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 well-being. 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-centred, 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 reinterpret 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 cooperative 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 are 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.

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 fervour and fascination. I was seduced by the brown rice and lentils a friend’s parents served us for dinner when I stayed 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, only to 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, wanted more – but what was it about that particular approach that left me so wanting at the time?

To attempt to answer this, reflecting now some 15 years later, I will consider 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 practising ever since. Comparing the nutritional prescriptions between the two paradigms seems redundant 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 guidelines of 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 the universe 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.

What Is The Macrobiotic Diet – And Can It Help You Lose Weight?


Rooted in Japanese culture, the macrobiotic diet espouses the Asian yin-yang philosophy and is all about bringing balance to your plate, and by extension, your body. It’s also endorsed by celebs like Ariana Grande, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sting. If you like whole grains and soup or are looking to try something new, this is the diet for you.

Meet The Expert: Carla Chait is dietician and expert in macrobiotic eating

The history of the macrobiotic diet
The macrobiotic diet started in the 19th century. “Sagen Ishizuka, a Japanese army doctor trained in Western medicine during this time, became disillusioned with his craft when he was unable to cure himself of his own ailments using the allopathic approach to healing,” says Chait. He started experimenting with diet and postulated that the balance between potassium and sodium in the body is the foundation of health. He called for a rejection of the foundations of the Western diet (meat, sugar and dairy) and wanted a return to the traditional Japanese diet that prizes miso soup, brown rice, pickles and seaweed. “Ishizuka healed many patients with his approach to diet and health and became famous throughout Tokyo as the ‘Anti-Doctor Doctor’,” says Chait.

So… what is the macrobiotic diet?
You don’t need to buy the entire Japanese grocery store to get the benefits. The diet focuses on whole grains, legumes, vegetables and yes, seaweed as the principal foods, says Chait. Added to that are white-meat fish, nuts and fruits.

What can you expect on the macrobiotic diet?
While you’d be mistaken for thinking the diet, while being whole foods focused, is just a dolled-up vegetarian diet, you’d be wrong. Key differences include its ideological and energetic bases. The idea is that by eating the right foods, you can powerfully affect your health and well-being. Prized is food that is locally grown, less processed and options low in saturated fats.

“People eating a Macrobiotic diet can expect increased physical stamina and mental clarity,” says Chait. “Eating whole foods gives one a ‘whole’ or expansive view of the world. Eating Macrobiotically not only changes one’s health then but also changes one’s life.”

Will it help you to lose weight?
Since the diet prizes fibre and downplays fat content, you could very well shed kilos. “A high-fibre diet ensures that the digestive system is toned and functioning properly, while also stabilizing blood sugar,” says Chait. “The fat sources in the diet are largely mono- and polyunsaturated, which is good for heart health. Eating Macrobiotically will improve one’s overall health and ensure that energy is flowing smoothly through the body so that excess weight is discharged.”

Who does it work best for?
Well, since most dietary recommendations prize the upping of fruits and vegetables and whole grains, it comes as no surprise that this diet will work well for pretty much anybody. “The diet is especially helpful for those who have had a lifetime of poor food choices, leading to stagnation and disease,” says Chait. “For those, the diet is truly miraculous in restoring health and well-being.” Research backs this up. One study showed that macrobiotic diet can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, leading authors to think that it might be a great diet for people dealing with cardiovascular problems. Another study posited that it’s a diet associated with decreased cancer rates. In cancer patients, macrobiotic diet has been known anecdotally to yield results and is associated with decreased cancer risk. However, more research is needed to confirm the benefits of this diet on cancer.

And it works for women, too. “Women consuming macrobiotic diets have modestly lower circulating oestrogen levels, suggesting a lower risk of breast cancer. This may be due in part to the high phytoestrogen content of the macrobiotic diet,” one study’s authors noted.

Any supplementation required? Per one study, there’s a decrease in vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium with people on the diet. But compared to National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, this diet outperformed in terms of being anti-inflammatory and health-giving.

Macrobiotic Cooking in Season

According to Macrobiotic philosophy, the infinite universe manifests in two antagonistic but complementary forces, yin and yang. Yin is experienced as an expansive and outgoing energy, whereas yang is inward and contractive.

Foods can be classified as relatively more yin or yang based on their growth, structure, and composition. Carrots, condensed root vegetables that grow below the ground, are yang; expanded ground vegetables, like onion and squash, are more balanced; green leafy vegetables that grow above the ground, like kale, are yin; and fruit, growing high above the ground, is even more yin. In this way, all food and drink can be classified from yang to yin.

