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by Ross, R.Ph. Pelton, Lee Overholser

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The Macrobiotic Diet

THE MACROBIOTIC DIET has become one of the most popular health-oriented diets in the world. During the past several decades, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have taken this approach to eating, in whole or in part.

Two followers of the macrobiotic way have published books on their experiences. The actor Dirk Benedict in his book. Confessions of a Kamikaze Cowboy, attributes his recovery from cancer to macrobiotics. (3) Dr. Anthony Sattilaro recounts his battle with cancer on the macrobiotic road to health in Recalled by Life. (6)

Individual accounts such as these have helped the macrobiotic diet to become one of the most popular dietary therapies used by cancer patients today. Adherents see macrobiotics as more than just a diet. To them it is a philosophy and a way of life.

The macrobiotic diet consists of approximately 50 percent whole cereal grains, 20 percent to 30 percent locally grown vegetables, and smaller amounts of soups, beans, and sea vegetables;

white meat, fish, and fruits are permitted in limited amounts. The methods of preparation and cooking are important.

The goal of the macrobiotic life-style is to teach people to take responsibility for their own state of health as they develop a more nature-oriented, balanced way of living. Followers of the macrobiotic way of life believe this change in attitudes is essential to recovery from disease.

Macrobiotics does not promote a single diet for everyone. Based on the principles of Oriental medicine, it is a dietary approach that takes many things into account, including climatic and geographical variations, age, sex, levels of activity, and ever-changing individual needs.


The earliest known recorded usage of the term macrobiotic is found in the fifth-century B.C. writings of Hippocrates, who used the word to describe a group of healthy, long-lived men. Literally translated, it means "large life." The term also occurs in the Writings of Aristotle and Galen.

In 1797 the German physician and philosopher Christoph W. Hufeland wrote what was in his time an important book on the relationship between diet and health, titled Macrobiotics, or the Art of Prolonging Life.

The Japanese educator Yukikazu Sakurazawa is credited with initiating the twentieth-century revival and evolution of macrobiotics. Sakurazawa, who wrote under the pen name of George Ohsawa, reportedly cured himself of a serious illness by changing from the post-World War II modern, refined diet that is becoming so popular in Japan to a simple diet of brown rice, miso soup, locaFsea vegetables, and other traditional Japanese foods.

In his writings and teachings, George Ohsawa began combining elements of the Zen Buddhist philosophy with the macrobiotic diet. Then in 1959 he made the first of several trips to the United States. He viewed cancer as an opportunity to make positive changes in life-style and health. As he often said, "Congratulations. You've got cancer! Now you can start a new life!" (4)

Macrobiotics in the United States

Michio Kushi, who studied with Ohsawa in Japan, came to the United States in 1949 and eventually became one of the most prominent leaders of the macrobiotic movement in the United States. In 1978 he founded the Kushi Institute, near Boston, where he and his staff offer a wide array of programs that teach the macrobiotic way of life.

According to Kushi, macrobiotics is neither a treatment nor a therapy, but rather a common-sense approach to daily living and a comprehensive approach to the maintenance of health. The macrobiotic diet is the most prominent aspect of the macrobiotic bclief system.

Another leader of the U.S. macrobiotic movement is Herman Aihara, who is president of the George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation in California. Aihara has written two books, Basic Macrobiotics (1) and Acid and Alkaline (2), which give his macrobiotic guidelines for cancer patients.

Even though the macrobiotic diets were not initially developed as a treatment for cancer, much of the recent macrobiotic literature, including Kushi's own popular book. The Cancer Prevention Diet, directly promotes the macrobiotic diet as a method of cancer prevention and treatment.

Yin and Yang

The traditional Oriental concepts of yin and yang are woven through all aspects of the macrobiotic philosophy and life-style. According to Kushi, yin and yang are the antagonistic and complementary forces that create and balance all phenomena in the universe.


Examples of Yin and Yang Influences




Function Movement

Separation -Slower

Gathering -Faster




Temperature Light Moisture

Colder Darker Wetter

Hotter Brighter Drier





Yin and Yang Classification of Cancer Sites





Stomach (upper area)


Brain (outer area)

Mouth (except tongue)






Brain (inner area^





Stomach (lower area)






Mechanism of Action

Macrobiotics approaches cancer and other diseases from the perspective of Oriental medicine, beginning with classifying a patient's cancer as predominantly yin or yang—sometimes a combination of both, depending on the type of cancer and the location of the primary tumor.

In general, tumors in peripheral or upper parts of the body or in hollow, expanded organs are considered yin. Examples include lymphoma, leukemia, Hodgkin's disease, tumors of the mouth (except the tongue), esophagus, upper stomach, breast, skin, and outer regions^)f the brain.

Tumors in the lower or deeper parts of the body or in the more compact organs are considered yang. Examples are cancers of the colon, rectum, prostate, ovaries, bone, pancreas, and inner regions of the brain. Cancers thought to result from a combination of yin and yang forces include melanoma and cancers of the lung, bladder, kidney, lower stomach, uterus, spleen, liver, and tongue. (5)

The Macrobiotic Cancer Diet

In The Cancer Prevention Diet Kushi outlines specific dietary recommendations for most major types of cancer. However, he does not advise individuals to treat themselves. He strongly recommends that the diet and therapy be administered under the supervision of a physician who is trained in macrobiotic dietary practices. The Kushi Institute, near Boston, offers referral services to help patients find macrobiotically trained physicians to work with.

