When John Denver died in a plane crash this autumn, I felt as if I lost a brother. We had both grown up in the Southwest and attended Texas Tech (though I did not meet him until many years later). We both became macrobiotic about the same time. I attended several of John’s concerts in Boston with Alex and other macrobiotic friends, and once in Texas I cooked for John while he was on tour and speaking on world hunger.
John’s music, of course, has become an anthem for our generation. Blending folk, country, and pop, his gentle rhythms and heart-felt words hearken back to a time when people cooked their own food, cared for their surroundings, and took the time to cultivate friendships and build community.
John’s idealistic bent (he was a #3 Tree in the Nine Star Ki system of Oriental cosmology) brought him to macrobiotics. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he gave several benefit concerts for the Kushi Institute, helping to raise money for the new campus in Becket. (We still have some of the photographs that John took, mounted on the walls in the chapel at the K.I.) In Boston, he visited the East West Foundation, East West Journal, and other macrobiotic organizations of the time, giving impromptu sing-alongs and holding court on a variety of social issues.
Behind the granny glasses and “aw shucks” demeanor existed a will of steel and tremendous dedication to bettering the planet. Long before the Cold War ended, John fostered peace and cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union, and his work in the environmental field and the campaign to end world hunger, decades before they became fashionable, qualify him as a prophet.
John was humorous, generous, and unfailingly polite. I remember a concert at Great Woods in which he introduced Michio Kushi who was in the audience and asked everyone to give him a round of applause for his contributions to human health and happiness. The Kushis served on the board of Wind star, John’s environmental foundation in Aspen, Colorado.
In Tokyo, John was a favorite of Lima Ohsawa, and into her late nineties she regularly attended his concerts and make arrangements to see him privately.
“Some days are diamonds and some days are stones.” John’s words hold special meaning for each of us. He has now gone on to the world of spirit, but his dream will continue in the music, his good works, and the vision that he inspired in those he left behind.
Carbohydrates are generally known as sugars, but in speaking of sugar we should specify the variety.
Single sugars or monosaccharides are found in fruits and honey and include glucose and fructose. Double sugars or disaccharides are found in cane sugar and milk and include sucrose and lactose. Complex sugars or polysaccharides are found in grains, beans, and vegetables and include cellulose. In the normal digestive process, complex sugars are decomposed gradually and at a nearly even rate by various enzymes in the mouth, stomach, pancreas, and intestines. Complex sugars enter the bloodstream slowly after being broken down into smaller saccharide units. During the process, the pH of the blood remains slightly alkaline.
In contrast, single and double sugars (together known as simple sugars) are metabolized quickly, causing the blood to become overacidic. To compensate for this extreme yin condition, the pancreas secretes a yang hormone, insulin, which allows excess sugar in the blood to be removed and enter the cells of the body. This produces a burst of energy as the glucose (the end product of all sugar metabolism) is oxidized and carbon dioxide and water are given off as wastes. Diabetes, for example, is a disease characterized by the failure of the pancreas to produce enough insulin to neutralize excess blood sugar following years of extreme dietary consumption.
Much of the sugar that enters the bloodstream is originally stored in the liver in the form of glycogen until needed, when it is again changed into glucose. When the amount of glycogen exceeds the liver’s storage capacity of about 50 grams, it is released into the bloodstream in the form of fatty acid. This fatty acid is stored first in the more inactive places of the body, such as the buttocks, thighs, and midsection. Then, if cane sugar, fruit sugar, dairy sugar, and other simple sugars continue to be eaten, fatty acid becomes attracted to more yang organs such as the heart, liver, and kidneys, which gradually become encased in a layer of fat and mucus.
This accumulation can also penetrate the inner tissues, weakening the normal functioning of the organs and causing their eventual blockage as in the case of atherosclerosis. The buildup of fat can also lead to various forms of cancer, including tumors of the breast, colon, and reproductive organs. Still another form of degeneration may occur when the body’s internal supply of minerals is mobilized to offset the debilitating effects of simple sugar consumption. For example, calcium from the teeth may be depleted to balance the excessive intake of candy, soft drinks, and sugary desserts.
In order to prevent these degenerative effects, it is important to avoid or minimize the consumption of refined carbohydrates, as well as naturally occurring lactose and fructose in dairy foods and fruits, and to eat carbohydrates primarily in the form of polysaccharides found in grains, beans and bean products, vegetables, and seaweed.
Present recommendations of caloric intake made by scientific and medical institutions tend to overestimate the volume of calories required by the average person.
The modern method of calculating the calories required for various activities is based upon expenditure of energy as measured by discharge following activities rather than the actual amount of calories really required to carry on those activities. Guidelines based on such analytical examinations result in progressively higher recommendations of caloric intake needed in prosperous countries, where people are eating more rich and refined food, and progressively lower recommendations in countries where the people are eating more simply.
According to the macrobiotic view, one’s natural appetite for whole, natural, properly cooked foods and one’s regular bowel movements are more practical barometers for determining the necessary volume of food as well as required calories. Caloric requirements vary generally between 1,400 and 1,800 daily depending upon age, sex, and personal condition and need, if the standard macrobiotic diet is generally practiced in a temperate region, with two or three meals consumed per day. In contrast, the average American consumes about 2,400 to 3,300 calories daily.