To adapt to our environment, we need to maintain a dynamic balance between yin and yang in our diet. In the colder regions of the world, where the atmosphere is more yin, populations have subsisted on relatively more animal (yang) food, whereas in hotter semitropical and tropical (yang) areas, less animal food has traditionally been consumed and more (yin) spices and indigenous vegetables eaten. In a temperate four-seasoned climate, the Macrobiotic diet consists primarily of whole grains, legumes, land and sea vegetables originating in the same climate, with a small amount of supplementary animal food (from infrequently to several times
a week, depending on the person’s condition) and temperate-climate fruit, seeds, and nuts.

When the weather becomes colder or more yin in autumn and winter, leaves die and the energy of plants descends to the root system. Root vegetables, such as turnips and radishes, are hardier and more concentrated as a result. When the atmospheric and vegetal energy
begins to rise in spring and the weather becomes warmer, or more yang, new shoots, which are yin, start to appear. Summer vegetables, like cucumber, are watery and perishable. Fruit, which is very watery and sweet, ripens when the yang energy reaches its peak in late summer. Yang plants warm the body in the colder months and activate the metabolism, while yin fruit and vegetables have a cooling effect, slowing down the body’s metabolism, when it’s hot. To maintain balance with the shifting atmospheric conditions, one should eat plants that grow in season, with their complementary yin-yang energy. Grains can also be classified along this continuum: millet and buckwheat are warming and are recommended for more regular use in autumn and winter, whereas barley, wheat, corn, and long-grain rice are cooling and should be eaten more in spring and summer.

Adding heat, pressure, and salt during cooking are yanginizing, while raw and lightly cooked food is more yin. In autumn, dishes are cooked for a longer time and seasoned with more salt and oil, and less raw food is eaten than in summer. Long-time cooking and baking, stews, strong soups, and fried dishes are warming and nourishing in the winter. When spring starts, less salt and seasoning and lighter cooking methods are used to balance the increasingly warmer weather. Salads are eaten more frequently in summer and vegetables are prepared with shorter cooking times.

Spring menu

Cauliflower and leek soup

1/2 cup sliced leeks
2 cups chopped cauliflower stems and florets
4 cups water
Sea salt
Chopped parsley for garnish

Place the sliced leeks at the bottom of a pot and layer the chopped cauliflower on top. Add the water and a pinch of sea salt and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 5-10 minutes. Add another pinch of sea salt and simmer for a further 2 minutes. Garnish with
chopped parsley.

Macrobiotics: More Than Just a Diet

The word macrobioticsis derived from the Greek makros (long) and bios (life). Macrobiotics is concerned not only with living a long life, but with living a great life. A great life is a life of well-being, fulfilment, and fortitude. The macrobiotic study of longevity encompasses a great or expansive view of the world, and of diet.

In Macrobiotics, diet is considered from an ideological and energetic, rather than solely nutritional, perspective. Intuition is upheld over knowledge. George Ohsawa, considered to be the founder of modern Macrobiotics, spoke of reinvigorating an ancient wisdom about health, disease, and healing. This age-old common sense is ingrained in us and has simply been lost or forgotten. The natural world contains everything we need to survive; we must just choose judiciously.

The Macrobiotic dietary approach outlines a whole food, plant-based diet, based on traditional and cultural ways of eating. Dietary staples include whole grains, legumes, and land and sea vegetables suitable to one’s environment, with other supplementary foods such as fruit, nuts and fish, depending on an individual’s climate, condition, and activity. These foods are more centrally-balanced in their composition and thus have a more moderate and balancing effect on the body.

We naturally seek to adapt to and make balance with our environment because we are of our environment. When we are aligned more fully with the natural world, eating foods that originate in our climate and that are calming and restorative to the body, our true nature is supported and can blossom. Whole foods nourish our whole being and support holistic consciousness. Macrobiotics is more than merely a diet; it is the way of health and harmony.

Macrobiotic cooking
Food is the natural world that is transmuted through our bodies to give us life. In Macrobiotics, food is handled with respect and integrity and prepared calmly, lovingly, and with gratitude.

Miso soup with wakame and tofu

2 teaspoons dried wakame leaves
1 cup cubed tofu
1 tablespoon barley miso
Chopped spring onion for garnish

Soak the dried wakame leaves in a little water for a few minutes to reconstitute and then slice the leaves into smaller pieces.  Place the wakame pieces and the cubed tofu into a pot and add 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil and cook for 3 minutes, until the tofu cubes rise to the surface. Put the miso paste into a bowl, add a small amount of the soup broth from the pot, and purée. Return the miso purée to the soup, stir in gently, and then simmer for a further 3-5 minutes. Garnish with chopped spring onion.

