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Macrobiotic Nutrition

June 3, 2010

I decided to write this article to further clarify a point I brought up in a previous post, “Macrobiotics Is Not Nutritional Science“, in which I  lamented how some macrobiotic teachers turn to nutritional science to justify and explain various claims when it is completely unnecessary and may furthermore lead to incorrect dietary conclusions that may even be dangerous.  By using nutritional analytical science to justify macrobiotic conclusions those teachers throw away an opportunity to share the unique approach and way of thinking and view of life that macrobiotics has to offer.

Nutritional Analysis

As outlined by the Wikipedia: Nutritional science investigates the metabolic and physiological responses of the body to diet.  This approach involves the study and analysis of nutrients that are used and excreted by the body. Essentially, nutritional science looks at two things:  1.)  the analysis of nutrients and 2.) how those nutrients are used by the human body.

In addition to calories, nutrients are grouped into categories like carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and so on. Based on these categories then recommendations include, for example, eliminating trans-fats, adding omega-3 fatty acids,  eating foods with anti-oxidant properties and so on.  Accordingly, one should incorporate a whole list of nutrients in order to maintain one’s health and avoid or prevent many diseases.  Ongoing studies continue to reveal the benefits or dangers of various nutrients leading to new recommendations, policies and supplements. Generally speaking, according to the latest nutritional scientific findings we should be eating a plant based diet that contains all the essential nutrients.  If we aren’t getting enough essential nutrients then supplementation is recommended. This is fundamentally the extent of nutritional science. But recommendations on the differences of where to get these nutrients from which specific foods, how they should be prepared and other details are absent.

Macrobiotic Nutrition

Macrobiotic Nutrition includes the full scope of Nutritional Analysis but also goes far beyond it.  Not only is it concerned with nutrients and metabolic response but also how such nutrients came about, how they are prepared, processed, stored, transported, farmed or raised, the season they grew in, the climate and geography and the evolutionary development of the plant or animals species from whence they came. Regarding metabolic function, Macrobiotic Nutrition is not only concerned with the body but also a person’s dietary, medical and health history,  their family history, their mental and emotional disposition, their aspirations and ambitions, lifestyle habits, work environment, cultural influences, genetic and ancestral influences, seasonal  and climate influences, geographical influences and evolutionary development as a species and more.

Macrobiotic Nutrition also seeks to answer the fundamental questions of “why?”: Why do we eat the foods that we do? Why are we hungry? Why do we eat at all?  It seeks to ask questions and solve problems from not only from a position of academic authority but also from a place of child-like naivete.  In this way we can draft some basic nutritional guidelines that even a child can understand, for example:

  1. Don’t eat food from another planet unless you live there or unless you are an alien.
  2. It’s easier to eat plants since they don’t run away when you try to catch them.
  3. We are not fish so don’t eat a lot of fish food unless you want to become like a fish.
  4. To stay as a human being eat food that makes you human.
  5. When you are hungry then eat and when you are not hungry then don’t eat.

These sample basic Macrobiotic Nutritional principles can and have been further expanded upon by my father, Michio Kushi, into what he formulated as “Macrobiotic Dietary Recommendations.”  Along with many other recommendations, he suggests that we, being human, should eat whole grains as our principle food since  grain-eating caused the evolutionary development of humans.  The recommendations he suggests are not meant to be offered as a prescribed diet, but instead as a conclusion, based on Macrobiotic Nutrition, for what humans should be generally eating.  Additional adjustments must be added and tailored to fit specific individual needs and circumstances.

Macrobiotic Nutrition is not only concerned with “macro” influences but “micro” influences as well.  Where Nutritional Science stays primarily focused on the molecular level, Macrobiotic Nutrition is also concerned with the atomic level, the sub-atomic level, the electrical and energetic level and even with the empty spaces in between. In short, Macrobiotic Nutrition is concerned with every influence on every level.

Macrobiotic Nutrition vs. Nutritional Analysis

Without the larger context of Macrobiotic Nutrition, Nutritional Analysis will always present a distorted view of what we should be eating.  A while ago it was found that eating the fiber from oats was beneficial for heart disease.  This finding was then exploited by the food industry to promote oatmeal and adding extra fiber to foods.  What was ignored was the fact that all whole grains contain fiber, not just oats.

Proponents of Nutritional Analysis will recommend, for example, to take omega 3 fatty acids with little concern about the source and whether it is from fish, krill, algae,  seeds  or nuts.  Macrobiotic Nutrition, on the other hand, is not only concerned about the differences in the sources of omega 3 and but also how it  is prepared and processed, what is ingested together with it, when it is ingested, how such a deficiency could occur in the first place, who is ingesting it and the condition  and health history of the person and on and on.  The fact that a nutrient like an omega 3 fatty acid comes from a fish as opposed to a seed is of a great significance in Macrobiotic Nutrition. The further we step back  and include larger additional considerations and influences then the more significant these differences become.

