Thousands of years ago, Hippocrates taught that food was the best medicine. He used the term macrobiotics to describe a way of eating and living in harmony with nature’s laws. A naturally balanced diet is central to the practice of modern macrobiotics, just as it was in the system of healing developed by Hippocrates. Food is the vital link between our bodies and the environment, and the quality of food determines the quality of our life. A balanced diet is the key to personal health and well-being. It is also a key to solving the environmental crisis.
Life was able to develop and flourish on earth because of the delicate balance of yin and yang, or the energies of expansion and contraction, on our planet. The earth’s large, but structurally compact form (yang) is counterbalanced by the more diffuse, liquid and gaseous envelope that surrounds it (yin). Plants, which are yin, maintain the dynamic balance of the atmosphere. They absorb and utilize more yang carbon dioxide and expel yin oxygen. The oxygen they provide is essential to human and animal life. Animals, which are yang, interact with the atmosphere in the opposite way. They absorb yin oxygen and discharge yang carbon dioxide. Together, plants and animals create a beautiful harmony that sustains life on earth.
Modern civilization is disrupting the natural balance of yin and yang that has existed on the planet for millions of years. On the whole, civilization has become increasingly yang: the speed of change is accelerating daily and we are using more and more intense forms of energy. Rather than slowing down, we can expect these trends to accelerate in the future.
Because of these activities, the atmosphere is changing. Since 1958, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased by 25 percent, mostly as the result of burning oil and coal. The United States and the former Soviet Union account for about 45 percent of worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, we are systematically destroying tropical rain forests that absorb carbon dioxide.
Increases in carbon dioxide and other gases produced by industry, agriculture, and the modern food system are causing the atmosphere to become yang-dense, thick, and heavy. Ideally, the atmosphere should be light and clear (yin), in order to balance the compact structure of the earth and support life. According to environmental scientists, these changes could lead to problems on a global scale. Proponents of global warming believe that some of the reflected heat produced by sunlight no longer radiates back into space. If we view this theory according to macrobiotic principles, we see that the atmosphere, which has become more yang, causes heat radiation (also yang) to be deflected back to earth, creating what is known as the greenhouse effect.
A growing number of people believe that the greenhouse effect is causing average temperatures on earth to rise, a phenomenon known as global warming. As a result, the polar ice caps could melt, resulting in worldwide flooding, and climatic patterns that have existed for centuries could change drastically. Modern technology has disrupted the natural cycle of carbon in the atmosphere, with potentially far-reaching consequences. Disruption of the carbon cycle by modern technology parallels the inefficient use of organic carbon compounds-or carbohydrates-in the food chain. Before the industrial revolution, the majority of people ate carbohydrates in their most efficient form. Traditional diets were based on whole grains, beans, fresh local vegetables, and other complex carbohydrate foods.
The modern food system no longer relies on these energy-efficient foods. It is based instead on the highly inefficient conversion of complex carbohydrates, often in the form of grains and beans, into animal protein and fat. Feeding these valuable foodstuffs to livestock and then eating them in the form of animal food wastes a tremendous amount of raw materials and energy. One expert estimated that if the world were to adopt these methods of food production, all of the known reserves of petroleum would be exhausted in thirteen years.
Modern food production contributes a great deal of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Cattle ranching, for example, is the single largest source of methane, a leading greenhouse gas. Whole grains, beans, and vegetables are far more energy-efficient than animal products. Corn or wheat return 22 times more protein per calorie of fossil fuel expended than does beef produced on the modern feedlot. Soybeans are 40 times more energy efficient than modern beef.
In Diet for a New America, John Robbins describes the energy savings that would result from a shift toward whole grains, beans, and vegetables. He cites a report by economists Fields and Hur:
•A nationwide switch to a diet emphasizing whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables-plus limits on export of nonessential fatty foods-would save enough money to cut our imported oil requirements by over 60 percent. And, the supply of renewable energy, such as wood and hydroelectric, would increase 120 to 150 percent.
In order to slow the expected rate of global warming predicted to occur because of the greenhouse effect, scientists estimate that fossil fuel emissions would have to be cut by about 60 percent. Unfortunately, however, as the modern diet and way of life spread around the globe, economists predict that these emissions will actually double over the next forty years.
Destruction of forests, including tropical rain forests, can be traced to the modern diet. Forests are being cut to make room for grazing livestock or for growing livestock feed. According to one estimate, if deforestation continues at the present rate, there will be no forests left in the United States by 2040. Moreover, countries in Central and South America are systematically destroying tropical rain forests that contain up to 80 percent of the world’s land vegetation and provide a substantial amount of the planet’s oxygen.
The refining, processing, refrigeration, and other techniques used in the modern food system waste a tremendous amount of energy and contribute to global pollution. Sugar refining, for example, is a highly mechanized process that utilizes fossil fuels, as does the production of the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in modern agriculture. Nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas, is largely a product of chemical fertilizers.
