More than just a diet, macrobiotics is a lifestyle that encourages followers to live in harmony with their environment
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Happy all the time: Kathy Sheldon of the Miso Happy Cooking Club at Kingston’s Benedictine Hospital
While the macrobiotic diet is vegan, a vegan diet is not necessarily macrobiotic: the macro diet excludes certain fruits, vegetables, and other foodstuffs — including white flour, many condiments, and processed foods. In addition, macrobiotics is not just about what you eat, but why and when you eat it. The composition of the dishes and how they are prepared ensures that the food being consumed has optimal benefits for the individual. Meals should be eaten peacefully at the same time every day, and each bite chewed thoroughly.
The macrobiotic philosophy also stresses finding and maintaining an internal balance between yin and yang energies, which is different for every individual. All things have inherent yin-yang qualities — including produce and seasons — and food choices must respect this natural scale. For example, winter is a yang season. It is important to conserve heat and energy, so macro followers look to root vegetables and other warming foods. You wouldn’t eat a pineapple or banana during New York’s cold and snowy winter; the expansive yin energy of the fruit could upset the body’s internal balance.
Some food for thought
Proponents say that what seems to make macrobiotics so successful in combating serious illness is its ability to alkalize, or neutralize, the system. It has been found that cancer cells thrive in acidic environments; by alkalizing the system, cancer cells cannot multiply, and healthy cells grow stronger. Foods like miso soup and umeboshi (made from plums pickled for up to nine years) are immediately alkalizing, and therefore a mainstay in the macrobiotic healing diet. “These days, there are many alternative treatments for cancer,” says Sheldon, who is a registered nurse. “I recommend patients to a counselor who can guide them with food choices. Each person really has to decide for themselves.” (It should be noted that, at present, no randomized clinical studies have been published which show that a macrobiotic diet can prevent or cure cancer — or any other disease. Diets high in fiber and low in fat, however, are thought to reduce the risk of some cancers.)
Even more than other diets, macrobiotics can be difficult to adhere to completely; often, followers will try to incorporate certain foods or aspects of the regimen into their day-to-day lives. “It’s hard. It takes a lot of discipline to do 100 percent,” says Barbara Stemke of Kingston. She joined the Miso Happy Cooking Club several years ago when she was in remission from cancer. While she finds the diet good for her health, the extensive cooking time is not always manageable. “A lot of experienced people limit themselves to one hour of from-scratch cooking a day,” she says. “I have most success with breakfast — leftover grain heated until it’s a soft porridge, with steamed, boiled, or water-sautéed greens with umeboshi vinegar. Even one macro meal is calming.”
Stemke says that there are many ways to use leftovers, making it economical. “You can cook a pot of rice and have it last for three days. Use greens within one day, and root or round vegetables can be used the next day.” When cooking for friends, she might prepare a pickle dish like sauerkraut, a root dish, and a seaweed dish, in addition to grains. “I don’t worry too much about protein,” she claims. “I get it mostly from beans, nuts, and seeds. If I was cooking more I would use tofu and tempeh more. I have lots of cookbooks with creative and inspiring recipes.” While eating out is not impossible on a macrobiotic diet, at most restaurants your choices will be limited to steamed vegetables and plain grains (although Luna 61 in Tivoli does offer a macrobiotic “Farm Plate” on its dinner menu). Ideally, all food is cooked at home, which not only ensures that it meets the diet’s stringent standards, but also that love and positive energy are going into what you’re eating.
Some helpful books to get you started:
► The Macrobiotic Way by Michio Kushi
Caryn Niedringhaus of Nassau, Rensselaer County has been doing just that. Diagnosed with a serious illness last fall, she opted to forego the recommended surgery (much to her doctor’s chagrin) and embrace macrobiotics. “It’s a matter of setting priorities,” she says. “Mine is healing.” Her days include two-mile walks, yoga, body rubs, and cooking her meals. “I think of it as something I enjoy, not a chore,” she says of the time required in the kitchen. “I’m going to be spending my time doing something — do I want to be spending it just eating, going to doctors, having surgery? Or do I want to spend it in my kitchen, being healthy? I have this mental clarity and energy, this exuberance. I’m in the kitchen more, but getting more done elsewhere.”
In four months, Niedringhaus has lost 30 pounds and is feeling much better. Her husband has even joined her in her new lifestyle, though he is not following the diet as strictly. “Everyone feels I’m moving in a positive direction. It’s looking really hopeful,” she says of her condition. “I look at other people who are doing macro and how well they’re doing, and it’s like ‘Wow, this is powerful medicine.’ ”
For more information on the Miso Happy Cooking Club, call 845-339-2071.
► Local fruits and vegetables