Dietetics and the Great Life

When I was 16 years old, I decided that I wanted to be a dietician. I devoured my biology notes on the structure and function of the human body with fervor and fascination. I was seduced by the brown rice and lentils a friend’s parents served us for dinner when Istayed the night there. I excelled at the subject, ate sunflower seeds at school break-time, and was happily typecast long before it was cool to be health-conscious in South Africa. Sure, the decision was part of my developing adolescent identity, but there was something deeper at work here that was only fully realized later.

I sailed through my science undergraduate, still in my element, onlyto be brought up short very quickly into my postgraduate degree in nutrition and dietetics. What went wrong? I hated it. There I was in a hospital, in my navy-blue student-dietician’s outfit, prospectively part of a medical team: calculating protein requirements, calculating calorie requirements, calculating potassium requirements, and learning about every possible human disease and its corresponding nutritional intervention. Fraud! I was older then—I had learnt more, experienced more, thought more, and wanted more—but what was it about that approach that left me so wanting at the time?

To attempt to answer this, reflecting now some 15 years later, I willconsider my understanding and experience of Western dietetics in light of my understanding and experience of macrobiotics, which I began reading about and getting into at the time of my university studies and which I have been practicing ever since. Comparing the nutritional prescriptions between the two paradigms seemsredundant, because it is precisely that they are two different paradigms at the heart of the comparison. Over the years, scientific dietary recommendations have moved progressively in line with macrobiotic guidelines—towards a whole-food plant-based diet. It is now widely recognized that probiotic-containing fermented foods are beneficial to the gut microbiome that excessive meat consumption is linked to colon cancer, and that dairy is no longer an essential food group. But even as the nutritional guidelinesof the two converge, the premises on which the guides are based couldn’t be further apart.

There is no heart and soul to dietetics. No talk of the order of theuniverse or of cosmic beings manifest in physical form and transmuted through food. I learned back then to look myopically to understand the whole rather than looking deeply inside to see the whole manifested in everything. To look up at the tall trees and at

Macrobiotics: Health, happiness and peace

Macrobiotics is often thought of as simply a dietary prescription. In effect, it is much more than that. Rather than being a rigid  set of guidelines, it requires  individuals to take responsibility for their health and destiny through flexibility and adaptability to an ever-changing environment.

George Ohsawa and the history of macrobiotics

While searching for a cure for his tuberculosis, eighteen-year old Nyoichi Sakurazawa, discovered the Japanese chemist and army doctor, Sagen Ishizuka who believed the balance between sodium and potassium in the body is the primary determinant of one’s wellbeing. Ishizuka held that diet most strongly affects this equilibrium and that food is the foundation of health. Cereal grains contain the ideal balance of potassium to sodium and so are the correct food for human beings. Because of an excessive consumption of animal food (naturally high in sodium), Westerners became sodium-dominant.  Ishizuka saw this as giving rise to a culture that was self-centered, sensorial, and greedy. He criticized modern science and the introduction of meat, sugar and dairy into the diet, and encouraged the return to a more traditional diet of whole grains, land and sea vegetables, and soyfoods.

The now nineteen-year old Sakurazawa ate brown rice, miso soup and salty pickles and recovered his equilibrium. Later, he would re-interpret Ishizuka’s dietary prescription using the ancient Oriental principles of yin (for potassium) and yang (for sodium). He changed his named to Ohsawa and began calling his teachings macrobiotics.

What is macrobiotics?

Macrobiotics means ‘big view of life’. It is the universal way of physical, psychological and spiritual development. Its philosophy has ideological, medical and dietetic implications. Macrobiotics outlines an approach to diet with the intention of ensuring the evolution of the species on the planet.

In the second half of the 1940s, Ohsawa opened a school outside Tokyo called La Masion Ignoramus, The House of Ignorance. Ohsawa identified arrogance as the highest level of disease and called for the physiological regeneration of humanity. He believed the decline in the vitality of man was to blame for the decline in the moral integrity of society. He also believed in a biological law of justice: from one grain, ten thousand grains; the earth is infinitely co-operative and productive; nature provides food proper for our nourishment. If we break the law of nature – if we are ignorant of the natural order – then we become sick, miserable and die. Ohsawa wanted to liberate humankind from a small and rigid perspective of the world, and to break the barriers preventing it from realizing its truest and highest potential of health, happiness and peace.

He taught that anything is possible because life means to exist and perpetuate itself. Falling ill and struggling is an anomaly. Everything changes: health can become sickness and sickness can become health, loss can change to gain, difficulty can become ease, and weakness can turn to strength. Because all phenomena is dynamic, we needn’t hold on so tightly. We can let go more easily and become free. The greatest joy is in transforming our situation and the revolution begins by changing the body’s condition.

Yin and yang

Macrobiotics teaches that from one infinity come two opposite and complementary forces: yin and yang. Yin and yang represent relative tendencies that constitute and animate life. Yin is experienced as being more expansive, upward and outward, and yang as more contracted, downward and inward. In temperature, yin is colder while yang is hotter. In size, yin is bigger and yang is smaller. Yin is slower in movement and yang is more active. The colours of yin are purple, blue, green and white, and the colours of yang are red, brown, orange and yellow.

Because cereals developed in the plant kingdom in tandem with the development of man in the animal kingdom, the macrobiotic belief is that whole cereal grains should form our principal food. Brown rice is especially calming to man’s most developed organ, the nervous system, and is considered to be our evolutionary counterpart in the plant world. In terms of its size, shape, colour and nutrient composition, brown rice is seen to fall in the centre of the spectrum of the seven principal grains (wheat, barley, oats, millet, rye, buckwheat and corn). Millet, for instance, is smaller, denser and yellow in colour. It is more yang than brown rice. Whole barley, which is larger, more expanded and lighter in colour, is more yin.

the big sky to understand what is real is part of a paradigm that reveres and celebrates life rather than a paradigm that is based on the fear of what will happen when things go wrong. The former trusts that mistakes will right themselves and turn to their opposites in the endless tumbling flow while the latter tries to intercept suffering through restriction and limitation—through warnings of what is bad and wrong and what will happen to you if you do bad and wrong things.