Macrobiotics also classifies all foods according to their basic yin or yang energies, so after classifying the disease as yin or yang, changes are made in one's diet, behavior, and exercise regimen to correct the energy imbalance. For an individual who is diagnosed with a cancer that is classified as primarily yang, Kushi recommends the standard macrobiotic diet, but with more emphasis on the yin foods. Conversely, for cancers that are classified as primarily yin, the standard diet, with an emphasis toward yang foods, would be recommended. (5)

Macrobiotic Dietary Guidelines

The guidelines that follow form the basis of the standard macrobiotic cancer-prevention diet. Please remember that for people who have cancer or a serious precancerous condition, adjustments must be made depending on the type and location of the cancer and the condition of the individual patient, under the supervision of a physician.


Approximately 50 to 60 percent of the daily food intake should consist of cooked whole cereal grains, including brown rice, millet, oats, barley, corn, rye, buckwheat, and whole wheat.


About 5 to 10 percent of the daily diet should consist of soup. This means one or two bowls of soup a day, prepared from grains, beans and/or vegetables, using miso or tamari as the basis of the soup stock.


About 25 to 30 percent of the daily intake should come from fresh vegetables, prepared by sauteing, steaming, boiling, baking, or pressure cooking. Up to one third of the vegetable intake may be eaten raw in the form of a salad.

BEANS AND SEA VEGETABLES From 5 to 10 percent of the daily intake can come from various types of beans, bean products, or sea vegetables. The main sea vegetable is seaweed, which is a highly nutritious form of algae and very popular in Japan. It often takes Americans a while to develop a taste for it.


Recommended daily beverages include good-quality fresh water and nonaromatic, nonstimulating herb teas.


For individuals in good health, moderate portions of the following foods may be eaten a few times per week: white-meat fish, fresh fruits, and unsweetened or naturally sweetened desserts.

Clinical Studies

Two studies on the relationship of macrobiotic diets and cancer were conducted by Dr. James P. Carter at the Tulane School of Public Health. One of these studies compared a group of men who had advanced prostate cancer with bone metastasis and who had switched to a macrobiotic diet with matched controls who ate the usual American diet. The men following the macrobiotic program lived three times longer (average of 62 months) than the men in the control group, who had an average survival of 18 months. It was also reported that, overall, the patients on the macrobiotic program experienced some healing of bone lesions and had a significantly improved quality of life.

The other study conducted at the Tulane School of Public Health, from January 1980 through June 1984, compared patients who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer with matched controls. In this study the patients who followed the macrobiotic life-style survived an average of 17.3 months, versus an average of only 6 months for the controls.

Traditional cancer specialists claim that these Tulane studies are flawed and that the results are untenable. On the other hand, even if the study designs were not 100 percent correct, it is quite obvious that the patients following macrobiotics had increased survival times and better quality of life during the length of the studies.

Case Histories

Six impressive, medically well-documented case histories of terminal cancer patients who recovered by switching to macrobiotics are presented in the recently published book Cancer-Free: Thirty Who Triumphed over Cancer Naturally. (4) These cases were presented by a Philadelphia physician, Vivian Newbold. One of Dr. Newbold's cases was her own husband, who recovered from "incurable" metastasized colon cancer after switching to macrobiotics.

In another case a thirty-two-year-old Texas businessman, James Templeton, was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma. Tem-pleton quit chemotherapy after two treatments because the horrendous side effects were making him so sick. He began a strict regimen of macrobiotic treatment and after one year had no sign of cancer. Today, after five years, he is still cancer free, reports feeling "reborn," and shares his life-saving experience with others as a nutritional counselor in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Dr. Newbold reported the case histories of her six patients with advanced cancer who had switched to a macrobiotic program to the OTA's Advisory Panel as part of the government's attempt to evaluate alternative cancer therapies. These six patients also received either a partial or a complete program of traditional treatment. As so often happened in the OTA study, supporters of alternative cancer therapies showed a positive response, while mainstream medical advisers were skeptical, claiming that the benefits could have been the result of the traditional therapy the patients had received.

Dr. Newbold reports that her efforts to submit an article on these medically well-documented macrobiotic cases to medical journals produced repeated rejections by the editors because the topic was of "insufficient interest."

Side Effects

Critics claim that strict adherence to macrobiotics can result in serious nutritional deficiencies. One fear is that seriously ill cancer patients might not get enough calories, while another is that adequate protein requirements might not be met. However, a rotated, varied macrobiotic diet will obviously be much healthier than just eating millet and steamed carrots every day.

Vitamin and mineral supplements are not recommended in the macrobiotic program because the diet is specifically designed for its physical and mental effects. There is also a concern that concentrated nutrients, in the form of vitamins, may produce a dependency on supplements and cause the kidneys to overwork in an effort to excrete excess vitamins.

One of the main difficulties with macrobiotics is that many of the ingredients are ethnic, foods that are rather hard to find. Also, the macrobiotic approach to preparation and cooking is very time consuming. Switching to macrobiotics requires a significant commitment of time, effort, and energy spent changing dietary habits.

Adherents of macrobiotics advise that the best way to switch is to attend one of the one-week residential seminars conducted by the Kushi Institute. The seminar includes daily cooking classes and lectures on the other macrobiotic principles and philosophy of life. In some ways the change to a macrobiotic way of life is like adopting a kosher kitchen. It is more than a matter of eating different foods, and the complete program may not be suitable for all people. For this reason some people take on only part of the entire system, though Kushi insists that strict adherence to the diet and macrobiotic way of life is necessary if it is to be effective.

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