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Macrobiotic diet

The word macrobiotic comes from the Greek words macro, which means large or long, and bio, which means life.

The macrobiotic diet was developed in the 1920s by a Japanese philosopher called George Ohsawa. He believed that by eating a simple, healthy diet, we could live in harmony with nature. He also believed that his macrobiotic diet could cure cancer and other serious illnesses.

The macrobiotic diet aims to avoid foods containing toxins. Many people follow a completely vegan diet with no dairy products or meats. But some people eat small amounts of organic fish and meat.

There is no scientific evidence that the macrobiotic diet treats or cures cancer.

Why people with cancer use macrobiotic diets

Some people with cancer use macrobiotic diets as a complementary therapy. They think that changing their diet and lifestyle might help them to feel better and more positive.  A macrobiotic diet might do this, but it can also have harmful effects.

Some people think living a macrobiotic lifestyle may help them to fight their cancer and lead to a cure. But there is no scientific evidence to prove this.

What a macrobiotic lifestyle involves

There are different types of macrobiotic lifestyle that involve more than just diet. To follow a macrobiotic diet properly, you need to be strict about what you eat and how you cook your food.

A macrobiotic practitioner plans your diet by taking into consideration your age, sex, where you live and how much exercise you do.

Generally, the diet is made up of:

  • organic whole grains such as brown rice, barley, oats and buckwheat (half your food intake)
  • locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables (up to a quarter of your food intake)
  • soups made with vegetables, seaweed, beans, chick peas, lentils and fermented soy (miso) (up to a quarter of your food intake)

Sometimes you include small helpings of nuts, seeds and pickled vegetables. Some people occasionally eat small amounts of organic meat or fish.

You should only eat when you are hungry. And you should chew your food for a long time until it becomes a liquid in your mouth. The belief is that this helps you digest it more easily.

You shouldn’t have any vitamin or mineral supplements. You cannot eat processed foods or foods with artificial colours, flavours or preservatives.

You should also prepare and cook your food in a certain way.

  • Cook and store all your food in pots and utensils made of wood, glass, stainless steel or china (ceramics).
  • Avoid microwave ovens or cooking with electricity.
  • Prepare your food in a calm and peaceful environment.
  • Always purify the water you drink or cook with.

You should also only drink when you are thirsty. And only drink water or teas that aren’t flavoured, or contain caffeine.

As well as teaching you about the macrobiotic diet, a practitioner may also offer:

  • advice on healthy exercise
  • home remedies that aim to heal your body
  • cooking classes
  • macrobiotic counselling sessions
  • meditation

Possible harmful effects

Strict diets such as macrobiotic or vegan diets do not contain dairy or animal products. This can stop you getting enough nutrients for your body to work properly. You can also lose a lot of weight.

You might already be weak and underweight if you have cancer. So you need to take in more calories than usual to cope with the disease and treatment.

A limited diet can have serious harmful effects on your health, especially if you follow it instead of having conventional medical treatments.

You might not get enough:

  • calories
  • vitamins
  • calcium
  • protein
  • iron

In some of the earlier, very strict, macrobiotic diets people ate nothing but whole grains. This caused severe malnutrition and sometimes even death.

We don’t support the use of macrobiotic diets for people with cancer. But it is completely up to you whether you want to use complementary or alternative therapies. It is important to talk to your cancer specialist about any complementary or alternative treatment that you want to try.

Research into macrobiotic diets

Some research shows that macrobiotic diets can improve some people’s health if they are followed in moderation and not taken to an extreme.

This may be because these people are almost certainly increasing their fruit and vegetable intake and reducing their fat, sugar and salt intake. But for some people who are ill or very young, following a macrobiotic diet can have serious harmful effects.

People who eat macrobiotic diets for many years often have low fat and cholesterol levels, which may lower their risk of getting:

  • heart disease
  • breast cancer
  • other cancers linked to a high fat diet

But you can also get these health benefits through a normal healthy diet.

Some organisations say that a macrobiotic diet and lifestyle can help people with cancer and other health conditions. But there has not been enough scientific research into this. New treatments need to be compared with accepted and proven ones within a properly organised series of clinical trials before we can be sure of their true benefits.

The cost of a macrobiotic lifestyle

Following a macrobiotic way of life can be expensive. Organic foods and ingredients such as seaweed can cost a lot of money.

Depending on where you live, you may find it expensive, or even impossible, to buy locally grown fruit and vegetables. You may also find it expensive to buy the recommended storage jars and cooking utensils.

Alternative therapies advertised on the web almost always cost quite a lot of money. Before you start taking anything, make sure you have thought about the ongoing cost.

Macrobiotic practitioners in the UK can charge very different rates for their consultations and guidance. These can become very expensive over time. Private counselling sessions at some clinics cost up to £180 each.

You also have to pay for flights and accommodation on top of treatment if you have to go to a special clinic in another country. For example, the cost of a one week macrobiotic program at some clinics in the USA is around £1,100. This includes meals and your room, but not your travel.  

Finding a macrobiotic practitioner

If you decide to try a macrobiotic diet, you should only see a practitioner who is properly trained. There are several macrobiotic organisations that train people to become practitioners. But no single professional organisation regulates macrobiotic practitioners in the UK. There is no law to say that they must have any training, and no recognised qualification either.

You could try contacting one of the organisations below to see if they have a list of reputable macrobiotic practitioners.

Questions you might ask

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practising?
  • Have you had training for treating and supporting people with cancer?
  • Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)

Useful organisations

Contact any of the organisations below for more information about the safety of a macrobiotic lifestyle.

A UK based centre that offers a programme of complementary care (The Bristol Whole Life Approach) to people with cancer and their loved ones. They can give you information about appropriate, balanced and nutritious diets for people with cancer.

Chapel Pill Lane
Pill
Bristol
BS20 0HH

Helpline: 0303 3000 118 (Mon to Fri, 9.30am to 5pm)
Email: info@pennybrohn.org.uk

A UK based charity that provides information on all aspects of the safe and best practice of complementary medicine. Maintains a register of professional practitioners and therapists.

Can-Mezzanine
32–36 Loman Street
London SE1 0EH

Phone: 0207 922 7980
Email: info@icnm.org.uk

Last reviewed: 
05 Jan 2015
  • Complete Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Therapies (2nd edition)
    American Cancer Society, 2009

  • The macrobiotic diet in chronic disease
    RH Lerman
    Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 2010. Volume 25, Issue 6

  • Alternative nutrition therapies in cancer patients
    C Maritess and others
    Seminars in Oncology Nursing, 2005. Volume 21, Issue 3

  • The macrobiotic diet in cancer
    LH Kushi and others
    Journal of Nutrition, 2001. Volume 131, Supplement 11

  • Is there any research to prove that a macrobiotic diet can prevent or cure cancer?
    E Cunningham and W Marcason
    Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2001. Volume 101, Issue 9

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