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The Promise

Call it the pursuit of hippieness. Macrobiotics, with its brown rice, beans, sea vegetables, and Asian yin-yang philosophy of finding balance in life for health and vitality, was the original counterculture diet back in the '60s. It's actually been around much longer than that.

A macrobiotic diet isn't just about your weight -- it's about achieving balance in your life. It promises a healthier, more holistic long-term lifestyle for men, women, and children that encompasses mental outlook as well as food choices. Macrobiotic dieters are encouraged to eat regularly, chew their food extremely well, listen to their bodies, stay active, and maintain a perky, positive mental outlook.

Whole grains, vegetables, and beans are the mainstays of the diet, which some people believe can prevent or treat cancer. While the American Cancer Society stops short of recommending macrobiotic diets to prevent cancer because there's no scientific evidence, it does say that researchers believe eating a plant-based, low-fat, high-fiber diet lowers the risk of heart disease and some kinds of cancer.

What You Can Eat and What You Can't

If you like grains, veggies, and soup, you're in luck.

About 40% to 60% percent of your daily diet should be organically grown whole grains, like brown rice, barley, millet, oats, and corn. Locally grown vegetables make up 20%-30% of your daily total. Five percent to 10% is reserved for beans and bean products like tofu, miso, and tempeh, and sea vegetables like seaweed, nori, and agar.

You can also have fresh fish and seafood, locally grown fruit, pickles, and nuts several times a week. Rice syrup is one of the sweeteners you can have occasionally.

You're discouraged from eating dairy, eggs, poultry, processed foods, refined sugars, and meats, along with tropical fruits, fruit juice, and certain vegetables like asparagus, eggplant, spinach, tomatoes, and zucchini.

You’re only supposed to drink when you feel thirsty. And spicy stuff is frowned on (no habaneros here!) along with strong alcoholic beverages, soda, coffee, and anything highly refined, processed, or chemically preserved.

Level of Effort: High

The macrobiotic diet will take consistent effort, but it's more flexible than it may seem. Depending on your choices, you can start slow, moving from one level of intensity to the next.

Because macrobiotics is as much a philosophy of life as it is a diet, the effort it takes largely depends on how deeply you choose to delve into the diet, and on a larger scale, the philosophy or spiritual system behind it.

Chewing each mouthful of food at least 50 times is standard macrobiotic practice. So is pausing to express gratitude for your food before you eat it. This plan also recommends that you eat two to three times a day and stop before you're full.

Cooking and shopping: Foods are mostly baked, broiled, or steamed. Some devotees avoid cooking with electricity, and use pots, pans, and utensils made from naturally occurring materials, like glass. But if you’re not ready to count your chews, say thanks, or cook in a clay pot, the major effort with a macrobiotic diet is finding locally grown food. And, of course, the time to make it all from scratch.

Packaged foods or meals: No.

In-person meetings: No.

Exercise : Regular exercise is encouraged.

Does It Allow for Restrictions/ Preferences?

Vegetarians and vegans: The classic macrobiotic diet is pescatarian (meaning it allows you to eat fish) as well as being low-salt and low-fat, but you can easily modify it to make it vegetarian or vegan. You'll need to make sure your nutritional needs are met, including vitamin B12, iron, zinc, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Gluten-free: The macrobiotic diet doesn't ban gluten, but you may be able to adapt it to work for a gluten-free diet. You'll still need to read food labels carefully to check for sources of gluten.

What Else You Should Know

Costs: None apart from your food shopping.

Support: If you want to understand macrobiotics on a deeper level, you can get coaching from macrobiotic counselors at the Kushi Institute, considered the center of macrobiotics today.

What Dr. Michael Smith Says:

Does It Work?

If you’re looking for a healthy eating plan, the macrobiotic diet is a good choice. It’s rich in nutrient-packed foods that are also low in calories.

While there’s no absolute proof, medical research suggests diets that are mostly vegetables, fruits, and whole grains may lower the risk of several diseases, including heart disease and cancer. Either way, you’ll reap plenty of health benefits with this diet.

If your goal is to lose weight, the macrobiotic diet will likely do the trick too, but don’t get caught in the carb trap.

Many people replace meat with carbs. Starchy carbs, like potatoes, rice, and pasta, are easy to overeat, packing on the calories and the pounds. Instead, reach for veggies in place of meat.

Is It Good for Certain Conditions?

A diet rich in vegetables and fish is a great option if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease. It helps lower cholesterol, and any diet that drops the pounds is good for all these conditions.

Because the diet limits sugary and fatty foods, it’s also good for people with diabetes.

The Final Word

Any diet that increases vegetables, decreases sugar and fat, and includes a lean source of protein like fish is good for you in many ways. But it will take time for most people to adjust to this new eating lifestyle and philosophy.

If you can stick with it and eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods, you’ll be on your way to better health.

Be sure to include non-dairy foods fortified with calcium and vitamin D, such as soy and almond milk, because the diet eliminates dairy.

And don’t forget, exercise is part of the macrobiotic lifestyle.

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