Tuesday, May 22, 2007

My rant against macrobiotics

I posted this today on a message board at lowcarbfriends.com, in the following thread:

Low Carb Friends > Eating and Exercise Plans > Other Plans

I'm posting it here, too, because I'm kinda psyched about finally writing out some of the things I've been kicking around in my head, and ranting about verbally, for so many years. The first part, in QUOTE tags, was posted by someone who was responding to another LCF member who had harsh criticism of macrobiotics.

While Nero's proposed eating plan may be considered macrobiotic, that doesn't mean he can't follow it's general guidelines with success...
I still believe it's a workable framework

This is a reasonable point of view. But in this case the general guidelines aren't worth a hill of adzuki beans. Let's take a look at those guidelines and what they're based on.

The macrobiotic diet is a sublimated expression of a xenophobic, racist worldview. The food itself is modeled after an idealized version of monastic Zen dietary practices of the 19th century. Japan was forcibly opened to the West in the 1850s; macrobiotics, in my reading, is part of the inevitable cultural backlash, as it favors all things Japanese are pure and superior.

It was formulated, not by a doctor, scientist or traditional healer, but by a Japanese philosopher who fancied himself to be following in the footsteps of Kaibara Ekken, an influential 16th century neo-Confucianist naturalist and botanist.

As jem says, everything in macrobiotics is seen through the filter of yin and yang. Correct diet is a nurturing balance of polar opposites. Understanding how different foods have different qualities of yin and yang is the essence of the macrobiotic diet. In fact, diet is (supposedly) just a single aspect of macrobiotic practice. It's also about your physical activity, your emotional state, the climate where you live, the season, your relationships with others.

For instance, someone who does manual labor (yang) in Canada (yin, cold) would need a difference balance of yin and yang in their diet than someone who has a sedentary lifestyle (yin) in Florida (yang).

The foods that are available in a given place and time also fit into yin and yang. Fruit (yin) grows in the summer (yang). Tropical fruits (super yin) grow in the tropics (more yang than a temperate zone summer).

Since the world is so big, and the range of human activity is so great, and there are so many kinds of natural foods, you might expect a wide range of dietary possibilities. As long as you create a harmonious balance of yin and yang in daily life -- which includes diet -- you're practicing macrobiotics. Right? Wrong.

In practice, there is a very narrow range that is sanctioned as good, balanced eating. In fact, the word "wide" is commonly used in macrobiotic community parlance as a synonym for "bad"; correspondingly, "narrow" is used to mean "good."

At any rate, everyone's individual dietary balance of yin and yang, even when determined by a "macrobiotic consultant" who reads the lines on your face and shapes of your features to figure out what you should and shouldn't eat, comes out looking pretty much the same. Mostly grains, a lot of beans, a little fish, some pickle, seaweed, vegetables. By the way, the percentages are generally done by volume, not caloric contribution. 25% vegetable means that a quarter of your plate is covered in kale, for instance. Or, in winter, the same volume of butternut squash. (But not spinach -- spinach is bad. So are regular button mushrooms. Too yin. More on this sort of thing later.)

And, by astounding coincidence, it all just happens to consist of traditional Japanese food. The best grain for you: rice. Should you eat animal protein? Some fish is OK.

By another astounding coincidence, all of the foods that are bad for you come from Japan's traditional cultural enemies. Here are some of the foods that are overly yin: tomatoes, potatoes, red peppers. Corn is not so great, either. Notice what these have in common? All are "New World" crops, forced into Japan in the 19th century.

Garlic and red pepper are considered far too extreme for human consumption. Note that garlic and red pepper are an important part of the cuisine of Korea, which has long been looked down on as inferior by (the worst part of) Japanese culture.

Yet, wasabi (that superstrong Japanese horseradish) is good. Even though it's at least as "extreme" to eat as garlic and red pepper. Wasabi cleanses toxins. It's a powerful healing food. Ask why wasabi is good and red pepper is bad, and you get a complex answer about their individual yin/yang makeups. It's like this all through macrobiotics. The answer comes first, and the justification follows. And every single time, the bad thing is not part of Japanese tradition, but the good thing is. (New world beans and squashes are a notable exception -- although Japanese adzuki beans and Hokkaido pumpkins coincidentally happen to be the most healthful beans and squashes of all.)

