Pondering macrobiotics

In the last few years, there seems to have been a resurgence in the interest in macrobiotics in Japan. At least it does seem so judging from the magazine articles and cookbooks devoted to the subject.

If you're unfamiliar with macrobiotics, it's a form of almost-veganism (macrobiotics does allow for some fish) with quite idiosyncratic theories. It originated in Japan, was exported to the West, and gained popularity in some circles, especially the ones devoted to alternative lifestyles (like hippies and such). There's a tendency in Japan to get overly impressed by anything (or anyone) in Japanese culture that gets popular in other countries, which I think accounts for at least part of the renewed popularity of macrobiotics - or makurobi as it's abbreviated to - there. The macrobiotic diet has a lot of similarities to the traditional, or pre-WWII, diet, but isn't quite the same. It's also not the same as sho-jin cooking - elegant vegan cuisine that was originated by Zen Buddhist monks.

I've been generally trying to increase my repertoire of vegetable and grain based dishes this year (though I'm not a vegetarian), so I've done quite a lot of research into makurobi these past few months. There are plenty of very appetizing looking cookbooks coming out regularly, and I've collected quite a stack of them.

Yet it's quite unlikely that I'll be turning into a full-fledged macrobiotic convert any time soon. The main reason is that I can't fully buy into one of the central philosophies of the religion - I mean, theory - that of yin and yang foods. Basically the theory is that all foods have yin (dark or cold) and yang (light or warm) energies, and we are better off eating close to the center of the yin and yang scale. Foods that are at the center are generally things like whole grains, beans and other pulses, root vegetables (but not potatoes), and so on. Since macrobiotics did originate in Japan, brown rice is the king of grains.

At the extreme ends of the scale are things like white sugar and white flour, both yin, and meats, which predicably are yang. Fair enough I guess, since most current nutrition research seems to say that we should be eating less of these foods. Where things get a bit problematic for me is when fruits, vegetables and other things which all other sources say are good for you also get placed around the yin - yang scale and are deemed not good. The nightshade family is the one that stands out here - this includes things like tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes. These are supposed to be very yin, and to be avoided.

Well okay I thought when I first read this - tomatoes and eggplants are summer vegetables, full of water, and might be considered cooling (so are things like summer squash, melons and cucumbers). But don't you want your body to be cooler in the warm months? Besides, tomatoes are full of good nutrients. Also, while in Japan tomatoes and eggplants are often eaten cold (in salads, or grilled and chilled), in other countries they are more often eaten in hot dishes. It's rather hard to me to accept the idea that a Middle Eastern dish with tomatoes and eggplants in it is purely 'cold'. Macrobiotic thinking is also rather anti-hot spices, believing them to be too stimulating. I doubt this philosophy would have made much headway in say, India.

Things like eggs and all dairy products are also extreme on the yin yang scale - dairy is very yin, eggs are extreme yang. If there was a number one evil food according to macrobiotic thinking, it could be the egg, which is supposed to be so full of extreme yang energy that it could almost make you lose your mind, or at least any sense of 'balance' you can hope for. The egg's parents are also considered evil, because chickens have a lot of nervous, twitchy energy. Apparently if you eat too much chicken, you'll start acting and looking like one. In the one English book I've gotten about the subject, "The Hip Chick's Guide To Macrobiotics", it says this (page 108):

These days, because chicken is considered the 'good' meat, chicken eaters eat lots and lots of it with impunity. Ever notice people with chickenish noses? Or birdlike haircuts?

This is one of the statements made in the macrobiotic literature that made me shake my head in disbelief. Eating chicken turns us into chicken-like people...where the heck is the logic in this? On another page of The Hip Chick's Guide, the author (who is a comedienne by trade it seems, though she 'completed her macrobiotic training at the Kushi Institute' and is a 'macrobiotic chef, cooking consultant and hypnotherapist'.) she makes the case for whole grains over meat, fresh fruit and other foods by saying it doesn't decay like those other foods do. Well of course it doesn't - it's dehydrated. Instead of comparing a steak, a banana and a glass of milk with a grain of brown rice, she should have compared a piece of beef jerky, a banana chip, and a spoonful of skim milk powder, no? (I'd recommend getting this book only if you're already a convert to macrobiotics incidentally; avoid it if you're a skeptic or it may turn you off completely. If anyone can recommend a good, level-headed book about macrobiotics in English please let me know.)

Another statement was in a Japanese book written by one of the grand old men of the macrobiotic movement, Michio Kushi, where he stated that women who had moles on their breasts will not only have difficulty getting pregnant, but will also, if they do become pregnant, be likely to have a miscarriage or for their babies to die very young. This mind boggling statement made me almost throw out all the literature right there.

The lack of scientific backing for many of the claims is what brings macrobiotics down for me. In fact, I do find this whole Infinite Universe thing that surrounds macrobiotics to be quite illogical and laughable in some respects. You can't be convinced to follow a philosophy if some of the statements made therein make you giggle.

However, there do seem to be some recent attempts to reconcile scientific research with macrobiotic thinking, at least according to the Wikipedia page. What I've seen in the current crop of Japanese books about macrobiotics is the tendency to play down the philosophical and cult-like parts and to focus almost solely on the benefits of a mostly vegan, sugar, dairy and egg-free diet. (Orange Page, a popular magazine, has a number of "mooks" (magazine-format books) devoted to the subject, which all bear the motto in English on their covers, 'No Milk, No Eggs, No Sugar'.)

What I do get out of the current crop of macrobiotic cookbooks are many clever and tasty ways of dealing with vegetables and whole grains, and cooking 'sweet' things without adding sugar, which is not a bad thing. I'm not likely to be giving up my fresh tomato salads and grilled eggplants anytime soon though, and despite having some jerk chicken for dinner last night my nose is still quite small and round.

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