Furthermore, it is necessary to consider that some foods convert into calories with higher speed than other foods. For example, sugar processed from sugarcane produces calories rapidly, but the caloric discharge soon ceases, while glucose metabolized from whole cereal grains burns slowly and produces caloric energy lasting longer. In this respect, a low-calorie diet centered around grains and vegetables is far superior to a high-calorie diet centered around meat and sugar. Recent scientific studies have borne out the theory that a low-calorie diet, or caloric restriction, can add years, possibly decades, to life. In laboratory studies, animals put on low-calorie diets lived significantly longer than usual.
In its structure and function, the brain and nervous system is a masterpiece of complementary balance. The cells in the nervous system, known as neurons, come in a variety of forms, but share the same basic structure. The sections of the neuron include branched dendrites, which receive incoming impulses; the yang or compact cell body, where impulses gather and are processed, and the yin, extended axon where impulses are dispatched to neighboring cells.
On the whole, each cell in the nervous system functions as a spiral made up of incoming and outgoing impulses and energy.
When nerve impulses arrive at the end point, or terminal of the axon, they travel across the synapse, a narrow space that separates the axons of nerve cells from the dendrites of others. When impulses reach the terminal, they stimulate the release of neurotransmitters, substances that determine the way that the message will affect the neighboring cell. More yang, activating transmitters cause nerve cells to become excited and generate impulses at a higher rate. More yin, inhibiting transmitters slow or block the production of nervous impulses.
Foods such as whole grains, beans, and vegetables rich in complex carbohydrates increase the brain’s supply of serotonin, a more yin neurotransmitter that is believed to induce calm and relaxed mental states. Eggs and other animal food increase the levels of acetylcholine, another neurotransmitter. That may help explain why persons who consume grains and vegetables and little or no animal food often seem calm and even-tempered in comparison to persons who consume plenty of meat and other animal foods.
The low levels of serotonin that result from a diet high in animal foods may contribute to impulsive behavior. In studies of prison inmates conducted in Finland, those with the most impulsive behavior patterns were found to have the lowest levels of metabolized serotonin in the spinal fluid when compared to non-impulsive prisoners and controls. The impulsive inmates were also found to have low blood sugar levels. The researchers found that 81 percent of repeat offenders had abnormally low blood sugar levels. Low levels of serotonin, together with low levels of blood sugar, characterized 84 percent of the repeat offenders studied.
Diet affects the body’s secretion of hormones, and these influence behavior. In a study conducted at Yale, the intake of refined sugar was found to dramatically increase blood levels of adrenaline in children. In children who were tested after being given an amount of sugar equivalent to two cupcakes, levels of adrenaline increased ten times. Adrenaline, secreted by the adrenal glands during times of stress, initiates the “fight or flight” response. It produces such effects as rapid heartbeat, quick shallow breathing, and nervousness.
High adrenaline levels lead to anxiety and difficulty in thinking clearly. Parents often notice that children behave in an aggressive, hyperactive, and erratic manner after eating plenty of sugary foods, and this study offers a possible biochemical explanation for this reaction. Researchers are becoming aware that diet has a profound effect on the the brain and nervous system, and thus on our mental and emotional condition.
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, about 5 percent of the American population suffers from major depressive illness. Milder forms of depression are much more common. Suicide is often the outcome of severe depression, and about 75,000 people commit suicide every year in the United States. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among men between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five, and the rate is increasing among young people.
Bouts of depression often occur in cycles. A bout of depression may last for one or two days or for several months or longer. Researchers have begun to observe a correlation between episodes of depression and natural rhythms such as the 24-hour daily cycle and the cycle of the seasons. Depression tends to be more severe in the afternoon and evening, and during the autumn and winter, times when the energy of the earth’s atmosphere becomes more yang or condensed.
In many cases, depression is the by-product of a condition known as hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Hypoglycemia is produced by an extreme or unbalanced diet, especially the regular intake of cheese, chicken, eggs, and other forms of animal food. These more yang or contractive items cause the pancreas to become hard and tight, and inhibit its secretion of glucagon, or anti-insulin, the more yin pancreatic hormone that raises the level of glucose in the blood. When the pancreas becomes hard and tight, it cannot secrete glucagon properly, although insulin, the more yang hormone that lowers blood sugar, keeps being secreted. The result is hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia creates the desire to consume sugar, soft drinks, chocolate, alcohol, or drugs, all of which raise the level of sugar in the blood.
The brain is utterly dependent on glucose for its functioning, and when a deficit arises, the higher brain centers, including those governing imagination and creativity, shut down in order to conserve more fundamental brain activity essential for survival. The result is a sinking feeling or a feeling of being boxed in by circumstances. A person becomes unable to imagine a solution to whatever problems he may be experiencing, and, because of a lack of blood sugar, may not have enough energy to change his circumstances. The result is depression and a sense of hopelessness.