In the human body, the intake of animal foods causes saturated fat and cholesterol to build up in the blood and eventually clog the arteries and blood vessels. If the accumulation of excess continues unchecked, it can lead to collapse of the body due to heart attack or stroke, or to accumulation of fats and toxic substances in the organs leading to cancer. A similar situation is developing in our environment, due to the inefficient use of carbohydrates in the form of animal protein and fat. Pollution caused by industry and the modern food system is contributing to the accumulation of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and toxic chemicals in the environment. The buildup of these substances threatens the earth’s ecosystem with collapse.
Depletion of the Ozone Shield
At the outer reaches of the atmosphere is found a very thin envelope of gas, ozone, that acts as a natural screen for the sun’s rays. Solar radiation polarizes into more yin ultraviolet and more yang infrared rays. Ozone is a very yin gas made up of three atoms of oxygen. Because like repels like, it blocks or repels ultraviolet radiation while letting infrared rays pass through. Now, however, because of the modern diet and lifestyle, we are punching holes in the delicate layer of ozone high in the stratosphere. According to Newsweek:
•The problem is a close as the air conditioner in your window or the fast-food container at your feet. Both can release chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the atmosphere. Once free, these chemicals float toward the heavens. About 15 miles up they encounter the ozone layer, a paper-thin (three millimeter deep) sheet that envelops the planet and shields it from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Under the right conditions, the CFCs destroy ozone.
Ultraviolet light can weaken or damage the cells of the immune system. Cells that initiate the immune response are more yang and are especially vulnerable. At the same time, UV radiation causes the body to accelerate production of more yin suppressor cells that shut down the body’s immune response. Depletion of the ozone layer could lead to an increase in immune deficiency diseases, including leukemia and skin cancer, especially when extreme yin foods and beverages such as sugar, tropical fruits, and oils and fats are weakening the immune response from the inside.
When our diet is based on a high intake of animal foods that contain plenty of fat, and when these foods are cooked with modern energy intensive methods, such as grilling, broiling, or deep frying (as they are in fast food restaurants), our body temperature rises and we become less able to tolerate warm weather. This increases our need for air conditioning, and our desire for iced foods and beverages that require constant refrigeration. CFCs are used as coolants in refrigerators.
Diet and the New Ecology
Eating whole grains, beans, fresh local vegetables and other whole natural foods is the first step toward restoring the environment. By eating energy-efficient foods in harmony with climate and season, especially those grown organically, we are supporting a system of farming and food production that will preserve the soil, water, and air for a countless number of future generations.
Changing to a diet of whole grains and vegetables produces immediate and practical benefits both for the environment, and for our individual health. Planetary ecology begins in the kitchen. Below are some basic principles to consider as you move toward a healthful, ecological lifestyle.
1. Eat Lower on the Food Chain
•As we move up the food chain from plant to animal foods, the amount of energy required to produce, transport, and store foods increases dramatically. Grains, vegetables, beans, sea vegetables, and other plant foods are lower on the food chain and require much less energy to produce. Researchers at Ohio State University compared the amounts of energy required to produce plant and animal foods and discovered that the least energy-efficient plant food was still nearly ten times as efficient as the most energy-efficient animal food. Eating a plant-based diet reduces the use of fossil fuels and eases the pollution burden entering the environment, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, all of which are greenhouse gases.
2. Reduce or Avoid Extreme Foods
•Foods, like everything else in our environment, can be classified into yin and yang. Eggs, meat, chicken, hard cheese, and other animal products, and foods high in sodium, are extremely yang or contractive; while refined sugar, tropical fruits, spices, coffee, chocolate, ice cream, artificial sweetners, soft drinks, nightshade vegetables, and foods high in postassium are extremely yin or expansive.
•Centrally balanced foods include whole grains, beans, fresh local vegetables, sea vegetables, non-stimulant beverages, non-spicy seasonings and condiments, and other whole natural foods. These foods have a more even balance of yin and yang, or expansive and contractive, energies.
•Centrally balanced foods are highly energy-efficient. They were humanity’s staples before the industrial age and when grown organically, are the product of non-polluting, self-sustaining agriculture. On the other hand, extremes of yin or yang are often the product of modern industry. It takes 78 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of protein from beef. Only 2 calories of fossil fuel are needed to obtain 1 calorie of protein from soybeans.
•However, simply reducing or avoiding the intake of animal foods is not enough to reverse the disruption of the environment. Extreme yin foods such as refined sugar, tropical fruits, processed soft drinks, and others require a great deal of energy to produce, store, and transport. It is also helpful to reduce or avoid using them.
3. Eat Foods From Your Climatic Zone
•Today, people in the temperate zones eat a “polar-tropical” diet. They have replaced the whole grains, beans, fresh local vegetables, and other foods appropriate to their region with meat, eggs, cheese, poultry, and other foods more suited to cold, polar climates, and with sugar, chocolate, spices, coffee, tropical fruits and vegetables, and other foods more suited to equatorial zones.
