The Zen Macrobiotic diet is a dietary regimen developed according to the philosophies and eating practices of Zen Buddhism. The diet was originated by a Japanese man named George Ohsawa. Oshawa originally coined the term macrobiotic, which signifies diets based primarily on grains, with perhaps some cooked vegetables.
A Zen Macrobiotic diet is not only promoted as a means to prevent or cure disease and prolong life, but to promote spiritual awakening. Although Zen philosophy began in India as far back as 470 A.D. it did not come to Japan until around the 12th century. Although modern versions of Zen macrobiotic diets are less extreme, and some have done away with the ‘Zen’ moniker, the original diet was a ten step process which involved graduated dietary restriction, culminating in a diet composed solely of grains, primarily brown rice.
George Ohsawa defined health as having seven levels: lack of fatigue; good appetite; good sleep; good memory; good humor; precision of thought and action; and gratitude. It is claimed that at the age of 16, after losing his mother to tuberculosis, he himself suffered from tuberculosis, stomach ulcers, and many other illnesses.
Modern medicine declared him “incurable” but he was able to cure himself completely by using what he had learned from ancient Indian, Chinese, and Japanese writings on traditional healing, eventually developing the dietary regimen he called “macrobiotics.” He wrote many books, including, in 1971, Macrobiotics: An Invitation to Health and Happiness.
Basic Macrobiotic Diet Overview
Those following the Zen Macrobiotic diet would progress through ten numbered diet plans, from -3 to 7. Foods would be gradually given up. Desserts were the first food to be completely eliminated. Then, fruits and salads; followed by animal foods, then progressing to soups, then eliminating vegetables, until a 100% grain based diet was reached.
The lowest level diet was composed of 10% cereals, 30% vegetables, 10% soup, 30% animal foods (all foods of animal origin), 15% salads or fruits, and 5% desserts. In the second stage, cereal grains would be increased by 10%, while animals foods and fruits and salads were both reduced by 5%. In each subsequent stage, cereal grains would be increased by another 10% while the other categories would be reduced, resulting in a sequential elimination of each non-grain category. A vegetarian diet is reached by stage 3, where all animal foods have been eliminated. After this stage, soups are eliminated, followed by vegetables.
Fluid restriction was also encouraged. The idea behind the specific stages was to establish a balance between “yang” and “yin” foods. Yang foods were the “male principle” foods and yin foods were the “female principle” foods. A proper balance was considered to be 5 parts yin to one part yang. Brown rice was considered to have a perfect balance between yin and yang, so is the perfect food. A imbalance of yin and yang in the diet was thought to be the cause of ill-health and disease, not to mention poor spiritual health.
Extreme adherents to this diet would face serious nutritional deficiencies. Brown rice is deficient in certain vitamins and minerals. It contains low levels of calcium and iron, to name only two. It contains no vitamin A, C, or B-12. It also does not contain all the amino acids needed for human health, and would be considered a “low-quality” protein in terms of its levels of essential amino acids. In fact, a diet of only brown rice, even if large amounts were consumed, would be deficient in calories.
Among those who followed the diet, there were reports of scurvy, anemia, hypoproteinanemia, hypocalcemia, rickets, kidney malfunction (probably from low fluid intake), and some deaths due to complications or outright starvation. These problems were explained away by telling participants that any condition that appeared while on the diet would only be temporary and would disappear if they continued to adhere to the diet. Although most of the nutrient deficiency syndromes that occurred would reverse upon reintroduction of a varied diet, and/or dietary supplements, prolonged deficiencies could result in permanent damage, and eventually death.
The Zen Macrobiotic diet was very popular in the 1970’s, particularly among young people. It is not very popular today, but many “liberalized” or altered and less extreme versions of macrobiotic diets still exist. Many of them are still deficient in some basic micronutrients.