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Macrobiotic Diet

Other common name(s): macrobiotics

Scientific/medical name(s): none

Description

A macrobiotic diet is generally vegetarian and consists largely of whole grains, cereals, and cooked vegetables. More extreme versions of the diet that consist solely of cooked whole grains are no longer promoted.

Overview

Available scientific evidence does not support claims that a macrobiotic diet is effective in treating cancer. A diet consisting mostly of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains is associated with general health benefits and lower risk for several diseases, and a macrobiotic diet, by virtue of its main components, can also achieve these benefits. However, macrobiotic diets can lead to poor nutrition if not properly planned. Some earlier, more limited, versions of the diet may actually pose a danger to health. Research is under way to find out whether a macrobiotic diet may play a role in preventing cancer.

How is it promoted for use?

Some proponents of the macrobiotic diet claim that it can prevent and cure disease, including cancer, and that it can enhance spiritual and physical well-being. An important goal of a macrobiotic diet is to balance the yin and yang- the two elementary and complementary energy forms that, according to ancient Asian spiritual traditions, are present within all people, foods, and objects. These two forces must be balanced in order to achieve health and vitality. A macrobiotic diet is considered to be a way of life not just a diet.

What does it involve?

A macrobiotic diet combines elements of Buddhism with dietary principles based on simplicity and avoidance of "toxins" that come from eating dairy products, meats, and oily foods. Older versions of the macrobiotic diet were quite restrictive. One variation allowed only the consumption of whole grains. Current proponents of the diet advocate flexibility but still discourage dairy products, meats, and refined sugars,

The standard macrobiotic diet of today consists of 50 to 60 percent organically grown whole grains, 20% to 25% locally and organically grown fruits and vegetables, and 5% to 10% soups made with vegetables, seaweed, grains, beans, and miso (a fermented soy product). Other elements may include occasional helpings of fresh white fish, nuts, seeds, pickles, Asian condiments, and non-stimulating and non-aromatic teas. Early versions of the diet excluded all animal products. Proponents still discourage dairy products, eggs, coffee, sugar, stimulant and aromatic herbs, red meat, poultry, and processed foods. Some vegetables, such as potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, asparagus, spinach, beets, zucchini, and avocados, are discouraged. The diet also advises against eating fruit that does not grow locally (for example, in most of the United States and Europe, bananas, pineapples, and other tropical fruits).

The macrobiotic diet also prescribes specific ways of cooking food. Pots, pans, and utensils should be made only from certain materials such as wood, glass, ceramic, stainless steel, and enameled pieces. People who practice the diet do not usually cook with microwaves or electricity, nor do they consume vitamin or mineral supplements or heavily processed foods. Food is chewed until it is fluid in order to help with digestion. Since food is thought to be sacred, it is prepared in a peaceful setting.

The macrobiotic diet can vary slightly according to a person's age, sex, level of physical activity, and native climate. Although macrobiotic dietary guidelines are only one aspect of a larger philosophical and spiritual system, the diet has drawn the most attention in the West.

What is the history behind it?

The word "macrobiotic" comes from Greek roots and means "long life," reflecting the view toward long-term health and spirituality embodied by the macrobiotic philosophy. The macrobiotic philosophy and diet were developed by George Ohsawa, a Japanese philosopher who sought to integrate Zen Buddhism, Asian medicine, Christian teachings, and some aspects of Western medicine. Ohsawa believed simplicity in diet was the key to good health and that a diet based on simplicity and abstention from certain foods could cure cancer and other serious illnesses. In the 1930s, he began advocating his philosophy of health and healing through proper diet and natural medicine. Ohsawa brought his teachings to the United States in the 1960s. His diet involved 10 stages that were progressively more restrictive. The last stage consisted only of brown rice and water. This restrictive diet was found to be unhealthy and is no longer promoted by macrobiotic counselors.

