with haiku written by students from Aveline's years as an elementary school teacher in Japan before WW II.
Azuki beans (also spelled/transliterated as adzuki, aduke, aduki) are indigenous to Japan. They are among the lowest in fat of all beans, and are very easily digested. Azuki Rice, also known as Red Rice (since the rice takes on the deep red of the beans), is a dish often associated with festivals in the Far East (red is the color of happiness and azuki beans are considered lucky). When made with brown rice, instead of the more traditional sweet rice, it becomes one of the classics of macrobiotic cuisine. Whether or not you are interested in pursuing a macrobiotic lifestyle, you can still enjoy this simple, wholesome, delicious dish, which is high in fiber and extremely low in fat.
¾ cup azuki beans
6½ cups water
½ tsp. sea salt
2 cups brown rice
10-12 sliced scallions
2 Tbs. tamari (or to taste)
Wash beans and drain. Put beans in pot with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 35 minutes. Stir in rice and salt, and bring to a boil again. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 50 minutes. Stir in scallions and tamari. Serve hot with additional tamari on the side.