Though macrobiotics sounds eerily like something Scientologists could have come up with, it's actually an ancient lifestyle that's evolved mostly from East Asian nutritional practices. Even though stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna swear by their macrobiotic lifestyles, the diet is unlike most of the bizarre eating rituals famous people tend to make popular. Macrobiotics isn't a six-day, six-week or six-month period of pound-shedding and muscle-building; it's an ongoing philosophy on food and longevity -- yoga for the digestive system, if you will. Like yoga, there are multiple levels of practice.
"Usually a change in diet is something to take on gradually," cautions Chris Bansemer, owner of Lorien Herbs and Natural Foods store. "I would suggest those interested in macrobiotics study it, get good books on it and gradually change to as strict as you want to go."
In Greek, "macro" means big or great and "biotic" refers to life; thus "macrobiotics" conveys the "big view of life," or "the big or long life." Macrobiotic philosophy recognizes that what you put into your body, and how you select and prepare your foods, is an art that can sustain health and even cure illness. Sound serious? It's certainly more spiritual than, say, the Fat Flush Plan. Macrobiotics is a diet based mostly in whole grains and sea vegetables; it forbids most animal products. Bansemer says she follows a macrobiotic diet but doesn't take it to extremes. "A lot of my meals are macrobiotic," she says, "but some aren't. I don't follow it strictly. If you can get the acid and alkaline balance in line, that's important."
Acid and alkaline are a focus in the macrobiotic diet, which claims an imbalance between their levels can create a variety of ailments. "The American diet is too acidic," Bansemer notes, referring to our high-starch, high-sugar, high-animal product foods. Macrobiotics is mostly vegan, with the exception of fish and some seafood. "Lemon has an alkalinizing effect. The first thing in the morning, drinking a glass of lemon water flushes the liver and gall bladder."
The diet has a common sense methodology about sitting, chewing and digesting that will allow the body to fully absorb nutrients. This makes the diet more credible, perhaps, than the latest health craze, but also more complicated. The modern macrobiotic diet encourages people to focus on the ingredients in their everyday foods -- something that could well terrify us, considering partially hydrogenated something-or-other and monosaturated fats are in almost everything we put in our grocery carts.
Like other spiritual lifestyles, macrobiotics tends to have a range of followers, from extremists who pack special ingredients around and preach the perils of eating meat, to those who simply like the idea of a diet that's gentle on the system. In between those ends of the spectrum lie a plethora of views and instructions on what is and isn't true "macrobiotics," but a basic creed is discernible:
1. Foods are the foundation of health and happiness.
2. Sodium and potassium, acid and alkaline, are the complementary elements of all foods; they determine the character of the food, whether it is yin or yang in nature. Finding a yin/yang balance for each individual -- it's not "one size fits all" -- is the key.
3. Foods should be unrefined, whole, local (and in season) and natural (organic).
Living Large -- I learned that it's a lot easier to agree theoretically with macrobiotics than it is to follow the lifestyle. No matter how much I twist the rules, macrobiotics still requires sacrificing the convenience of eating the modern American way. Macrobiotics is, to the unstudied observer, a diet of twig teas and leafy things; it's full of raw foods, bulk foods and whole-grain everything.
For instance, foods that are completely off-limits include meat (except fish), white sugar, eggs, chocolate, dairy products, caffeine, all alcohol, most spices -- even tap water! Because the macrobiotic diet also focuses on where food comes from and how it's prepared, it discourages the use of microwaves, electric ovens and or hotplates -- cooking with gas is OK -- and fry pots. If you live in a temperate climate, tropical fruits are off limits. And forget about munching on anything in the car, while standing or in the middle of the night. But what is a diet if not a lesson in will power and sacrifice?
I tried concentrating on macrobiotic foods that are accessible, cheap and easy to prepare. It was a short list. After all, we don't live in a society with whole grain rice and locally grown organic veggie bowls available at the drive-through. Many of us think eating our veggies means de-thawing an icy chunk of something green. Plenty of people I know believe beans actually grow in their aluminum cans. In a country that has wholly embraced the Atkins' philosophy of dining on ice cream and beef jerky, macrobiotics is something of a come-to-Jesus reality check on nutrition.
I'm a fairly healthy person; I haven't eaten red meat in years and dutifully take my vitamins. I usually saut & eacute; as opposed to bake and prefer brown rice to white. I'm knowledgeable about what's in season and like to think I get most of what my body needs. I even try to drink local beer. I thought I'd be fine. But switching to macrobiotics was a surprising wake-up call -- and without any coffee in the morning, I'm not sure I wanted to be awakened at all. There are so many restrictions in a macrobiotic diet the first few days felt like the Neolithic period: scraping together nuts and berries, scouring for my next meal.
Other than my profound disdain for seaweed, I found the macrobiotic diet to be surprisingly diverse. I've learned to focus on how I'm sitting and chewing during a meal, which helps me realize when I'm really full. I've followed the suggestion of not consuming anything at least three hours before bedtime and have slept better as a result.
Passing up lunch in a restaurant where not one iota of macrobiotic-friendly food was available wasn't just disappointing for me, but to the people I was with. After all, how fun is it to have a meal with someone who won't eat anything? But Bansemer says plenty of restaurants have alternatives for restricted eaters.
"You have to be fussier, but most restaurants will accommodate you," Bansemer assures. "You can substitute tofu for almost any item. And, if you're following the diet, you can get away with that one night out. Your body can process it -- it'll be fine."
Yes, the loophole, the promise of forgiveness that every good diet must have. If your overall foods are macrobiotic, then your overall health will reflect that. A piece of cheesecake or a few drinks one night aren't going to send you spiraling down into eternal macrobiotic hell. Besides, obsessing about following the "rules" of macrobiotics isn't what the nutritional philosophy is all about.
"There's no one diet that's good for everyone," Bansemer says. "We have to find out what's best for us."
Resources -- Macrobiotics wasn't invented by some beefed-up exercise guru with a fake tan and maniacal infomercials; it offers common-sense health advice and isn't designed to push a line of products. Though it's easy to get caught up in the cost of macrobiotic paraphernalia, it's just as easy to find practical ways around those expenses. Not all of us can pay thousands a week to have macrobiotic-friendly meals delivered to our doorstep the way the stars do. Most of us do, however, have access to the Internet, where a wealth of free information awaits searchers.
"It seems like a large investment," agrees Bansemer, "but if you compare the nutritional and taste value, and that your junk food expenditures go down because you're not buying Pepsi and hamburgers, you'll have money for organic rice."
Stores: Lorien Herbs and Natural Foods, 1102 S. Perry St., 456-0702; Huckleberry's Natural Market, 926 S. Monroe St., 624-1349; Fred Meyer's health food section (multiple locations).
Books: Healing With Whole Foods: Oriental Traditions and Modern Nutrition, by Paul Pitchford: Acid and Alkaline, by Herman Aihara.