Overview

The staples of a macrobiotic diet are whole grains, locally grown fresh vegetables, sea vegetables, and beans. In addition, seasonal fruits, nuts, seeds, and white fish are allowed two to three times per week. This diet excludes meat, dairy, and most other animal products, certain fruits and vegetables, and most commonly consumed beverages.

The macrobiotic diet became popular in the 1970s. The term “macrobiotics” refers to a holistic lifestyle that emphasizes eating and living in harmony with nature in order to promote health and longevity.

How Is This Diet Supposed to Work?

The premise of this diet is that the modern, western diet is the cause of many illnesses, including cancer. Proponents of the macrobiotic diet believe that eating a mainly vegetarian diet with unprocessed, whole foods, which are also native to a person’s environment, will lead to improved health and greater happiness.

What’s Involved?

The main foods allowed on this diet are whole grains and grain products, vegetables, sea vegetables, and beans. Supplementary foods include fish and seafood, fruits, beverages, and snack foods. The standard breakdown of the macrobiotic diet is:

  • 50%-60% whole grains
  • 25%-30% vegetables
  • 5%-10% soups
  • 5%-10% beans and sea vegetables

Here are examples of foods that are recommended for regular use and occasional use, as well as foods that should be avoided. For more complete lists of the foods that are allowed on this diet, including oils, seasonings, and condiments, refer to the book The Macrobiotic Way.

Type of FoodFor Regular UseFor Occasional UseTo Be Avoided

Whole Grains

Barley, brown rice (short and medium grain), buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, rye, wheat, other whole cereal grains

Buckwheat noodles (soba), brown rice (long grain), bulgur, corn grits, cornmeal, puffed wheat, rice cakes, tortillas, whole wheat crackers, whole wheat pasta

Anything made with yeast, baked goods containing dairy products, refined cereals, white flour products

Vegetables

Acorn squash, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, carrots, cauliflower, chives, dandelion roots and greens, green and Chinese cabbage, kale, leeks, parsley, parsnips, pumpkin, radishes, rutabagas, scallions, turnips, watercress

Alfalfa sprouts, beets, celery, corn-on-the-cob, cucumber, iceberg lettuce, mushrooms, romaine lettuce, shiitake mushrooms, snow peas, string beans, summer squash, Swiss chard, water chestnuts

Asparagus, avocado, eggplant, fennel, green peppers, plantains, potatoes, red peppers, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, yams, zucchini

Sea Vegetables

Agar-agar, arame, dulse, irish moss, kelp, kombu, nori, wakame

Beans and Bean Products

Aduki beans, chick peas, green or brown lentils, miso, natto, natural tamari soy sauce, tempeh, tofu

Bean sprouts, black beans, great northern beans, kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans, pinto beans, red lentils, soybeans, split peas

Fresh Fish and Seafood

Flounder, haddock, halibut, herring, smelt, sole, trout

Carp, clams, cod, red snapper, scrod, shrimp, oysters

Bluefish, mackerel, salmon, swordfish, tuna

Fresh and Dried Fruit

Temperate climate fruits

Tropical fruits and juices

Snacks

Almonds, chestnuts, homemade popcorn, peanuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, rice cakes, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts

Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, filberts, macadamia nuts, pistachios

Beverages

Amaske, bancha tea, roasted barley tea, roasted rice tea, spring or well water

Dandelion tea, grain coffee, kombu tea, mu tea

For less frequent use: Apple juice or cider, barley green tea, fruit juice (temperate climate fruits), green tea, naturally fermented beer, sake, seed or nut milk, vegetable juice

Alcohol, black tea, coffee, commercial beers, decaffeinated coffee, distilled water, herb teas, juice drinks, municipal or tap water, soft drinks, wine

  • Whenever possible, foods eaten should be organic.
  • Vitamin and mineral supplements are not recommended.
  • Meals need to be prepared using specialized cooking techniques. Using microwaves or electricity to cook is discouraged.
  • Foods that are allowed will, to some degree, depend on where you live.
  • If you have cancer, the part of your body that is affected will also influence your diet.
  • Macrobiotics is a type of holistic lifestyle. Diet is one component of this lifestyle.

What Does the Research Say?

Some advocates of the macrobiotic diet claim that it can help prevent and cure cancer. While there is no evidence that suggests this diet can cure cancer, its role in cancer prevention is currently being examined.

Numerous studies have shown that adherence to a strict macrobiotic diet can result in nutritional deficiencies, particularly among children. One study showed that adolescents who were fed a strict macrobiotic diet in early childhood had lower bone mineral density than those who were not. Another study found that infants and toddlers who were fed a macrobiotic diet had several nutrient deficiencies resulting in delayed growth, fat and muscle wasting, and slower psychomotor development.

Are There Any Concerns With This Diet?

While some people may be able to meet their nutrient needs on a very carefully planned and followed macrobiotic diet, this can be difficult to do. The many health and nutrition concerns with this diet include an inadequate intake of protein, vitamin B12, and calcium, and also the potential for dehydration. Another concern is the undue stress—for both the dieter and their families—from trying to follow a macrobiotic diet.

Bottom Line

Many principles of the macrobiotic diet are quite healthful, including the focus on whole grains, vegetables, and beans, and the avoidance of refined and processed foods. However, overall this diet is unnecessarily strict and limits many healthful foods. If you choose to follow this diet, consider relaxing some of the guidelines to allow for a more well-balanced diet. A strict macrobiotic diet should not be followed by infants, children, or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.