Macrobiotic Diet And Obesity: What Science Has To Say?

The Zen Macrobiotic diet  was proposed by a Japanese philosopher, George Ohsawa. His principles were based on Oriental philosophy and were not limited to diet but an overall concept towards life.

The term ‘macrobiotic’ comes from Greek word ‘macros’ meaning great or long and ‘bios’ meaning life.

One of its core principles is the Yin-Yang concept: the concept of opposite energies which need to be balanced in order to be healthy. So the foods incorporated in this diet are such that they balance both these energies.

For example sugar is on the extremely Yin end while salt is on the extremely Yang end. Grains and vegetables have the least pronounced yin yang quality which makes it easier to achieve the balance of life.

Scientifically speaking, this diet is high in complex carbohydrates and low in fats. There are 10 versions of Macrobiotic diet which differ in the proportion of cereals.

Brown rice is one of the most important foods in this diet as it is said to be at the centre of the Yin-Yang scale.
But Macrobiotics is beyond brown rice. It is more of a way of life and is said to be therapeutic in case of many illnesses especially cancer.

What are the dietary principles involved in Macrobiotic diet?

The Macrobiotic diet is designed to suit one’s needs rather than being a set of rigid dietary restrictions. It takes into consideration one’s gender, age, physical activity and environment.

Traditional food items are included in the diet depending upon the seasonal and environmental availability of particular food. This ensures environmental sustainability like the Nordic diet.

The proportion is somewhere around 65% of energy from carbohydrates and 23% from fat.  All the foods included in this diet are preferably organically grown and minimally processed. The main components of the diet are:

Food Group Proportion Food items
Cereals 40-60% Brown rice, barley, millets, oats, wheat, corn, rye, buckwheat and whole grain products like pasta, noodles etc
Vegetables 20-30% Locally grown vegetables, small amount of pickled vegetables
Beans 5-10% Chickpeas, lentils and bean products like tofu, tempeh
Sea vegetables Regular consumption
Fruits Few times per week
White meat fish Few times per week
Seeds and nuts Few times per week

Foods that are avoided on a standard macrobiotic diet are:

  • Meat and poultry
  • Animal fats, butter and lard
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products
  • Refined sugars
  • Foods containing artificial sweeteners and chemical additives
  • Genetically modified foods

Michio Kushi, a proponent of Macrobiotic diet, has developed a pictorial representation of the Macrobiotic diet. It goes with the name Great Life Pyramid.

 

macrobioticdiet image1

Adapted from: Lawrence et al The Macrobiotic Diet in Cancer, The Journal of Nutrition

Beyond prescribing what to eat, the Macrobiotic diet lays down a few food principles:

  • Eat local and seasonal foods.
  • Chew food thoroughly.
  • Indulge in mindful eating and pay attention to quality and quantity.
  • Reduce the volume of what you eat.
  • Avoid dietary extremes.

What are the different levels of Macrobiotic diet?

George Ohsawa developed 10 different levels of Macrobiotic diet differing in food group composition. This what they are made up of:

Diet No. Cereals Vegetable Intake Soup Animal Food Salad Fruits Dessert Beverages
7 100% (Only when thirsty)
6 90% 10%
5 80% 20%
4 70% 20% 10%
3 60% 30% 10%
2 50% 30% 10% 10%
1 40% 30% 10% 20%
-1 30% 30% 10% 20% 10%
-2 20% 30% 10% 25% 10% 5%
-3 10% 30% 10% 30% 15% 5%

Adapted from: http://www.macrobiotics.co.uk/history.htm

What does research have to say about the role of Macrobiotic diet in weight loss?

There are no studies where macrobiotic diet has been used primarily as a weight loss tool but body weight has been measured as a secondary outcome in many studies related to macrobiotic diet and these studies are mentioned below.

These studies are focussed on a variation of the macrobiotic diet. Professor Mario Pianesi developed Ma-Pi diets from the traditional macrobiotic diet. He simplified this diet for Western culture.

Ma-Pi 2 Macrobiotic Diet Intervention in Adults with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: Porrata et al

A 6 month clinical  trial was conducted to study the influence of Ma-Pi 2 diet on diabetes. After 6 months the changes in body weight related measures were as follows:

  • Body weight: 9% decrease
  • Waist circumference: 6.7% decrease
  • Hip circumference: 5.1% decrease
  • Body fat: 9.7% decrease
  • Lean body mass: 6.9% increase

Improvement in fat and glucose metabolism was also observed.