The principle of yin and yang can help clarify the biochemistry of depression and other mood disorders. When the blood sugar becomes elevated (yin), the pancreas secretes insulin (yang), in order to make balance. In the brain, production of more yang neurotransmitters–those involved in arousal and motor activity–is stepped up. Conversely, when blood sugar becomes low (yang), the pancreas reduces the output of insulin, while accelerating production of glucagon (yin). In the brain, production of activating neurotransmitters is reduced, in some cases, to the point of undersupply. The resulting shortage can lead to depression.
A naturally balanced, macrobiotic diet can help correct these imbalances in the internal chemistry of the body. A diet based on complex carbohydrates, such as those in whole grains, beans, and fresh local vegetables helps stabilize the metabolism of glucose, and can help relieve conditions such as depression, fear, and anxiety. Mind and body are one. The application of diet to the relief of mood disorders represents a new frontier in the field of psychology.
Blood sugar imbalances also play an important role in schizophrenia, a more severe form of mental illness. Chronic low blood sugar leads to cravings for refined sugar, alcohol, chocolate, drugs, and other extreme forms of yin. The repeated consumption of extreme yin items can cause the cells of the brain and nervous system to become chronically overexpanded, producing an eventual deterioration of mental functioning. The result can be schizophrenia.
Our mental processes depend on the brain’s ability to concentrate and simplify information. The concentration of information is more yang. In The Healing Brain, Robert Ornstein and David Sobel describe this process as follows:
Since the world is constantly changing, the brain is flooded with information. How would it know which of all these changes are important and which are irrelevant? A strategy emerged in which the brain and nervous system evolved to radically reduce and limit the information transmitted to the brain.
The nervous system organizes information so that a few actions, the appropriate actions, can take place. Much of the intricate network of receptors, ganglia, and analysis cells in the cortex serve to simplify. Senses select only a few meaningful elements from all the stimuli that reach us, organize them into the most likely occurrence, and remember only a small organized sample of what has occurred.
When brain cells become chronically yin or expanded, they easily become overly sensitive to yang stimuli, including activating neurotransmitters such as dopamine. According to a popular hypothesis, oversensitivity to dopamine produces chronic overstimulation in the brain. The patient becomes hypersensitive to stimulation from the immediate environment and loses touch with vibrations coming from greater distances. This leads to cognitive overload and a decline in more refined thinking abilities. A person in this condition has difficulty organizing the world by going beyond the immediate information he receives.
Coordinating the varied functions of the brain requires strong yang, or centripetal power. Ornstein and Sobel
describe these varied functions as follows:
The brain is divided into very many independent and well-defined areas, each of which possesses a rich concentration certain abilities. In this view, which is becoming more and more established, the brain is seen not as a single organ, but as a collage of different and independent systems, each of which contains component abilities.
In schizophrenia, the yang power of coordination and control breaks down. The various centers of the brain may start to act independently. The spiral of coordination begins to spin out of control. Loss of control is due to an overly yin condition in the brain and nerve cells. People with schizophrenia often show signs of excess sugar consumption. Refined sugar disrupts the balance of vitamins and minerals in the body. A common symptom of schizophrenia is numerous white spots on the fingernails, a sign of mineral deficiency resulting from the repeated consumption of simple sugar. Many schizophrenics have a sweet odor on their breath, also the result of consuming sugar. A variety of mineral deficiencies and imbalances are common among schizophrenics, especially deficiencies in zinc, manganese, magnesium, and sodium, and these result primarily from the repeated consumption of sugar.
The regular intake of simple sugars depletes B-complex vitamins that are necessary to smooth mental functioning. More than fifty years ago, it was discovered that vitamin B deficiencies were related to mental illness. About 10 percent of the people who were diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to mental hospitals in the South were found to be suffering from pellegra, a vitamin B deficiency. When they were placed on corrective diets, their previously diagnosed “schizophrenia” cleared up.
A naturally balanced, macrobiotic diet, rich in B vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, and other essential nutrients, could help many patients with schizophrenia. Restoring the brain and nervous system to a more normal balance of yin and yang is the first step toward the recovery from mental illness.
Source: This essay is from persnal notes and lectures, including research for the book, Crime and Diet: The Macrobiotic Approach, Japan Publications, Tokyo and New York, 1987, © all rights reserved.
The practice of macrobiotics is based on the understanding of food as energy. Electrons and protons are not solid particles, but condensed packets of energy. Everything is actually energy, everything is composed of vibration. There is no unchanging or fixed substance in the universe. Therefore, our understanding of food incorporates, but is not limited to, theories of modern nutrition. In modern nutrition, food is viewed as matter. In reality, there is an invisible quality to food (and to life itself) that cannot be measured scientifically. We must perceive that invisible quality directly through our intuition.
In macrobiotics, we employ a very simple tool for understanding the movement of energy. We understand food in terms of yin (expansion) and yang (contraction). All foods are made up of varying degrees of these two basic forces. We use this understanding to see how food affects us in a very dynamic and practical way. By understanding food as energy, we see that it affects not only our physical condition, but our mind, emotions, and even our spirituality. These invisible aspects of life are a function of the quality of energy we manifest.
If we eat a food such as steak, which is very yang or contracted, we are naturally attracted to foods with the opposite quality of energy. So we eat the steak with potatoes, alcohol, or a sugary dessert such as ice cream. All of these foods are extremely yin. In order to balance extremes, we have to add many things that we don’t need. We wind up taking in excess fat, excess protein, excess carbohydrate, and excess water. Our body is constantly being challenged.