An early disciple, Michio Kushi, adopted and expanded Ohsawa's ideas and became a leader of the macrobiotic lifestyle. He opened the Kushi Institute in Boston in 1978 to promote the philosophy and its practices. According to Kushi, a macrobiotic diet is a common-sense approach to daily living, not just a type of therapy. Although macrobiotic diets were not developed primarily as cancer treatments, they have been widely promoted for that purpose. During the 1980s, interest in the diet grew through a book written by a physician and president of Philadelphia Hospital, Anthony Sattilaro, who felt that his prostate cancer went into remission because of the diet.

What is the evidence?

There have been no randomized clinical studies published in the available medical literature to show the macrobiotic diet can be used to prevent or cure cancer. One of the earlier versions of the macrobiotic diet that involved eating only brown rice and water has been linked to severe nutritional deficiencies and even death. However, low-fat, high-fiber diets that consist mainly of plant products that are believed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer. The National Institutes of Health's, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has funded has funded a pilot study to determine whether a macrobiotic diet may prevent cancer.

The American Cancer Society's nutrition guidelines recommend eating a balanced diet that includes five or more servings a day of vegetables and fruit, choosing whole grains over processed and refined foods, and limiting red meats and animal fats. It is best to choose foods from a variety of fruits, vegetables and other plant sources such as nuts, seeds, whole grain cereals, and beans to take in all needed nutrients.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

One of the earlier macrobiotic diets, which called for eating all grains, is severely deficient and has been linked to severe malnutrition and even death. Strict macrobiotic diets that include no animal products may result in nutritional deficiencies unless they are carefully planned. The danger may be worse for people with cancer, who may have to contend with unwanted weight loss and often have increased nutritional and caloric requirements. Children may also be particularly prone to nutritional deficiencies resulting from a macrobiotic diet.

Macrobiotic diets have not been tested in women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, and some versions may not include enough of certain nutrients for normal fetal growth.

Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

Additional resources

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer

References

Associated Press. AP World Stream. Cancer Research News. Dutch authorities prosecuting a macrobiotic diet practitioner. March 1, 2000.

Barrett S, Herbert V. Questionable Cancer Therapies. Accessed at: http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/cancer.html on June 10, 2008.

Cassileth B. The Alternative Medicine Handbook. New York: W. W. Norton & Co; 1998.

Doyle C, Kushi LH, Byers T, et al. Nutrition and physical activity during and after cancer treatment: an American Cancer Society guide for informed choices. CA: a Cancer Journal for Clinicians.2006; 5:323-353.

Ernst E (ed) The Desktop Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine. New York: Mosby; 2001.

Kushi LH, Byers T, Doyle C, et al. American Cancer Society 2006 Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for cancer prevention: reducing the risk of cancer with healthy food choices and physical activity. CA: a Cancer Journal for Clinicians.2006; 56:254-281.

Kushi LH, Cunningham JE, Hebert JR, Lerman RH, Bandera EV, Teas J. The macrobiotic diet in cancer. J Nutr. 2001;131:3056S-3064S.

Maritess C, Small S, Waltz-Hill M. Alternative nutrition therapies in cancer patients. Semin Oncol Nurs. 2005 Aug;21:173-176.

Murphy GP, Morris LB, Lange D. Informed Decisions: The Complete Book of Cancer Diagnosis, Treatment, and Recovery. New York: Viking; 1997.

National Institutes of Health. Alternative Medicine: Expanding Medical Horizons: A Report to the National Institutes of Health on Alternative Medical Systems and Practices in the United States. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1994. NIH publication 94-066.

The University of Texas MD Anderson Center. Nutrition and Special Diets: Macrobiotics detailed scientific review. Accessed at: http://www.mdanderson.org/departments/cimer/display.cfm?id=ADFAB15F-16E9-11D5-811000508B603A14&method=displayFull&pn=6EB86A59-EBD9-11D4-810100508B603A14 on June 10, 2008.

US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. Unconventional Cancer Treatments. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1990. Publication OTA-H-405.

Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.


Last Medical Review: 11/01/2008
Last Revised: 11/01/2008