Medium- and Short-Term Interventions with Ma-Pi 2 Macrobiotic Diet in Type 2 Diabetic Adults of Bauta, Havana: Porrata et al

The same researchers  decided to observe short term effects of Ma-Pi 2 diet on individuals suffering from diabetes. This study lasted for 21 days and completed at home within 3 months.

The decrease this time was not statistically significant: body weight- 3.7 kg, waist circumference -4.2 cm, hip circumference- 3.7 cm and BMI- 4.9%.

Decrease in body fat was statistically significant 3.1% but no change in lean mass was observed.

macrobiotic featured image

The effect of the macrobiotic Ma-Pi 2 diet vs. The recommended diet in the management of type 2 diabetes: the randomized controlled MADIAB trial; Soare et al

The title itself suggests the purpose of this study . Among the primary outcomes, a significant reduction in insulin resistance and cholesterol levels was observed. The study lasted for 21 days.

Average weight loss was around 5.5kg in Ma-Pi 2 diet group and 2.8 kg in control diet group. A 4.2 cm decrease in waist circumference and 3.4 cm decrease in hip circumference was observed. These results are impressive for a period of 21 days.

Gut microbiota and Ma-Pi 2 macrobiotic diet in the treatment of type 2 diabetes: Fallucca et al

The researchers reviewed  different clinical trials investigating the effect of Ma-Pi 2 diet on individuals suffering from type 2 diabetes.

They observed that along with improvement in metabolic factors, Ma-Pi 2 diet brought about a decrease in body weight and body fat. The duration of the studies were 3 weeks to 6 months.

They also reported an improvement in the gut bacteria which has implications in obesity.

What does this mean?
The studies that I have come across in relation to Macrobiotic diet and weight loss have been conducted on groups suffering from diabetes not on obese but otherwise healthy individuals. Also the diet investigated here is Ma-Pi 2 diet which is different from traditional Macrobiotic diet.

Keeping these points in mind I can say that Macrobiotic diet can help in weight loss due to the lack of processed foods and presence of organic foods.

What can you eat on a Ma-Pi 2 diet?

The Ma-Pi 2 diet has gained a lot of attention scientifically. It is designed for individuals suffering from metabolic disorders. The major components of Ma-Pi 2 diet are:

  • 50-55% whole grain (rice, millet and barley)
  • 35-40% vegetables
  • 8-10% legumes
  • Seaweeds
  • Fermented products
  • Gomashio (dry condiment) and Beicha tea (caffeine free green tea)

The average energy intake with this diet is 1700-2200kcal with 70% energy from complex carbohydrates, 18% from fats and 12% from proteins.

All animal products including egg and dairy products as well as products with added sugars are excluded from this diet.

This is the typical dietary composition of Ma-Pi 2 diet

Food Grams per person per day
Brown rice 350
Husked barley 25
Millet 25
Chicory 50
Broccoli 100
Onion 200
Kale 100
Parsley 10
Radish 40
Carrots 200
Chickpeas 30
Black beans 30
Sesame seeds 45
Kombu seaweed 2
Nori seaweed 6
Wakame seaweed 2
Miso 6
Tamari 6
Unrefined sea salt 2
Bancha tea 1000ml

Adapted from: Ma-Pi 2 Macrobiotic Diet Intervention in Adults with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus; Porrata et al, MEDICC Review, Fall 2009, Vol 11, No 4

Concerns regarding Macrobiotic diet

Due to absolute restriction of certain groups, nutritional deficiencies with this diet have been reported, especially that of vitamin B12 and calcium.   It is suggested that macrobiotic diet should be supplemented with fat, fish and dairy products.

For the same reason, macrobiotic diet is found to be unsafe for children. Strict adherence for a period of 9 months to Macrobiotic diet No 7 has even led to death.  Macrobiotic diet No 7 is indeed a strict regime to follow for more than a week and it is not advised for long period.

Conclusion

Macrobiotic diet focuses on organic foods and Oriental philosophy which can be applied to diet. Nutrition wise high complex carbohydrates are the main feature of this diet which is an exact reverse of The Atkins diet (Read Atkins Diet: Does it really help in weight loss). However these are good carbs and should not pose a risk of weight gain.

Few of the concerns associated with this diet is possibility of vitamin deficiency especially vitamin B12 due to dearth of animal meat. Also the inclusion of Oriental food items can make it difficult to adhere to.

I would recommend Macrobiotic diet as a detox diet for a month or so along with vitamin and calcium supplements. But if you are a fan of the Oriental culture and food or simply interested in it, then you can definitely go for a balanced Macrobiotic diet like Macrobiotic diet No -3, -2, -1.

It would be wise to consult a dietician or a Macrobiotic specialist before going on this diet.

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