However, what happens when our main food is more balanced? If you look at a nutritional analysis of whole grains–brown rice, barley, millet, whole wheat–you discover that their ratio of minerals to protein and protein to carbohydrate approximates one to seven. Short grain brown rice comes closest to the one to seven ratio, that, nutritionally speaking, represents the balancing point between expansive and contractive energies on the planet. If you eat whole grains every day, your main foods are balanced in themselves. It is much easier to balance yin and yang in your diet as a whole. Eating whole grains as your primary food makes it much easier to maintain optimal nutritional and energetic balance.
Macrobiotics recommends that our foods be as natural as possible. Today, however, people are using poor quality table salt, treated city water, animal protein instead of plant protein, saturated animal fat instead of vegetable oil, chemically processed rather than organic foods, and plenty of simple sugars instead of complex carbohydrates. It is no wonder that modern people’s health is suffering, because the quality of each of these nutritional factors is poor.
The understanding of food as energy can guide us not only in creating an optimal diet, but in the use of simple home remedies for the relief of illness. For example, suppose someone has a kidney stone. What type of energy does that represent, more expansive, yin energy or more condensed, yang energy? A kidney stone is condensed, something like hard, frozen energy. In order to offset that, we need to apply something with the opposite, activating energy. Should we apply heat or cold? We should apply heat. Heat will activate this frozen energy and make it melt and break down. A hot ginger compress can be applied for that purpose.
Fever represents the opposite type of energy. Fever is an example of hot, overactive energy. What would balance that? Something with cool, inert energy. Ice is too cold for this purpose. Ice is so cold that it makes the body contract, so that the excess that is trying to come out through the fever will, instead, be held inside. Something a little milder is needed. Also, our body is part of the animal world, so something from the plant kingdom helps to make balance. A simple macrobiotic remedy for fever is to apply a cabbage leaf or another leafy green directly to the forehead. Another remedy is to take raw tofu, which is cool and inert, mash it, and apply it to the forehead. This application, known as a tofu plaster, draws heat out of the body. It can lower a fever in a matter of minutes. The principle of energy balance can help you manage a variety of minor conditions at home without aspirin or other medications.
Macrobiotics also teaches that we respect biodiversity, or the tremendous proliferation of life on earth. Many people are concerned with preserving the wealth of species on our planet because biodiversity is now being threatened by civilization. Many species, including those in tropical rain forests, are disappearing. Others are in danger.
Scientists have discovered that amphibians such as frogs and salamanders are diminishing, perhaps because of ozone depletion or acid rain. The tiger, the symbol of power and beauty, is vanishing from the wild. However, in nature, biodiversity is the rule, not the exception. To reflect this in our eating, we need to practice what I call dietary diversity. There is a wide proliferation of life on earth, a wide range of species, and to translate that into our day to day eating, we need plenty of variety in our selection of foods, and also in our cooking methods. Macrobiotic eating is not narrow or strict. Through macrobiotics, we discover a wide range of healthful new foods.
We also need to respect the endless diversity of individual needs. Although we share certain fundamental things in common, each of us is different. If we are active, we should eat a certain way for physical activity. If we are sitting behind a desk, our diet should be somewhat different. Men and women also need to eat differently. Between men and women, who can eat more animal food? Men. Who can eat more raw salad and sweets? Women. Children and adults also need to eat differently. Babies are already yang–small and contracted–so their diets need to be more yin–soft and sweet-tasting, with little or no salt. If you have eaten plenty of animal food in the past, in order to restore balance, you need to base your diet on plant foods. Or if you have a health problem caused by your past way of eating, you can emphasize certain foods in order to offset that.
Benefits of Macrobiotics
Now, what are the benefits of macrobiotic living? Eating this way can help us maintain optimal health and achieve longevity. People such as the Hunza in Kashmir, known for their good health and longevity, eat grains and vegetables as their main food. They were eating more or less a macrobiotic diet adapted to their mountainous terrain and climate. The first benefit of macrobiotic eating is physical health and longevity.
A second benefit is peace of mind. That peace of mind comes from the awareness that we are living and eating in harmony with the universe. We are living in harmony with the movement of energy. That is the source of inner peace. Our mind and emotions are very much conditioned by what we eat. If you feed your child plenty of sugar, what kind of mind or emotions result? Children become hyperactive or cry a lot, and become overly emotional. If we eat plenty of meat, what kind of mind and emotions are produced? We become aggressive or in the extreme, even violent. What happens when we eat plenty of nightshade vegetables such as tomatoes or potatoes? We become depressed. Incidentally, these vegetables have recently been found to contain nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive substance, and that may explain why many people find it difficult to stop eating these vegetables.
As your mind and emotions become more stable and peaceful, you naturally develop a sense of family and community. Modern values–such as competition, dog eat dog, survival of the fittest, etc.–have all arisen from a carnivorous diet. Grain-eating people develop a completely opposite view. Instead of seeing scarcity on the earth, we realize that we live in a universe of abundance. Rather than fighting over resources, the issue becomes how to share the tremendous natural wealth on our planet. Meat-eating tends to produce isolation, something like the lone hunter or lone wolf, rather than a sense of community. Hunters such as lions and hyenas are constantly fighting with each other. Grain-eaters develop a completely opposite way of thinking based on cooperation.