Lycopene, is a nutrient found in tomatoes and in watermelons and while it may not matter from a analytical point of view where you get it from  it makes a huge difference from a macrobiotic nutritional point of view.  Not only is there the obvious difference between a tomato and watermelon, but also how the tomato was grown, how it is prepared and many other factors are significant when it comes to Macrobiotic Nutrition.

Beta-Carotene, the nutrient found in carrots that make them red-orange, was found to have beneficial health properties.  Because of this companies that sell Nutritional Supplements created Beta-Carotene supplements.  It was later discovered that those supplements were actually harmful.  Beta-Carotene is only beneficial when it is eaten in the form of a carrot.  Macrobiotic Nutrition always recommends eating nutrients in their whole original form first and foremost. This and the other examples mentioned above illustrate the differences between Nutritional Analysis and Macrobiotic Nutrition.

Macrobiotic Nutrition can also predict findings that Nutritional Analysis has yet to discover.  Macrobiotic teachers have always promoted eating whole grains and plant-based foods for many decades while such foods are being recommended by Nutritional Analysis only more recently.  In another example, it has been recently found that tomatoes are beneficial for cancer prevention.  However, future studies by Nutritional Analysis will reveal that tomatoes are beneficial only for certain types of cancers and not all of them, where Macrobiotic Nutrition has already been recommending tomatoes for prostate cancer and not for breast cancer.

Same Universe, Different Paradigms

A simple way to better understand the difference behind the thought processes and logic between Nutritional Analysis and Macrobiotic Nutrition is by looking at the Japanese way of addressing a letter versus the American way doing the same thing.  When a person addresses a letter in Japan, they start with the country first followed by the state, town, street, building, apartment, last name and, finally, the first name.  The American way of addressing a letter begins with the addressee’s first name followed by the last name, street, town, state and lastly, the country.  The focus, or emphasis is on the small toward the great or large where in the Japanese way, the emphasis is from the large to the small.

Although it really does not matter in which direction you write the address, since all the information provided is necessary to deliver the letter,  what is important to note is where the emphasis is placed in terms of value.  In the Japanese way of addressing the letter the country comes first.  The emphasis is placed on the larger differences than the smaller ones whereas in the American way of addressing a letter the emphasis is placed on the smaller differences first and then the larger ones.

Similarly, in Macrobiotic Nutrition, emphasis is placed first on the larger differences than on the smaller nutrients as it is in Nutritional Analytical Science.  Therefore in Macrobiotic Nutrition, for example, the fact that we are human beings and not, say, fish, is a primary concern when deciding what to we should be eating.  This is the reason why grains are, first and foremost, recommended because they are food for land animals and, more specifically, mammals and, even more precisely, humans.

Compare this approach to Nutritional Analysis which emphasizes molecular chemistry and biology and results in recommendations in the form of nutritional supplementation with little emphasis and concern for the source, growth, development, evolution and processing of those nutrients.  Such a limited and narrow view is similar to trying to deliver a letter knowing only the addressee’s name and street address and not knowing if one is in the right town, state or even country. By approaching the question of nutrition from a “macro” view beginning with the fact that we are of this planet, that we are animals and not plants, and that we are humans then it is safe to conclude that we should probably derive the majority of our nutrition from grains, seeds and modern plants.

In summary, while explanations based on nutritional analysis is a part of and can be used in macrobiotics, they are insufficient and if relied upon alone are incorrect and can lead to serious health problems.  Much of today’s distorted nutritional views stems from the reliance upon limited nutritional analysis.  In order to solve these problems we must approach the problem of nutrition from a different level of thinking. As Einstein once said, “Problems cannot be solved by the same level thinking that created them.”  Macrobiotic Nutrition offers that different level of thinking.

I hope this helps clarify the value and significance of Macrobiotic Nutrition and it’s superiority over relying upon Nutritional Analysis for dietary guidance.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Elaine Danforth permalink
    June 3, 2010 4:11 pm

    Phiya, I commend you on this excellent article, which presents the differences between Macrobiotics and Nutrition in a very clear and comprehensive way. After seeing your Venn diagram on the areas of focus of Nutritional Science, I eagerly read on to see how your second diagram would look, and I think it is very well done, conceptually and visually. I even like the your use of color in both.

    As you may already have noticed, I do place value on detail, as well as overall picture, so I have a few comments about your details.

