Written by Edzard Ernst and the CAM-Cancer Consortium.
Updated February 8, 2017

Macrobiotic diet

Abstract and key points

The macrobiotic diet is essentially a specific vegetarian form of nutrition and life-style. A typical macrobiotic diet would consist mainly of whole grains, cereals and cooked vegetables. Some types of fish are allowed but only in moderation.

  • The origins of the macrobiotic diet reach far back into history.
  • Despite many claims to the contrary, there is no reliable evidence that it prevents or treats cancers effectively.
  • The strictest forms of macrobiotics can cause malnutrition.

Popularised in the 1970s by Michio Kushi, it is now often promoted for the prevention and treatment of cancer. There are, however, no clinical trials of macrobiotics for cancer treatment, nor are there reliable epidemiological data to suggest that this diet is effective for cancer prevention. The strictest forms of this diet can lead to severe malnutrition.

What is it?

Description

Macrobiotic diet, as we know it today, was developed and promoted by Michio Kushi and is based on concepts of the Japanese philosopher George Ohsawa. Several degrees of strictness in adhering to an essentially vegetarian regimen exist. A typical macrobiotic diet would consist mainly of whole grains, cereals and cooked vegetables. Some types of fish are allowed but only in moderation. Dieters are encouraged to adhere to a life-style which includes eating vegetables while in season, avoiding processed food and overeating, as well as chewing food thoroughly before swallowing1.

Ingredients/components

The standard macrobiotic diet consists of 50 – 60% whole grains, 20 – 25% vegetables, 5 – 10% pulses and sea vegetables as well as 5% vegetable soup; nuts, seeds fruits and fish can be added occasionally1;2. Essentially, the macrobiotic diet is a high-fibre, low-fat, high complex carbohydrate, mainly vegetarian diet3.

Application and dosage

Proponents recommend adopting this diet for life, and it is possible to do this at different levels of strictness.

History/providers

The term ‘macrobiotic’ goes back to Hippocrates and was extensively used by Hufeland, a famous German Physician who lived in the 18th century and published his book The Art of Prolonging Human Life (1797) using the term ‘macrobiotic’. The guiding principle of macrobiotics, namely that food and its quality affect health and well-being, can be found in most cultures. In the late 1800’s, the Japanese doctor Sagen Ishizuka allegedly helped patients recover from illness through a macrobiotic diet balanced in acid/alkaline and potassium/sodium content. George Ohsawa recommended progressively more restrictive stages of this type of diet. In the 1970’s, Michio Kushi popularised his less restrictive version of the macrobiotic diet in the US and in Europe4.

Claims of efficacy and alleged indications

Proponents believe that this diet prevents illness in general.3;5. Some even claim that a macrobiotic diet effectively treats and prevents cancer of all types (e.g.3).

Mechanism of action

Macrobiotics is based on the Taoist philosophy of balance; restoring balance between the inner opposite yet complementary forces Yin and Yang treats and prevents disease and illness. The postulated cancer-related mechanisms of action of the macrobiotic diet are not entirely clear. As the diet contains less saturated fat and protein6, it seems conceivable that it is less carcinogenic than a diet with a high fat content. There is some preliminary evidence that adherence to this diet might reduce some risk factors7;8. Being a high fibre and low fat diet, macrobiotics might normalize risk factors such as obesity.9

Prevalence of use

The popularity of macrobiotics varies from country to country and by ethnic group surveyed.10,11.

Legal issues

None.

Cost and expenditure

Adherence to a macrobiotic diet should not be significantly more expensive than conventional nutrition.

Does it work?

There are no clinical trials or reliable epidemiological data available to suggest that this diet is effective for cancer prevention.5;12. Vegetarian diets seem to confer some protection against cancer but it is unclear whether this effect also extends to the macrobiotic diet.13 Such a postulated effect could most likely also be achieved by diets that are more nutritionally balanced and less complex to prepare. 

There are a number of anecdotal reports of cure of established cancer through adherence to a macrobiotic diet;3,8 but to date these reports have not been confirmed in clinical studies. 10,12,14

Is it safe?

Adverse events

Strict forms of the macrobiotic diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies, particularly in vulnerable populations such as children. (e.g.15-26)

Contraindications

Nutritionally vulnerable groups such as small children, pregnant women and elderly individuals should be particularly cautious regarding the malnutrition risk.

Interactions

None known.

Other problems or complications

None known.

Citation

Edzard Ernst, CAM-Cancer Consortium. Macrobiotic diet [online document]. http://cam-cancer.org/The-Summaries/Dietary-approaches/Macrobiotic-diet. February 8, 2017.