Meat-eating also leads to a more nomadic lifestyle, following the herd, and we tend to become unsettled, rather than stable or settled down. Grain-eating agricultural life is more stable, more settled. Which way of life encourages more stable family life? When the men are off hunting all season, or if the entire village has to constantly be on the move, it is difficult to maintain stability. Macrobiotic living strengthens our community and family life. People naturally desire to help and support each other. Through macrobiotics, you become friends with everyone. As we continue to eat this way, our concept of family expands to include all of humanity. We reconnect with our human family on planet earth.
Macrobiotic living can also help us gain spiritual understanding. Do you think it is easy to meditate if we eat hamburgers, or if our mind is very angry or upset, or if we are always stressed out? Or if we are eating sugar or drinking Coke all the time, so that our mind is often hyperactive and scattered, can we really stabilize and center our energy? These conditions make if very difficult to enter into deep, tranquil, and peaceful meditation. In order to allow spiritual energy to smoothly channel through us, and to use that energy, macrobiotic eating –grains and vegetables– is ideal.
We should not forget that all great spiritual traditions included some form of dietary discipline. In the Orient, the cooking in Buddhist and Taoist monasteries was called shojin ryiori, or “cooking for spiritual development.” These traditions were based on the understanding that food accelerates our spiritual consciousness. By selecting the proper food, we develop our spiritual quality. In these traditions, do you think animal food was a part of their diets? No. They were completely vegetarian. However, in traditional times, vegetarian eating, especially in cooler climates, meant eating cooked brown rice, daikon and other vegetables, tofu and bean products, etc., rather than a lot of raw fruit or salad.
Finally, as we achieve good health, peace of mind, a sense of family and community, and spiritual understanding, we gain the ability to play and have a big dream or adventure in this life. Macrobiotics is based on change or transmutation. In other words, we try to gain the ability to change things into their opposite according to our free will. So if we are experiencing difficulty, using macrobiotic understanding, we try to change that into pleasure or enjoyment. Or if we are experiencing sickness, we self-transform that into health. Or if the world is in danger of war, as our adventure, as our play, as our challenge, we transform that into peace. You can even gain the ability to transmute or transform any type of food into your health and vitality. In other words, you embrace your antagonist and turn it into your friend. As George Ohsawa said, ultimately there are no restrictions. The realization of total freedom, or the freedom to play endlessly in this infinite universe, is the ultimate benefit of macrobiotic living.
Source: Basics and Benefits of Macrobiotics, Copyright 1995 by Edward Esko, all rights reserved.
One of the most basic principles of macrobiotics is to eat an ecological, environmentally – based diet. That means to rely primarily on foods native to the climate and environment in which we live. Until the modern age, people were more or less dependent on the products of their regional agriculture. Foods that grew in their area formed the basis of their daily diet. It was not until modern technology that it became possible for people to base their diets on foods from regions with far different climates.
Today, it is common for people to consume bananas from South America, sugar from the Caribbean, pineapples from the South Pacific, or kiwi from New Zealand. However, our health depends on our ability to adapt to the changes in our environment. When we eat foods from a climate that is very different from ours, we lose that adaptability. As society moved away from its traditional, ecologically-based diet, there has been a corresponding rise in chronic illness. Therefore, for optimal health, we need to return to a way of eating based on foods produced in our local environment, or at least on foods grown in a climate that is similar to ours.
Foods with more yang, or contracted energy remain viable longer and can come from a greater distance than foods with more yin, or expansive energy. Sea salt and sea vegetables are examples. They are rich in contracted minerals and can come from the oceans around the world, provided these waters are within your hemisphere. Grains, especially with the outer husk attached, remain intact for a long time, even thousands of years, and can come from anywhere in your continent. Beans also travel well and can come from a similarly wide area. However, vegetables and fruits are more yin or expansive; they decompose more rapidly than grains and beans, and unless they are naturally dried or pickled, are best taken from your immediate area.
Changing with Our Environment
It is also important to adapt our cooking and eating to seasonal changes. The modern way of eating does not do this, as people eat pretty much the same diet throughout the year. High temperatures and bright sunshine produce a stronger charge of upward energy in the environment. Water evaporates more rapidly and plants become lush and expanded. Spring and summer are times of upward, expansive energy. Then toward the end of summer, energy starts to change, moving downward and inward. In colder and darker conditions, such as those of autumn and winter, downward or contracting energy is stronger.
How can we adapt to these changes? During spring and summer, we can make our diet lighter and fresher, meaning that we use less fire in cooking. We do not need as much fire in our cooking because fire is already there in the form of strong sunshine. When it is hot, we do not need warmth from our food. As we move into autumn and winter, with cooler temperatures and stronger downward energy, we make our food hearty and warming by using more fire in cooking.
As the seasons change, we also need to utilize the natural products of our environment. Our gardens are filled with vegetables and other foods during the spring and summer, so we can naturally eat plenty of fresh garden produce during these times. For example, summer is the time when corn is readily available, so it is fine to eat plenty of fresh corn in that season.