•A tremendous amount of energy is required to maintain this unnatural dietary pattern. It is far more economical and energy-efficient to base your diet around foods that are naturally abundant in your immediate environment or in a climate that is similar to the one in which you are living.
4. Vary Your Diet with the Seasons
By eating foods that are naturally available in season, we take advantage of the cycles of nature. During the winter, dishes that are strongly seasoned and well cooked help us generate and retain heat. In summer, lightly cooked dishes, including salads, keep us cool. These natural adjustments help us stay in touch with nature and make it easier to adapt to climatic changes without excessive heat in the winter or air conditioning in the summer. Eating fresh seasonal foods helps minimize the need for refrigeration and other artificial methods of food preservation or storage.
5. Select Organically Grown Foods
A great deal of fossil fuels are used in the production, transport, and storage of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and other artificial substances used in modern chemical agriculture. Moreover, these substances enter the environment and pollute the air, water, and soil. Nitrous oxide, produced by nitrogen-based fertilizers, is a major greenhouse gas. When you select organically grown foods, you do not contribute to pollution of the environment, the unnecessary use of fossil fuels, or to the buildup of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere.
6. Start a Backyard Garden
Growing organic vegetables in your own garden reduces your reliance on foods that require fossil fuel to transport. Moreover, many garden vegetables can be left in the soil until they are ready to eat and don’t need to be refrigerated. If you don’t have space to begin your own garden, look for an organic farm or cooperative in your area. Rather than being thrown away, uneaten food can be recycled as compost in your garden.
7. Base Your Diet on Naturally Storable Foods
Whole grains, beans, sea vegetables, and other complex carbohydrate foods don’t require refrigeration or artificial methods of storage or preservation to keep them fresh. They can be kept as is in your pantry or cupboards. On the other hand, meat, eggs, cheese, chicken, and other animal foods rapidly decompose into toxic bacteria and compounds and therefore require artificial preservation. Tropical fruits, vegetables, and other extremely yin foods or drinks also decompose rapidly and thus require refrigeration, canning, or other artificial methods to preserve or keep them fresh.
8. Eat Whole Foods
Eating foods in their whole form saves energy and makes use of the nutrients that are naturally available. The process whereby brown rice is milled into white rice, or whole wheat flour into white flour, represents an unnecessary waste of energy. The outer coat of cereal grains contains beneficial fiber and other valuable nutrients. When whole grains are refined, these valuable nutrients are lost. The green tops of vegetables such as daikon, carrots, and turnips and the roots of scallions are also a good source of nutrients and can be cooked and eaten rather than discarded.
9. Restore Home Cooking
A great deal of disposable waste, including paper products, Styrofoam containers, and plastic utensils is generated by restaurants and public eating places. Cooking and eating at home helps reduce the use of the fossil fuels that go into producing these products as well as the buildup of inorganic waste in the environment, including the CFCs contained in plastic foam containers. Moreover, for optimal health, and to mimimize electro-pollution, it is better to cook on a gas flame, rather than on the artificial energy of electric stoves or microwave ovens.
10. Make Your Own Snacks and Specialty Foods
Whenever possible, bake your own whole grain breads, and make foods such as tofu, tempeh, amasake, noodles, pasta, seitan, pickles, and others at home. A great deal of fossil fuels are used in the processing, packaging, and transportation of processed foods. Home processing saves energy. Homemade foods are also fresher and more delicious than those bought at the store.
11. Chew Well
Thorough chewing allows for the efficient digestion and absorption of foods. When you chew well, you obtain more nutrients from your foods and can get by with a smaller volume of food. Your diet becomes more energy-efficient. Both for health and vitality, and to minimize waste, try not to eat for three hours before sleeping, except in unusual circumstances. Also, you might find that your energy levels are higher if you eat a light breakfast or skip breakfast on occasion.
12. Practice an Ecological Lifestyle
As much as possible, use natural, chemical-free fabrics and body care products, as well as biodegradable soaps and cleaning materials in your home. Minimize the use of electric devices, in order to conserve energy, for example, by turning off the lights when you are not using a room or watching less television. Buy your foods in bulk, rather than in individually packaged containers. Recycle paper, glass, and plastic. Recycle leftover food by including it in new dishes rather than throwing it away. Keep physically active, and rely less on automobiles, elevators, central heating, and air conditioning. Finally, learn to appreciate our planetary environment. Develop gratitude and appreciation for the earth, water, ocean, and air. See your foods as the condensed essence of nature, and offer thanks before and after each meal.
Our internal and external environments are intimately related. Personal health is equivalent to planetary health. The principles of natural living that underlie the macrobiotic way of life apply as much to healing our planet as they do in restoring our personal health.
Source: The Pulse of Life, © 1994 by Edward Esko, all rights reserved.