Book review: The Top Ten Macro Myths by Alex Jack

The Macrobiotic Shop has a small treasure trove of rare and hard-to-find books on the subject of macrobiotics. These days there are fewer books published on the subject, which is very unfortunate, especially given the huge rise in veganism and environmental awareness which has taken place since the heyday of macrobiotics in the 1970s and 80s. I recently came across a slim but excellent little pamphlet by the great macrobiotic expert, Alex Jack. Since reading this very rare piece our last remaining copy has been sold, but I was able to read Alex Jack’s little book and put down some of my own experiences and thoughts on the subject.

It seems unfortunate that macrobiotics hasn’t benefited as much from the explosion in veganism, clean eating and general increased awareness in healthy eating as it should have. To me, this is a real shame, as it still has huge relevance and can provide enormous health and environmental benefits. I really am no expert in this arena, so perhaps what follows is totally off the mark. However many people in the macrobiotic community are very passionate about what they do, and it seems worth spending a little time looking inward this winter, for this is a time of reflection.

From a personal perspective, The Top Ten Macro Myths really resonated with me, as I had the mixed blessing of being brought up in a macrobiotic household during the 1970s and early 80s. I describe this as mixed because the results of this experience affected me in mixed ways. As a child, I found much of the food cooked at home to be pretty unpalatable and at school my packed lunches were the stuff of ridicule and embarrassment. I just wanted to fit in, and that was not easy being brought up on brown rice, tofu, steamed vegetables and miso soup. The rich sugary diet of mainstream America seemed a lot more tasty, but even at a very young age I knew and understood that such a diet was also terrible for health and the environment.

Despite not enjoying the culinary aspects of the 1970s macrobiotic diet, it left me with an excellent constitution. I am now well into middle age, but am extremely healthy and active. Similarly, my father, who is close to 80, is still very active and suffers from few of the health problems endemic in our society.

Thankfully the modern macrobiotic diet is a complete revolution, taste-wise. Georgina is an incredible cook and in her very capable hands the food really comes to life. The so-called ‘normal’ food available in our society holds almost no appeal to me, as 21st century macrobiotics feels superior to just about anything else on offer. And yet macrobiotics still suffers from some of its 1970s baggage, a problem which Alex Jack outlines very well.

So let’s have a look at these ‘macro myths’.

1. Macrobiotics is a Japanese diet.

This is probably one of the most pervasive myths which still lingers on. As our readers know, macrobiotics became popular through the writing of such people as George Oshawa and Michio Kushi. They spread the popularity of Japanese staples such as sea vegetables and tofu as well as some more exotic ingredients such as Japanese plums, or ume. However, as Alex Jack makes clear, they were not trying to export their own food culture around the world. Rather, they were simply describing what they had observed in their own country and asked others to follow their principles and adopt them to local conditions. Many staple ingredients of a typical macrobiotic diet have their origins very far from Japan, such as tempeh (Indonesia), and Hokkaido pumpkins (north America).

A good macrobiotic diet is typically rich in ingredients such as chickpeas, lentils, oats and barley, none of which are common in Japan. So, although there are some links between macrobiotics and a traditional Japanese diet, the link is not a fixed one and can be ‘flexed’ in either direction. It’s perfectly possible to adhere to macrobiotic principles on more common European or North American grains and vegetables and go nowhere near tofu, hiziki or kuzu. Having said that, Japanese ingredients and cuisine can add some really exciting tastes and nutritional benefits to almost any meal.

2. Macrobiotics comes from the Orient.

Alex Jack argues that rather than being invented in Japan or in ‘the Orient’ (not a term used so much these days!), macrobiotics has its origins in Europe. He cites examples such as Hippocrates and the German enlightenment writer Christoph von Hufeland, author of Makrobiotik or The Art of Prolonging Life  (1796), as well as many others, all of whom argued that food is the basis of our health and that a plant-based diet is ideal for human health. Alex Jack goes on to pursue an interesting thread, linking the pioneering work of dieticians such as Hufeland to the 19th century Japanese physician Sagen Ishizuka and later on George Oshawa. In doing so, Alex Jack cleverly links the historical threads of European and Japanese thinking on health and diet, showing how each generation is able to build on the previous one.

Sadly some of the dogma of Oshawa’s teaching led to macrobiotics to be discredited in many people’s eyes, even though the overall philosophy has a much richer and more widespread foundation and history than it it sometimes credited with.

3. Yang is superior to yin.

As a child in a macrobiotic household, I was taught about the dangers on yin foods at a very young age. For several years my father forbade many foods from our diet for their supposed yin dangers and I was often warned that I looked too yin. At age eight or nine I wasn’t too sure what all of this meant, but it seemed that to be yin was to sin. Although macrobiotics seems a little more relaxed today that it was 30 or 40 years ago, elements of the yang bias still pervade. Today I have a somewhat better understanding of the meaning of these words. Rather than standing in contradiction to each other, yin and yang complement each other and need each other. Alex Jack argues that Japan’s male-dominated culture of the early and mid-20th century led to a valorisation of typical yang properties and a disparaging attitude towards yin ones.

He even writes that Japan believed that they could defeat America in World War II because America was too yin when compared to Japan’s tough, yang culture. With regards to food, yin and yang aren’t really principles I think about too much, but it is interesting to consider diet from this perspective.