From season to season, atmospheric energy alternates as part of the daily cycle. Upward energy is stronger in the morning, while downward energy is stronger in the afternoon and evening. In order to eat in harmony with this cycle, breakfast should be light, not heavy. A breakfast of eggs and bacon is dense and heavy, and goes against the movement of energy. Breakfast grains can be cooked with more water, so that they become lighter and more easily digested. Dinner can include a greater number of side dishes, and we normally eat more in the evening, since at that time, atmospheric energy is more condensed and inward-moving. Lunch can also be quick and light, since at noon, atmospheric energy is very active and expansive. Quick light cooking, such as that in which we reheat leftovers, can be done at that time.
Respecting Human Needs
Another important principle is to eat according to our distinctive needs as a species. Our teeth reveal the ideal proportion of foods in the human diet. We have thirty-two adult teeth. There are twenty molars and premolars. The word molar is a Latin word for millstone, or the stones used to crush wheat and other grains into flour. These teeth are not suited for animal food, but for crushing or grinding grains, beans, seeds, and other tough plant fibers. There are also eight front incisors (from the Latin, to cut) and these are well-suited for cutting vegetables. We also have four canine teeth. The canines can be used for animal food, not necessarily meat, but foods such as white-meat fish. The ideal proportion of foods as reflected in the teeth is five parts grain and other tough fibrous foods, two parts vegetables, and one part animal food. The ideal ratio between plant and animal food is seven to one.
The modern diet does not reflect this pattern. Rather than whole grains, meat or other types of animal food are the primary foods. Vegetables are often used as garnish to the main course of animal food. Cereal grains are eaten almost as an afterthought, and are eaten in the form of white bread, white rolls, and other highly refined products. Refined bread or rolls are used simply as a vehicle to carry a hot dog, hamburger, or some other type of animal food. Grains are an incidental part of the modern diet.
Today, people are eating the opposite of what they should be eating. That is why so many health problems exist in the modern world. One of the clearest messages I received from the books of George Ohsawa was that plant-based diets are superior to animal-based diets. When Ohsawa presented that idea many years ago, Western doctors and nutritionists laughed. They believed that animal protein was superior to plant protein, and that cultures in which animal protein formed the basis of the diet were more advanced than cultures that relied on grains and other plant foods.
However, that view is changing. The vanguard of modern nutrition now agrees that plant-based diets are better for our health. If we compare the health patterns of people who are eating plant-based diets with those who are eating animal food, the grain- and vegetable-eaters have far lower rates of chronic disease. There is an exception to this of course. If you would like to eat animal food, it would be better for you to move to the Far North, above the Arctic Circle. Then you can eat plenty of animal food. But if you live in Houston, where it is a hundred degrees in the summer, then it is out of order to eat barbecued steak. It does not fulfill our biological needs nor does it make our condition harmonious with our environment.
Macrobiotics also recommends respecting dietary tradition. In the Bible we read, “give us this day our daily bread.” Bread is symbolic of grain itself. Wheat, barley, and other grains were considered the staff of life. In the Far East, rice was considered the staple food, the staff of life. Native Americans respected corn as their staff of life. Wherever you look, no matter what your tradition is, if you go back far enough, you find that your ancestors were eating grains as their principal foods. They used local vegetables and beans as secondary foods. They were eating much less animal food than at present.
Nightshade vegetables, especially tomatoes and potatoes, were originally not a part of the diet in Europe. These vegetables were brought to Europe from Peru. The original Italian diet did not include tomato sauce. It was very close to a macrobiotic diet. Originally they did not use much meat, they used more seafood, because Italy is a peninsula. They did not use butter, but used olive oil in cooking. Instead of umeboshi plums, they used pickled olives. The basis of the diet was whole grain pasta and rice. As people abandoned these traditional eating patterns in favor of the modern diet, their rates of degenerative disease, especially heart disease and cancer, increased dramatically.
Source: Basics and Benefits of Macrobiotics, Copyright © 1995 by Edward Esko, all rights reserved.
Common Digestive Disorders
The modern low-fiber diet has wreaked havoc on the digestive systems of millions of people. It is rare to find someone with healthy digestion and smooth elimination. Digestive disorders are so common that most people regard them as a normal part of life.
Tight, narrow lips are a sign that the digestive system has become tight and constricted. This more yang condition is caused by too much animal food and not enough fiber. A lack of whole grains, beans, and fresh vegetables is a common cause. If the upper lip is thin and tight, the stomach and solar plexus are tight and blocked. Among modern foods, chicken and cheese frequently cause tightness in this part of the body. This tightness interferes with smooth digestion and may be a sign of hypoglycemia, or chronic low blood sugar. Hypoglycemia arises when the pancreas becomes tight, hard, and blocked, as a result of the repeated consumption of foods such as eggs, chicken, and cheese. In this condition, the pancreas is unable to secrete sufficient glucagon, the hormone that causes the blood sugar to rise.