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 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 an universal eater, we have the responsibility to choose wisely. 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, 12 October, 2020. An earlier version of this article was published as ‘Macrobiotics: George Ohsawa and the Unique Principle ‘ in Macrobiotics Today, 50(3), May/June 2010)

To look up through the tall trees and at the 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 the order 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 constantly reach 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, 63(1), Winter 2021/2022)        

Try these two recipes from dietician Carla Chait to get in on macrobiotic eating.

Miso soup with daikon and shiitake

4 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 tsp dried wakame leaves
water for the soup
1.5 cups halved and sliced daikon radish
1 tbsp barley miso
handful chopped spring onion for garnish
Soak the dried shiitake mushrooms in a bowl of water for 10 minutes to soften, remove the stems, and slice thinly. Soak the dried wakame leaves in a little water for 5 minutes to reconstitute and slice the leaves into small pieces. Place the sliced mushroom, wakame pieces, and the sliced daikon radish into a pot and add 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil and cook, covered, for 5 minutes. Purée the miso paste in a bowl with a little of the soup broth and then return the miso purée to the soup, stirring gently. Simmer, uncovered, for a further 3 minutes. Garnish each bowl ofsoup with chopped spring onion. 

Fried rice with tofu and vegetables

1 tbsp sesame oil
½ cup diced onion
½ cup sliced celery
½ cup quartered and sliced carrots
1 cup crumbled tofu
2 cups cooked brown rice
1 tbsp water
1 tbsp soya sauce
chopped parsley for garnish

Heat the oil in a frying pan. Add the onion, celery, and carrot and sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in the crumbled tofu. Layer the rice over the vegetable and tofu mixture and pour the water down the side of the pan. Cover and cook on low heat for 5 minutes. Stir in the soy sauce and cook for a further 2 minutes. Garnish each serving of fried rice with chopped parsley.

(Published on, June 20, 2023. Photo: Gavin Arnold Goodman of Drawn to Light Productions)

Brown rice, barley, and adzuki beans

3 cm strip of kombu
1/2 cup short-grain brown rice, soaked overnight
1/2 cup barley, soaked overnight
1/3 cup adzuki beans, soaked overnight
3 cups water
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Place the strip of kombu at the bottom of a pot with a heavy lid. Drain the rice, barley, and adzuki beans and layer together on top of the kombu. Add the water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for an hour. Add the sea salt and cook for a further 30

Sautéed greens with kuzu sauce

2 teaspoons sesame oil
1/2 cup sliced celery
3 cups chopped kale leaves, spines thinly sliced
3 cups chopped pak choy leaves, spines thinly sliced
1 tablespoon kuzu
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Roasted and chopped sesame seeds for garnish

Heat the sesame oil in a frying pan. Add the sliced celery, the chopped kale spines, and the chopped pak choy spines, and sauté for a minute. Add the chopped kale and pak choy leaves and sauté for a further 4-5 minutes, stirring continuously. Dilute the kuzu in a little water an stir in the soy sauce. Add the kuzu-soy sauce mixture to the pan and stir into the vegetables on the stove for another 3-4 minutes. Garnish with the roasted and chopped sesame seeds.

Apple kanten

4 cups sliced apples
3 cups apple juice
1 cup water
4 teaspoons agar-agar powder
Pinch sea salt

Place the sliced fruit, juice, water, agar-agar powder, and sea salt into a pot. Bring to a boil, stirring, and then simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Pour the hot liquid into a large glass dish, or into smaller serving bowls, and refrigerate for an hour, until jelled.

(Published in Odyssey Magazine, Spring Edition #243, 2023. Photo: Gavin Arnold Goodman of Drawn to Light Productions)

Brown rice salad with soy and sesame dressing

1 cup short-grain brown rice
Sea salt
1 cup chopped broccoli stems and florets
1 cup chopped cauliflower stems and florets
1 cup peeled and cubed butternut

1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup roasted and crushed sesame seeds
Nori strips for garnish

Rinse the rice and dry roast in a pan over low heat, stirring continuously. Place the rice into a pot with a heavy lid. Add 2 cups of water and a pinch of sea salt. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer on a low heat for an hour.

Bring a pot of water to the boil and cook the cauliflower, covered, for 5 minutes. Remove the cauliflower from the pot and then boil the broccoli, uncovered, in the same cooking water for 2-3 minutes. Boil the butternut cubes in a little water in a separate covered pot for 5-10 minutes, until tender. Mix the cooked vegetables with the rice.

For the dressing, heat the sesame oil over low heat for a minute. Combine the oil with the soy sauce, water, and crushed sesame seeds, and mix well. Spoon the dressing over the brown rice salad and garnish with nori strips.

(Published in Wellness Magazine, October-December 2023. Photo: Gavin Arnold Goodman of drawn to Light Productions).