4. Cooking is the highest art.

I wasn’t as familiar with this concept as I was with most of Alex Jack’s other ‘macro myths’, but it does seem largely true that macrobiotics elevates cooking over most other pursuits. Here Alex Jack takes the view that many in the macrobiotic community place cooking over all other pursuits. Instead he urges us to that ‘today the highest art is preserving the world’s natural and organic food supply’. This is due to the decline in food quality and nutrients since the 1960s and 70s. In 2017 this situation is even more alarming, and even the Conservative minister for the environment, Michael Gove, recently stated that the UK  is “30 to 40 years away from the fundamental eradication of soil fertility”.

It’s deeply concerning when the Conservative party comes out with statements warning that:

“We have encouraged a type of farming which has damaged the earth… Countries can withstand coups d’état, wars and conflict, even leaving the EU, but no country can withstand the loss of its soil and fertility.”

Alex Jack’s view on the matter is somewhat similar, and he believes that we must each find our own path to building a better way of life, which may be:

“farming, gardening, cooking, working in a natural foods restaurant or store, writing or painting about food-related subjects, designing a web site or creating a holistic social network, and countless other ways. In brief, practising macrobiotics – reclaiming our birthright as a ‘happy, healthy, free human being’, in Oshawa’s inspiring words – is the highest art”.

From my own observation this fourth ‘macro myth’ is probably a little over-stated, but it does remind us that the path to health and freedom cannot be found through food alone.

5. You are what you eat.

Diet. People with food on a white background. Human, thin, fat. Nutrition, food. Vector illustration

Alex Jack maintains that this is the “foundation” of the macrobiotic belief system. He then links this to other competing theories of character, identity and destiny, pointing out that some would say:

“We are what we think. We are what we believe. We are what we feel. We are what we love…and so on…In all these cases, the model or paradigm is: energy in = energy out.”

Although the belief in a single road to well-being is very simple and convenient, it should be clear to most of us that there are several fundamental problems with such a mindset. Firstly, how do we know which foods are the right ones? Countless books have been written on the subject, and even within the macrobiotic community there are significant differences of opinion. And then there is the question of an individual’s personal constitution and environment which will further affect these choices. Although we can agree on principles, there are a huge number of variables which make this standpoint problematic.

Alex Jack then brings up the interesting question of what we put in our bodies, pointing out that we consume both water and air at far higher rates that we do food. 75% of our food is made of of water, yet we don’t think too much about either the quality of our drinking water or how water in the food affects the quality. The question of air quality is probably even more serious. We consume about 11,000 litres of air each day, and yet as we hear more and more regularly, the quality of our air is very poor and declining.

The central arguement here is that Alex Jack is asking us to not fall into the trap of reductionism, such as can be found in science or religion, both of which often claim to have all the answers.

His final point on this ‘macro myth’ I found to be very inspiring. This centres around the idea that:

“our thoughts and feelings, visions and dreams, prayers and blessings, can all have a profound effect on our health and consciousness in a manner that transcends, or is independent of, our way of eating.”

In my own life I have experienced this many times. We can often feel when a dish is prepared with care and love. Regardless of the ingredients that go into a meal, the intent we bring to it may be as important as anything else.

Next week I will be examining ‘macro myths’ six through ten, which are:

6. Macrobiotic people never get sick.
7. Emotions don’t count.
8. Brown rice is the perfect food.
9. Meat-eating creates violence.
10. Your face never lies.

6 Replies to “Book review: The Top Ten Macro Myths by Alex Jack”

  1. Good article ! .. I often point out to people that lots of things that Ohsawa and Kushi were saying 50 years ago (and that people thought were extreme at the time) have become mainstream knowledge .. for instance about sugar … on the other hand some things that George says in his books .. especially about male/female and sexual issues lead “modern” people to say .. “What ? .. you can’t say that! “

    1. Thanks for commenting, Charles. It feels to me as though macrobiotics has not had the increase in popularity it deserves, especially when we consider the incredible rise in veganism (360% in ten years, I have read). A more modern, less-dogmatic form of macrobiotics has so much to offer in these troubled times.

  2. Well presented view on macrobiotics, it seems to me that the founders were awake, conscious and curious to all aspects of life not only food. Food, cooking and eating though is a practice we can interact with to form a rich healthy relationship, and like all relationships it is a process.

  3. Good points, Janet. As you say, it’s a process. In recent years I have developed a big interest in wild foods and fermented foods and how these affect our health. So my curiosity has led me towards a new understanding of the relationship we can have with food and the natural world. I am not sure where it will lead, but it feels right.

  4. Just wanted to thank you Ishmael, for your summary. Alex is deserving of so many accolades for his tireless, intelligent, and heartfelt work. My son went through a similar experience as you regarding his food at school and socially. I wasn’t as strict as your father, but I’m sure it wasn’t easy for my son. Nowadays, unfortunately, he just wants meat and sugary stuff, to his detriment. I cringe, but at 17 years of age, I have to let him discover his own way. Thanks for keeping the debate alive…Dean from Australia.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dean. As you say, at 17 he has to discover his own way. Yet I am sure you have given him strong foundations from which he can grow. I went through my own period of dietary ‘Rumspringa’ which was necessary at the time.

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