Tightness in the lower lip is a sign of tightness in the intestines. The cause is similar to the above: repeated consumption of meat, chicken, cheese, and other forms of animal food, and not enough grains, vegetables, and other plant fibers. Tightness and constriction in the large intestine is a common cause of chronic intestinal stagnation and constipation.
Puffy of swollen lips have an opposite, or more yin cause. A swollen upper lip is a sign of possible stomach disorders, including heartburn, overacidity, and ulcers resulting from the repeated consumption of sugar, caffeine, spices, alcohol, soft drinks, refined flour, potatoes and other nightshades, and other yin extremes. When the stomach becomes lose and swollen, the muscular valve, known as the cardiac sphincter, at the opening of the stomach relaxes or operates inefficiently. The sphincter is normally closed when food is in the stomach. The contents of the stomach, including stomach acid, are regurgitated into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation in the chest and neck after a meal. This symptom, commonly known as heartburn, affects millions of people daily. Heartburn drugs, most notably antacids such as Tums, Rolaids, and Mylanta, or acid blockers such as Zantac and Tagamet, are currently a $5 billion industry in the United States.
A swollen lower lip is a sign of chronic over expansion in the intestines resulting from too many yin extremes in the diet. In this condition, the intestines lose the contracting power of peristalsis. Stagnation occurs and the result is chronic constipation. As we can see, constipation can result from an overly expanded or an overly contracted condition.
When the diet is deficient in whole grains, vegetables, and other foods rich in fiber, a person tends to produce small hard stools. These stools accumulate in the large intestine, and can not be passed without straining. Constant straining at stool raises the blood pressure in the veins, causing them to become permanently dilated, leading to hemorrhoids and varicose veins. Eventually, the outward pressure caused by the accumulation of small hard stools can cause small pockets, called diverticuli, to form in the wall of the colon. About 40 percent of those over age 65 have this condition. When these pockets bleed and become infected, the condition is known as diverticulitis.
Irritable bowel syndrome, sometimes called spastic colon, is also the result of modern eating habits. The intake of sugar, chocolate, honey, milk, ice cream, strong spices, tropical fruits, and refined foods, in combination with yang extremes such as meat, chicken, and cheese, can cause symptoms such as alternating constipation and diarrhea, abdominal pain, mucus discharge, and the passage of small-caliber stools. These symptoms are known collectively as irritable bowel syndrome. This condition is exacerbated by the chronic use of antibiotics, aspirin, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen. These medications kill normal intestinal bacteria and disrupt the healthful ecology of the colon. Up to two thirds of persons using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs suffer from inflammation of the small intestine.
The use of medications, in combination with the modern diet, can also lead to overgrowth of intestinal yeast (candida) and an increase in intestinal permeability, a condition known as “leaky gut syndrome.” Foods such as sugar, soft drinks, tropical fruits, spices, and chocolate accelerate these disorders.
Easing Digestive Distress
The macrobiotic understanding of energy-balance can help us determine the type of home remedies to use when treating common digestive disorders. Diarrhea, for example, represents an overly-yin or expanded condition. Its symptoms can be categorized as follows:
- A watery condition
- Overactive energy
- An overacid condition
An internal remedy with the following energy characteristics would help offset these symptoms:
- Gathering energy
- Solidifying effects
- Stabilizing, soothing, or calming effects
- Alkalizing effects
Based on these criteria, our remedy of choice would be Ume-Sho-Kuzu. Kuzu is a root that grows deep in the earth. It is strongly charged with yang or contracting energy. It is used often as a thickener in macrobiotic cooking, and has contracting or solidifying energy. It helps consolidate the bowel movement and has a quieting effect on an overactive stomach and intestines. Umeboshi neutralizes excess acid. An overly acid condition promotes diarrhea. Moreover, umeboshi has strong antimicrobal power. It can neutralize micro-organisms, including those that cause dysentery.
There is a constant balance in the stomach between the hydrochloric acid secreted by one set of gastric cells and the mucus secreted by another set of cells. Hydrochloric acid is strongly yin; gastric mucus is comparatively yang. When secreted in proper amounts, the mucus in the stomach has a protective effect, preventing gastric acid and enzymes from irritating, ulcerating, or even eating-away the lining of the stomach. Kuzu has a thick, viscous consistency, not unlike that of gastric mucus. It coats the stomach and protects it from excess hydrochloric acid. Umeboshi plum, which is strongly alkaline, neutralizes the harmful effects of excess stomach acid.
As we can see, Ume-Sho-Kuzu is broad-spectrum remedy that benefits the digestive system as a whole. Together with a balanced macrobiotic diet, it can be used to relieve such conditions as stomach ulcers and heartburn. The fiber in kuzu, in combination with the anti-inflammatory effects of umeboshi, are helpful in easing the symptoms of acute diverticulitis and irritable bowel syndrome. Moreover, because it is more contractive, Ume-Sho-Kuzu can reduce intestinal permeability, thus relieving “leaky gut syndrome.
To prepare this broad-spectrum natural remedy:
- Dilute one heaping teaspoon of kuzu (kudzu) in two to three teaspoons of cold water.
- Add one cup of cold water to the diluted kuzu.
- Place over a medium flame. Stir constantly to prevent lumping, until the liquid becomes translucent. Reduce the flame as low as possible.
