The Top Ten Macro Myths, Part II

Last week we introduced the first part of our review of Alex Jack’s “The Top Ten Macro Myths”, examining some of the important misconceptions held by many followers of macrobiotics as well as many of its critics. We feel that this is an important period in the history and development of macrobiotics, as the movement is often held back by popular misconceptions and exaggerated claims. Fortunately Alex Jack’s little book provides some very good analysis, with the intention of removing a few of the dogmas which have inhibited the growth of this beneficial and wholesome way of life.

One source of information which is used so widely today is Wikipedia. We are often told that Wikipedia is more accurate than Britannica and that it is highly reliable. Unfortunately there are keyboard warriors out there who insist on ‘correcting’ all mentions of holistic and alternative health practices, and with regards to macrobiotics the situation is pretty bad, as Alex Jack has recently written about in his article entitled What Wikipedia Doesn’t Want You to Know about Macrobiotics (and Holistic Health).

Fortunately Alex Jack remains a fair-minded and clear-headed thinker when it comes to the subject of macrobiotics. Let’s examine macro myths 6-10.

6. Macrobiotic people never get sick.

One of the most common claims made by proponents of macrobiotics is regarding its ability to prevent and cure disease. Many books have been written about seemingly miraculous cures of people with advanced stages of cancers or HIV who reversed the progress of the disease by switching to macrobiotics. Indeed the macrobiotic philosophy itself has always emphasised the importance of diet in controlling disease. Alex Jack points out that following a plant-based diet reduces the rate of chronic disease by between 50% and 75% when compared to society as a whole.

When macrobiotics first became popular in the west our understanding of chronic illness and the importance of diet wasn’t very well understood. Today we are living with the consequences of these decades of blind faith in the powers of science, and although there has been something of a backlash to being force-fed a diet devoid of anything nourishing, today even our pets have diabetes.

Alex Jack reminds us that many prominent macrobiotic practitioners have succumbed to chronic illness. In his view, this has not been caused by “too much salt or poor quality salt, red-meat fish, deep-fried kombu, soymilk or cream in morning coffee”. Instead, the cause can be found in the general decline in food quality and the prevalence of pesticides, pollution and other contaminants in our environment and food supply. Poor air quality has been closely linked to early death, and recent studies have pointed to a rise in lung cancer among non-smokers in London. There are some things that even miso soup cannot stop or cure.

A personal interest of mine is in the area of primitive diets, which in contrast to a macrobiotic one, were very low in grain consumption (but very high in fibre). It’s worth reading my earlier post on the Hadza diet for more information on this. Alex Jack doesn’t delve into such areas at all, but it seems an topic well worth exploring, as wild foods in general contain much higher levels of nutrients than domesticated grains and vegetables.

7. Emotions don’t count.

I was a little confused by this ‘macro myth’, as I haven’t had formal macrobiotic training and I have not been exposed directly to the teachings of George Oshawa. Alex Jack argues that one possible reason that many followers of macrobiotics downplay or overlook the role of emotions and health is due to a mis-translation of the word ‘sentiment’, which meant that emotional judgement was seen as ‘sentimental’ or, in other words, false or fleeting. For Oshawa, emotional judgement was higher than blind or sensory judgement but lower than intellectual, social, ideological or supreme judgement.

As with the notion that yang is superior to yin (see previous post), negative emotions have often been seen as a symptom of poor diet or food choices. Alex Jack refers to practitioners who tell their clients that emotional issues are ‘peripheral’ (in other words yin) and don’t address the biological ‘root’ or ‘core’ (in other words yang) of the issue. And yet we can fairly easily understand that the link between emotions and health is strong.

Alex Jack writes movingly of his own experience with emotional issues, recounting a time in his childhood when he was diagnosed with asthma. The doctor prescribed a family move to the dry climate south west of the United States, but fortunately his mother had an intuitive insight and asked young Jack if anything was bothering him. When he told his mother that he felt that his baby sister was getting too much attention, Jack’s mother changed her behaviour and his symptoms went away.

8. Brown rice is the perfect food.

Back in the 1970s and early 80s my father would, on a fairly regular basis, retreat from daily life and go on a brown rice binge for anything between a few days and a week. His view was that a period of time dedicated to short grain brown rice and twig tea would act as an intensive remedy, seemingly able to cure any illness. He seemed to thrive on this strict regimen, but fortunately as children we were not subjected to such a limited diet. These days he still goes for short brown rice bursts, following a commonly-held notion among followers of macrobiotics that brown rice is the perfect food or at least close to being one.

For Alex Jack, brown rice is indeed very, very nutritious, “it is a marvellous food for body, mind on soul”. It’s hard to argue that after eating a simple meal consisting mostly of brown rice that one does indeed feel good and pure. When properly cooked and seasoned and accompanied by some simple side dishes it seems hard to beat. Critics of macrobiotics have pointed out the dangers of brown rice fanaticism, always citing the one or two people who allegedly died from eating too much brown rice. Such shrill warnings are impossible to take seriously, but the question here is not whether brown rice is good or not. The question instead is around brown rice being a ‘perfect food’.

It seems worth quoting Alex Jack at some length here, as he reminds us that:

“The whole idea of a perfect food, to my mind, is mistaken. It is like believing that there is a perfect religion, a perfect society, a perfect family or a perfect chant or song. What is beneficial in some circumstances may be harmful in others. What strengthens one person, weakens another. The quest for a universal saviour – whether theological, ideological or nutritional – is another form of reductionism. There is no magical food or drink, supplement or herb that is the answer to all ills.”