Raw salads: Bad! Very yin! Rice? Good! Wheat? Better left out entirely. The worst way to eat wheat: as bread. Beef, milk, cheese: Terrible, the worst! They leads to all kinds of disease. Based on what? They're all way too yang. What makes them more yang then salty fish paste? Or pickled plums? Oh, by the way, all the bad things listed here are part of the European culinary tradition. What a coincidence!

The justifications for the macrobiotic guidelines are just incoherent. Brown rice turns out to be the perfect food for all humans, wherever they live, through every season. Even though one of the stated foundations of the diet is local and seasonal food, somehow rice manages to transcend these boundaries. In the U.S., rice grows in the southern states, like Carolina and California, but not in, say, New England. So why did the macrobiotic leaders in Boston live primarily on rice? Why did they counsel my spiritual community in Pennsylvania to base its diet around rice? I asked. The answer: because we're at the same approximate latitude as Japan, where rice grows well. So, I asked, people in southern Mexico would not base their diet around rice? Same with people in Iceland? The answer: they should eat mostly rice, too, because it creates the best yin/yang balance in the human body. But I thought we were balancing with our environment and physical activity level? The answer: Oh, yes, absolutely!

Cirtus fruits were verboten: too yin. I asked, how about people in Florida and California -- they can eat citrus, right? Answer: no, because it's an introduced crop in this continent. I asked: Like rice? Answer: well, here in the U.S., there are types of wild rice. Me: But they're botanically very different from the rice we're eating. Answer: But the yin/yang balance is very similar. So, the people who live where citrus comes from, can they eat citrus? Answer: very, very small amounts. It's very yin and extreme.

It's like a complicated equation that, no matter what you plug into the front, it always comes out the same on the other end.

So. Guidelines? You want guidelines? Macrobiotics has plenty of them. A "workable framework"? Sure, if you overlook the fact that it's not built around any of the nutritional understanding that we take for granted on these boards. If you're looking for guidelines that make any sense, you could do far better elsewhere. You might check out Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions, for instance, if what appeals to you is whole foods including whole grains, with an introduction to many nearly forgotten, but eons-old, preparations.

Is there anything good to be gained from looking into macrobiotics? Actually, yes. Many of the dishes and cooking techniques are really quite excellent. Many of the ingredients open up a lot of culinary possibilities. Also, macrobiotic followers have kept alive many traditional Japanese food products that, in mainstream Japan, have been replaced by artificial analogs.

For example, tamari and miso. I never seen good ones in Asian groceries, and I've been looking for decades. It's sad, but all you can find there is caramel-colored or quick-aged soy derivates, often with artificial flavorings. But at the natural foods store or aisle, you can find the real thing, aged for months or years, according to traditional methods.

Another wonderful thing to learn from a macro book or cooking class: a wide variety of vegetable cutting techniques and preparations. There are so many cutting shapes, and each has its own name. It's very Japanese, in a beautiful way. It's one of those intricate, precise cultural arts, like origami, sushi or flower arranging.

Nero, I hope some of this is helpful. In your first post, you presented a description of macrobiotics. Did you write that, or where did that come from?


  1. I found your article by searching for "macrobiotics racist". I lived in Japan and I really like macrobiotic food and cooking, but I've always gotten the same feeling that you wrote about. You are so awesome. The thing that always stuck out to me was the idea that it's not just brown rice that's ideal--it's *short grain* brown rice, and long grain brown rice or basmati rice should, apparently, be limited! Where do they eat short grain rice? Japan...and long grain rice? India, Southeast Asia...yeah. I'm bookmarking this article. Did I mention you're awesome?

    1. Thanks for the comment! I never knew the short vs. long grain cultural connection. I do clearly remember that short-grain rice was always pushed forward as superior. Wow,

  2. This comment is admittedly ten years after the fact, but I only recently happened upon your blog (I tend to agree with your assessment of both macrobiotics' one-size-fits-all Japanocentrism and its virtues.)

    I'd be interested to hear your opinion of the work of one Dr. Lawrence Wilson--who, far beyond localizing macrobiotics, has ripped it wholly out of its original Asiatic context and given it eyelid surgery and a fundamentalist conservative U.S. Christian baptism; Wilson seems to regard "Yin Disease" as the catch-all explanation behind Those Dadgum Millennials on the Lawn, liberal politics, tree-hugging environmentalism, those insidious women walking around being seductive and craving precious seminal fluid and--wait for it!--the abandonment of Christianity for "the relativistic Oriental religions such as Buddhism, yoga, marital arts, Vedanta, vegetarianism and others."