- Add the pulp of one-half to one umeboshi plum that has been chopped or ground to a paste.
- Add several drops of shoyu and stir gently. Simmer for two to three minutes and drink hot.
Ume-Sho-Kuzu can sometimes be made with grated ginger. However, ginger is an energy-activator, and for acute conditions involving inflammation, or in cases of active diarrhea, it is best omitted. Ume-Sho-Kuzu can be taken once a day for several days until the condition improves. In addition, it is important to make dietary changes so as to allow the digestive organs to heal and prevent a recurrence of the condition. It is also important to chew well, eating regular meals, and not eat before bedtime. These practices ease chronic distress in the digestive system resulting from modern eating habits.
Copyright © 1996 by Edward Esko, all rights reserved
The use of alternative medicine is rising dramatically as the new century approaches. The number of Americans who use alternative therapies at least once a year increased to 42% in the 1990s, according to a new study by Harvard Medical School researchers published in a special issue this autumn on alternative medicine in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The number of total visits to alternative medicine practitioners rose 47% in the same period to 629 million, thereby exceeding the total visits to all U.S. medical doctors. Expenditures for alternative services increased 45% and were estimated at $21.2 billion a year.
The new study came as Congress established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (formerly the Office of Alternative Medicine ) and more than doubled its annual budget to $50 million.
Compared to the United States, recent surveys have found that 15% of Canadians have seen alternative practitioners in the past year; 10% of people in Denmark; 33% in Finland, and 49% in Australia.
The 16 therapies included in the Harvard study included a lifestyle diet such as macrobiotics or vegetarianism; prayer or spiritual healing; energy healing techniques such as laying on of hands; and relaxation techniques such as meditation or the relaxation response. Visits to massage practitioners and chiropractors constitute nearly half of all visits to alternative therapists.
Use of herbal remedies increased 380% since 1990 and high-dose vitamins 130%. “Use of alternative therapies in 1997 was not confined to any narrow segment of society,” the researchers reported. However, it was more common among women (49%) than men (38%) and less common among African Americans (33%) than other racial groups. People aged 35 to 49 reported higher rates of use (50%) than either older or younger people. Use was higher among those who have some college education (50%) than with no college education (36%) and more common with those with annual incomes above $50,000 (48%).
Noting that alternative therapies are only infrequently included in insurance benefits and that a majority of users do not disclose their use of alternative therapies to their physicians, the researchers concluded that “the current status quo, which can be described as ‘don’t ask and don’t tell,’ needs to be abandoned. Professional strategies for responsible dialog in this area need to be further developed and refined.”
The JAMA issue also published the results of several randomized clinical trails that evaluated the use of alternative medicine therapies for treatment of common clinical conditions. Researchers found that:
- Moxibustion (stimulating an acupressure point by heat generated from burning mugwort) is helpful for correcting a breech presentation in late pregnancy.
- A Chinese herbal medicine compound improves symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
- Yoga-based intervention helps relieve some symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome
JAMA also reported that claims against chiropractors, massage therapists, and acupuncturists generally occurred less frequently and involved less severe injury than malpractice claims against medical doctors.
In an accompanying editorial, the editors of the journal called for further research, including priority funding for alternative medicine, and increased dialogue between the conventional and complementary communities. “Ultimately, answering fundamental questions about efficacy, safety, appropriate clinical applications, and meaningful outcomes for all medical therapies, including those considered alternative medicine, requires critical and objective assessment using accepted principles of scientific investigation and rigorous standards for evaluation of scientific evidence.”
Reprinted from the Winter 1999 One Peaceful World Journal, © 1999, all rights reserved.
We are fortunate to be close enough to take Kushi Institute Level students for a visit to South River Miso to see how miso is made. Below Senior teacher and well-known macrobiotic author Edward Esko writes about a recent trip.
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In May, a group of students from the Level I Leadership Program and I took a tour of the South River Miso Company located nearby in Conway, Mass. South River has been producing high quality handcrafted organic miso for over twenty years.
Founder, Christian Elwell guided our group on a tour of the facility. Aside from traditional barley and brown rice miso, Christian introduced the students to several new varieties developed uniquely at South River, including chickpea and azuki bean. He explained the process of making miso from beginning to end, and how miso is a living food and an essential part of a healthful diet.
Growing Rice in Massachusetts!
A high point of the tour was when Christian told the group about his success in growing rice on the property. Beginning with rice seeds from Ukraine, Christian has succeeded in planting and harvesting a small plot of organic rice. I had the opportunity to taste the South River rice on a previous visit and can vouch for the fact that it was quite delicious.
Christian explained how the rice paddy is a complete eco-system, home to a myriad of life forms, from dragon flies to tiny frogs. Everyone was inspired by the creativity, commitment to the health of our planet, and harmony with nature exemplified by South River Miso.
In a study of risk factors for pancreatic cancer, researchers found that mortality from this disease was associated with increased consumption of meat, the smoking of cigarettes, and alcohol intake.
Source: W. Zheng et al., “A Cohort Study of Smoking, Alcohol Consumption, and Dietary Factors for Pancreatic Cancer,” Cancer Causes and Control 4:477-82, 1993.