    1. Your title, Macrobiotic Nutrition. That, as your article details, but does not state in so many words, is a contradiction in terms. If you are discussing nutrition, you are not discussing macrobiotics. I cringe when macrobiotic teachers and writers use the two as if they are part of each other. While there may be much agreement, as well as hope and predictions that the more advanced nutritional science becomes, the more it will bear out macrobiotic advice and principles, the two are distinct approaches. I think there is a cost to using the word nutrition macrobiotic speech. I think it is often an attempt to confer legitimacy on macrobiotics by using a word that the general public respects, but macrobiotics has its own, independent, legitimacy, based on much the much longer human wisdom and experience macrobiotics aims to, and does, tap at its very best levels of expression.

    2. Your statement, “Beta carotene is only beneficial when eaten in the form of a carrot.” Clearly, to me, but which not necessarily everybody knows, beta-carotene appears in many vegetables and fruits– not just carrots.The name obviously makes us think of carrots first, beta carotene is in other orange or yellow colored vegetables and fruits, as well as in many, if not most or all green vegetables. One fallacy of nutritional thinking is the tendency to only mention or recommend one or a few foods as “good sources” of a nutrient. “Good source” in this context usually means a source that contains a large proportion of the nutrient, but there are plenty of truly good sources that have lesser amounts of the nutrient, which are excellent to use, partly, because, either from a macrobiotic or even a limited nutritional viewpoint, a wide varied diet is more likely to promote balanced, overall health than monotonous repetition or emphasis on few foods. The nutritionists often mention that because the body’s needs for many various nutrients and combinations thereof are not completely known or understood, eating varied foods is more likely to provide what the body needs. Apart from this, even if we stick to the carrot example, how the body is able to use the beta-carotene in the carrot depends heavily upon how and with what the carrot is prepared.

    3. Finally, regarding your idea about how a letter is addressed beginning with the country and narrowing down to the person (addressee) in Japan, whereas here in the U.S., it is the opposite, beginning with the person and ending with the country– While there probably are other things in the cultures of the two countries that would point in the direction of your argument, I do not think that it is right to assume that what comes first is necessarily emphasized and what comes last is necessarily de-emphasized. In macrobiotic meal planning, for example, a cook might refer to Barley Rice, but in this case she would usually be referring to brown rice cooked with a smaller amount of barley, rather than vice-versa. This is a common phenomenon in the English language, that the most important word in a phrase can be the last word, rather than the first or any other words in it.

    When I have studied TV and film, I have learned that it helps to put something on the right hand side of the screen if you want to place emphasis on it, because that is where the eye will tend to rest, similar to reading right to left, Where our eye might tend to rest at the end of a line or sentence, and see that more. I have always wondered whether that phenomenon would change the way people from differnet would “read” or see the same films, depending on the direction of reading in their language. The history of the direction of reading Japanese is one I do not know well, but it seems that reading top to bottom represents part of the picture both in Japanese, and in English. So with addresses, one might equally as well argue that the emphasized part could be the information at the bottom, rather than that at the top, because that is where the eye would tend to rest. It is also very glib to imply that somehow Japanese people would always see larger differences better than Americans would and that Americans would always tend to get lost in a sea of relatively unimportant detail, but as a thinking American, Phiya, you (I will presume to guess) know better than that.

  2. phiyakushi permalink*
    June 3, 2010 4:34 pm

    Thank you Elaine, for your comments.

    I don’t mean to suggest that Japanese are better or actually see larger difference at all and only used them to focus on the example of how letters are addressed. Who can see larger differences or not really depends on the individuals.

    I am aware that beta-carotene is in many vegetables, and as you said, there is a tendency to do just what I did in my article which is to only mention one or two nutrients.

    Lastly, yes I understand how “Macrobiotic Nutrition” may be a contradiction in terms in one sense.

    Thanks for pointing these out
    Phiya

  3. June 3, 2010 9:56 pm

    Hi Phiya! Excellent article…thank you very much. I particularly liked the “basic principles” at the beginning…plants can’t run away when you try to catch them…this is precisely the reason my second eldest daughter gives me for her vegetarianism.
    One point though: all of the betacarotene adverse studies that I have seen are flawed: many of them were directed by the Finnish medical association in an attempt to discredit a specific Finnish doctor who was selling (pretty high quality) supplements of various kinds.
    There may be some genuine research that finds adverse reactions from betacarotene supplementation, but I have yet to see it. The pros and cons of supplement usage in the modern world I would rather leave until we can sit down over a cup of herb tea and perhaps a plate of sushi, either here in Finland or in the US, and discuss it properly. : ) BTW, how is Marlowe Spade doing these days? He’s been terribly quiet for some time: I hope he’s OK…

  4. Musheera permalink
    June 4, 2010 4:26 am

    I enjoyed reading this article Phiya.Thanks

  5. June 10, 2010 8:53 am

    thx a lot, really nice article ;-)

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