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What a macrobiotic diet is

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. Available scientific evidence does not support claims that a macrobiotic diet can treat or prevent cancer.

The aim of the macrobiotic diet is 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 detailed information about macrobiotic diets on this page.


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 may help them to feel better and more positive. Macrobiotic diets may do this, but they can also have harmful effects.

Some people think that a macrobiotic lifestyle may help them to fight their cancer and lead to a cure. There is no scientific evidence to prove that a macrobiotic diet can treat or cure cancer or any other disease. Some people decide to try alternative therapies when they have been told there is no conventional treatment to cure their cancer. But even when a cancer can’t be cured, conventional medicines can often control the cancer for some time and reduce symptoms. 

For more information, look at our section about why people with cancer use complementary therapies.


Following a macrobiotic lifestyle

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

A macrobiotic practitioner plans your diet 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 of your food intake
  • Locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables – up to a quarter of your food
  • Soups made with vegetables, seaweed, beans, chick peas, lentils and fermented soy (miso) – up to a quarter of your food

Sometimes you may also include small helpings of nuts, seeds and pickled vegetables. You should only eat when you are hungry and should chew your food for a long time until it becomes a liquid in your mouth. Macrobiotic practitioners believe that this helps you digest it more easily. Some people who follow a macrobiotic diet eat small amounts of organic meat or fish occasionally.

Macrobiotic guidelines advise that you don’t take any vitamin or mineral supplements or eat processed foods or foods with artificial colours, flavours or preservatives.

You should only drink when you are thirsty. And only drink water or teas that aren’t flavoured or contain caffeine. You should always purify the water you drink or cook with.

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

  • Cooking and storing all your food in pots and utensils made of wood, glass, stainless steel or china (ceramics)
  • Avoiding microwave ovens or cooking with electricity
  • Preparing your food in a calm and peaceful environment

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

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, as we describe in our healthy eating pages

Some organisations say that a macrobiotic diet and lifestyle can help people with cancer and other health conditions. But researchers have not tested macrobiotic diets in randomised controlled clinical trials as a way of preventing, treating or curing cancer. So we don’t know whether they work. New treatments need to be compared with accepted and proven treatments within a properly organised series of clinical trials before we can be sure of their true benefits. So, researchers funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in America are doing a study to test whether a macrobiotic diet can play a part in preventing cancer.

We don’t support the use of macrobiotic diets for people with cancer but you will need to make up your own mind about whether you want to use complementary therapies. It is important to talk to your cancer specialist about any complementary or alternative treatment that you want to try.

You can find out more about complementary and alternative therapies.


Possible harms of a macrobiotic diet

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.

If you have cancer you may already be weak and underweight. You need to take in more calories than usual to cope with the disease and treatment. A limited diet can have very serious harmful effects on your health, especially if you follow it instead of having conventional medical treatments. You may become short of

  • 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.

Do make sure you talk to your own specialist about any alternative or complementary therapies that you want to try.


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.

If your treatment involves going to a special clinic in another country, you will have to pay for flights and accommodation as well as the treatment. For example, the basic 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. Private counselling sessions at some clinics cost up to £180 each.


Finding a macrobiotic practitioner

If you decide to try a macrobiotic diet, it's vital that the person who treats you is properly trained. Several macrobiotic organisations train people to become macrobiotic practitioners. No single professional organisation regulates macrobiotic practitioners in the UK and there is no recognised qualification. There is also no law to say that practitioners must have any training.

Before you choose a therapist you should

  • Contact one of the organisations below and ask if they have a list of reputable macrobiotic practitioners
  • Ask the practitioner how many years of training they've had, how long they've worked as a practitioner and whether they have treated people with cancer before
  • Ask if they have indemnity insurance (in case of negligence)

It may help you to look at our information on how to find a reliable therapist and the questions you should ask.


Useful organisations

For more information about the safety of following a macrobiotic lifestyle you can contact

Penny Brohn Cancer Care (formerly known as the Bristol Cancer Help Centre)
Phone: 0845 123 23 10

A UK based centre that offers complementary approaches to people with cancer. The centre is staffed by doctors, nurses and therapists working in complementary medicine. They can give information about appropriate, balanced and nutritious diets for people with cancer to follow.

The Institute for Complementary and Natural Medicine (ICM)
32–36 Loman Street
London SE1 0EH
Tel: 0207 922 7980
Fax: 0207 922 7981

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.

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Updated: 5 January 2015