I was young and I wanted to be free. And yet as I’ve grown and developed through macrobiotics, it is precisely its limitations that have allowed me to be free. Because its paradigm is based on the understanding that we are cosmic beings manifest in physical form and transmuted through food. We are limited by our physicality and must restrict our consumption in order to be free, biologically and cosmically. Food is neither bad nor wrong. Each food simply has a particular effect, which affects our physical and spiritual life. If I choose to restrict a food, it is not because that food is bad or wrong, but rather because I wish for physical and spiritual life. Similarly, I choose foods to enhance my life and my potential in theorder of the universe. Therefore, I am free because I choose my life through choosing my food. It is a paradigm based on choice and freedom rather than on fear, guilt, and anxiety.

I have no interest in nutrients, or in calories, or in potassium requirements. I am unmoved by means and standard deviations, left dead by indices and charts. I don’t want to have to be afraid of being too little or of being too much. To have to constantlyreach to an artificially safe and tenuous number/goal/externally validated truth. To be bound by formulas and equations that inevitably set me up to fail and fall short.

This is not meant as an attack on modern medicine. Nor do I mean to undermine nutritional science, which is obviously of extreme value in certain circumstances. I also realize that the existential question of choosing one’s life through choosing one’s food is a luxury not afforded to many.

This is a deeply personal meditation on why I feel I left one path behind all those years ago and chose another. I still want to be free. Free from arrogance; free from illness. Humbled by the world in place and perspective from which to consider my self. To revere and rejoice from the little world that is me—that is all of us. Like everyone else, I want to live a great life. To look up through the tall trees at the big sky. Come and have a look with me.

(Published in Macrobiotics Today Magazine, Volume 63, No. 1, Winter 2021-2022)

Other factors that determine the yin-yang predominance of a food include the speed, direction and climate of its growth, its geographic origin, the sodium-potassium and water content, and the effect that the food has on the body.  Millet is warming – it is more yang. Barley is cooling – it is more yin. Vegetable species are more yin than animal species: plants are fixed, their growth is upward and outward, they are cooler, wetter, and are characterized by the green chlorophyll complex. Carrots are more yang: they grow in a temperate climate, their growth is downward, they are more condensed and they are orange. Fruits contain more water than vegetables and are more yin.
As such, it is possible to plot the entire range of foods and beverages on a yin to yang continuum.

Yin foods

These are generally bigger, grow on or above the ground, have more potassium and cool the body. Among the strongly yin foods are solanaceous vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, capsicum and chillies), tropical fruits and vegetables, refined flours, oils and sweets, milk, cream, aromatic spices, and stimulating beverages like coffee and mint tea.

Yang foods

These are more compact, grow below ground, contain more sodium, and heat up the body. Strong yang foods are meat, eggs, poultry, cheese and dark-meat fish and seafood (the most yang compound is salt).

Yin/yang balanced

Centrally-balanced foods include grains, beans and vegetables, seeds, nuts, temperate-climate fruit and white-meat fish.

When the weather is warm (yang), we tend to eat more fresh and raw food, like salad and melon (yin). When night falls or the atmospheric temperature drops (more yin), we turn to hot-cooked, heavily seasoned meals, like soup and stew (more yang). To adapt to the ever-changing circumstances of our environment, we need to maintain a fluctuating yin-yang balance. In spring we eat barley; in autumn we have millet. It is easier to create balance by basing the diet on items selected from the central category because these foods are more moderate in their effect. The two poles here are fish (more yang) and fruit (more yin). If we eat more fish, we need to balance it by eating more fruit. If we eat more and more fish and don’t balance it properly with a more yin food like fruit, then we will become imbalanced, no matter how much brown rice we consume.

If we eat large amounts of eggs, meat and other animal foods, which are very yang, we will instinctively be drawn to very yin foods like sugar and dairy. By nature, we seek balance. Alcohol (more yin) is taken with salted, roasted peanuts (more yang). Cooked meat (extreme yang) is eaten with tomato or potato (extreme yin), and finished off with ice-cream and chocolate sauce (extreme yin). If we try to make balance this way, we will constantly be trying to balance, and the swings will be wider.

The universal way

Macrobiotic ideology is rooted in an understanding that has existed for generations. The principles are not abstract. No one food or one type of food can be classified as macrobiotic. And the idea of being macrobiotic is nonsensical. One is no more macrobiotic than one is a human being, because the yin-yang compass is nothing more than universal logic or common sense.

Human beings can eat anything. As the final development of evolution, the species is able to take in all the preceding stages of plants and animals. Humans can eat everything, but what we do eat will create a certain quality of being that is expressed in our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, perceptions, responses and actions. In digesting food, we form our physical and mental condition. As a universal eater, we have the responsibility to choose wisely.

You are what you eat

• Human beings can take in both plant and animal food. But what we eat creates our quality of being.
• If we eat extremely contractive (yang) foods, like meat, poultry and eggs, we will become attracted to extreme expansive (yin) food, like soft dairy and sugar. Eating at these extremes causes a chaotic, imbalanced and unsatisfying eating pattern.
• Choosing more inherently-balanced foods, such as whole grains, vegetables and legumes, allows us to negotiate our dynamic world with steadiness, compassion and freedom.

(Published on on 12/10/2020)