Document history

Assessed as up to date in February 2017 by Barbara Wider.
Assessed as up to date in April 2016 by Barbara Wider.

First published in February 2014, authored by Edzard Ernst.

References

  1. Kushi LH, Cunningham JE, Hebert JR et al. The macrobiotic diet in cancer. J Nutr. 2001; 131(11 Suppl): 3056S-64S.
  2. Jonas WB, Ernst E. Part II. Introduction: Evaluating the safety of complementary and alternative products and practices. In: Jonas WB; Levin JS (eds) Essentials of complementary and alternative medicine. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams Wilkins. 1999; pp. 89-107.
  3. Lerman RH. The macrobiotic diet in chronic disease. Nutr Clin Pract 2010; 25: 621-6.
  4. Anon. Macrobiotic diet. Wikipedia 2017; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macrobiotic_diet. Accessed 8 February 2017.
  5. Hübner J, Marienfeld S, Abbenhardt C et al. How useful are diets against cancer? [in German]. Dtsch Med Wochenschr 2012; 137: 2417-22.
  6. Porrata-Maury C, Hernández-Triana M, Rodríguez-Sotero E et al. Medium- and short-term interventions with ma-pi 2 macrobiotic diet in type 2 diabetic adults of Bauta,Havana. J Nutr Metab 2012; 856342: doi: 10.1155/2012/856342.
  7. Bhumisawasdi J, Vanna O, Surinpang N. The self-reliant system for alternative care of diabetes mellitus patients--experience macrobiotic management in Trad Province. J Med Assoc Thai 2006; 89: 2104-15.
  8. McEvoy CT, Temple N, Woodside JV. Vegetarian diets, low-meat diets and health: a review. Public Health Nutr 2012; 15: 2287-94.
  9. Craig WJ. Nutrition concerns and health effects of vegetarian diets. Nutr Clin Pract 2010; 25: 613-20.
  10. Sparber A, Bauer L, Curt G et al. Use of complementary medicine by adult patients participating in cancer clinical trials. Oncol Nurs Forum 2000; 27: 623-30.
  11. Supoken A, Chaisrisawatsuk T, Chumworathayi B. Proportion of gynecologic cancer patients using complementary and alternative medicine. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev 2009; 10: 779-82.
  12. Weitzman S. Complementary and alternative (CAM) dietary therapies for cancer. Pediatr Blood Cancer. 2008; 50: 494-7.
  13. Tantamango-Bartley Y, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Fan J, Fraser G. Vegetarian diets and the incidence of cancer in a low-risk population. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2013; 22: 286-94.
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  15. van Dusseldorp M, Schneede J, Refsum H et al. Risk of persistent cobalamin deficiency in adolescents fed a macrobiotic diet in early life. Am J Clin Nutr 1999; 69: 664-71.
  16. Parsons TJ, van Dusseldorp M, van der Vliet M et al. Reduced bone mass in Dutch adolescents fed a macrobiotic diet in early life. J Bone Miner Res 1997; 12: 1486-97.
  17. van Dusseldorp M, Arts IC, Bergsma JS et al. Catch-up growth in children fed a macrobiotic diet in early childhood. J Nutr 1996; 126: 2977-83.
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  19. Sanders TA. Vegetarian diets and children. Pediatr Clin North Am 1995; 42: 955-65.
  20. Schneede J, Dagnelie PC, van Staveren WA et al. Methylmalonic acid and homocysteine in plasma as indicators of functional cobalamin deficiency in infants on macrobiotic diets. Pediatr Res 1994; 36: 194-201.
  21. Dagnelie PC, van Staveren WA. Macrobiotic nutrition and child health: results of a population-based, mixed-longitudinal cohort study in The Netherlands. Am J Clin Nutr. 1994; 59(suppl): 1187S-96S.
  22. Miller DR, Specker BL, Ho ML et al. Vitamin B-12 status in a macrobiotic community. Am J Clin Nutr 1991; 53: 524-9.
  23. Dagnelie PC, Vergote FJ, van Staveren WA et al. High prevalence of rickets in infants on macrobiotic diets. Am J Clin Nutr 1990; 51: 202-8.
  24. Salmon P, Rees JR, Flanagan M et al. Hypocalcaemia in a mother and rickets in an infant associated with a Zen macrobiotic diet. Ir J Med Sci 1981; 150: 192-3.
  25. Sherlock P, Rothschild EO. Scurvy produced by a Zen macrobiotic diet. JAMA 1967; 199: 794-8.
  26. Kirby M. Danner E. Nutritional deficiencies in children on restricted diets. Pediatric Clinics of North America 2009; 56: 1085-103.