Although brown rice does indeed offer a number of health benefits this is somewhat offset by the social and environmental damage caused by rice-growing when compared to some other, similar grains, such as millet, due to the large amounts of water required and the intensive levels of effort needed. Furthermore, rice, when compared to barley, millet, sorghum or wheat, is somewhat lacking nutritionally. The important thing to remember here is that a healthy approach to macrobiotics does not fixate on one particular foodstuff or technique, rather it is about tailoring foods to local and personal needs.

9. Meat-eating creates violence.

Having spent much of my life around vegetarians and vegans, there does seem to be a common perception that there is some kind of link between meat-eating and violent behaviour. It’s obvious that meat-eating, as it involves killing other animals, involves cruelty and violence. Similarly, anecdotal observation of the behaviour of most vegetarians and vegans would suggest that such people are less prone to violence than their carnivorous counterparts.

But the question here is much more subtle and much more important than whether or not killing animals for food is violent. If we consider meat-eating at a societal level, things begin to get much more complicated and also much more interesting.

When I was still a student in school the common perception was that so-called ‘primitive’ people were much more violent and bloodthirsty than their ‘civilised’ counterparts. I heard stories of cannibals in the jungle, human sacrifice and red-skinned savages scalping peaceful white farmers. Indeed much of this mythology is so deeply rooted in our culture that it seems almost impossible to shake off. British media went into hysteria recently when the explorer Benedict Allen was “missing in a remote area of Papua New Guinea while searching for what is believed to be the last surviving cannibal tribe“. The soon-to-be-released Hollywood blockbuster Hostiles depicts wild meat-eating Indians attacking and murdering innocent homesteaders.

Such simplistic world-views are very hard to shake – from our civilised perspective they almost seem intuitive. Yet, over the past six to eight years I have begun to question them very deeply, through my personal studies into anthropology and the history of civilisation. Once we set aside the fact that killing animals requires violence, the question becomes much more difficult to explain in simple terms.

Modern anthropology has done a very good job of dispelling many colonialist myths, revealing in fact that societies based on hunting are less violent than agricultural ones. The reasons for this are quite subtle and involve a close reading of human history, but essentially when societies switch from hunting to farming a number of important shifts take place, resulting in social structures more prone to religious intolerance, misogyny, extremes of rich and poor and subjugation of the earth.

Through the accumulation of wealth only possible through farming and the cultivation of grains, a new era of rapid population growth and manipulation of the environment begins, starting in the Middle East and China and spreading to the rest of the planet through war and colonisation. The end result of the ‘agricultural revolution’ is global violence on an unprecedented scale, involving the destruction not only of other humans but of countless other species as well. This shift seems to have been triggered by moving away from hunting and gathering and towards planting and farming. I’d strongly recommend James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States on this subject, but there are many other excellent sources of information as well.

From my own research and observation the question of violence has much more to do with our relationship with Mother Earth than whether we eat meat or not. Daniel Quinn, in his excellent book Ishmael divides the world into takers and leavers. This is probably a much more useful distinction that carnivores and vegetarians.

Alex Jack comes to some very similar conclusions, but also notes that meat, due to its very yang nature, can be a bad combination when combined with highly yin foods such as sugar and alcohol. But, all-in-all, he has:

“come to the view that diet contributes about one -third of our health and consciousness. Another third comes from the environment and activity, especially physical exercise. And one third comes from mental, emotional and social influences and activities, including family upbringing, education, relationships and spiritual practices.”

10. Your face never lies.

Oriental diagnosis, especially face reading or physiognomy, remains an important part of the macrobiotic approach to health and wellness. Alex Jack writes at some length of his own experiences of face reading, describing it as a “valuable diagnostic tool”, but also reminds us that it can easily be abused. He describes episodes when he was “shocked by the number of students and clients who confided how humiliated and abused they felt by their macrobiotic teacher or other counsellor told them on the basis of their facial features”.

Alex Jack notes acutely that a quick diagnosis made on facial features can lead to those being judged to feeling wounded and furthermore to accept the diagnosis without question, leading to further ill health.

According to some macrobiotic practitioners, I am sanpaku or ‘three whites’ which can be observed by looking at the whites at the sides and underneath the eyes. Such a condition is supposedly a sign of ill health and an indicator that the patient is imbalanced and exhausted. It’s also supposed to be an indicator of an early death. But it’s also just the way I look, perhaps due in part to the way my face is shaped or something else, I don’t know exactly. In any case, I have felt the pain of such judgements which were quite hurtful at the time. I still don’t know if they revealed anything significant.

The important point here that Alex Jack is trying to make is that face reading is only one tool among many and is not the final method for diagnosis. It should be used with caution, as it can have harmful emotional consequences. He ends with an important reminder that “in the macrobiotic community, sickness is often regarded as punishment for violating the order of the universe”, and also that “this mindset is the very antithesis of ‘a loving realization of the order that governs the infinite universe’ of which Oshawa speaks.”

Conclusion

I was really impressed by this little book. Alex Jack is a serious thinker and a very compassionate and open-minded human being. I was humbled at his willingness to challenge some of the ‘macro myths’ I remember being taught in the 1970s and 80s. For anyone either interested in or sceptical of macrobiotics, this feels like an essential read.

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