Jim Galvani has eaten a macrobiotic diet on and off for about 27 years. Today he follows what he calls a modified macrobiotic diet, trying to observe healthy eating habits at home and in restaurants.
"Macrobiotics takes a lot of discipline, and there's a fair amount of preparation time involved. I'm not strictly macrobiotic. In Richmond it's just about impossible unless you spend all of your time at home," he says, referring to the region's size.
With macrobiotics, emphasis is on natural, seasonal, local organic foods. Refined grains and sugars, processed foods, foods with additives and preservatives, most oils, dairy products, and eggs are not part of the true macrobiotic diet. Brown rice, soy products and plant proteins play a prominent role. Many followers are vegetarian, but others eat fish and chicken.
"A macrobiotic diet is basically a grain-based diet. About 60 percent of your diet is grains. About 30 percent of your diet is vegetables. The rest is soup," Galvani says.
It sounds simple described this way, but macrobiotics is much more elaborate.
"It's a concept diet. It's a philosophical diet. It's based on yin and yang, balancing the extremes, not just in diet but in lifestyle," says Michael King. His now-shuttered vegetarian restaurant, Grace Place, offered macrobiotic menu items and supported a social group of macrobiotic followers in the mid-'80s. Today, King, now part owner of the Shockoe Bottom restaurant Relish, currently eats in a modified manner he calls "macrobiotic meets Mediterranean vegetarian."
Several decades ago, George Ohsawa and Michio Kushi, the two best-known proponents of macrobiotic theory and diet, taught followers that food is the key to health and eschewed most components of rich Western diets. The strictest adherents carefully and consciously balance what they eat at each meal and incorporate Chinese yin and yang principles of balance and harmony. They eat a large variety of Japanese foods not common in the American diet such as sea vegetables (various seaweeds) and daikon radishes.
"It originated out of Chinese medicine. It has to do with mind, body and spirit," says Tina Shiver, a registered dietician who tried the macrobiotic diet briefly years ago to better advise clients. She now eats a modified macrobiotic diet emphasizing whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Some people choose macrobiotics in part or whole because they think it is healthy; some follow it for the philosophy. Others stricken with diseases like cancer and AIDS adopt macrobiotics to try to heal their bodies with food, following the diet fairly strictly. There is no proof that the diet heals those who are seriously ill, although anecdotal stories of healing exist.
Shiver does not recommend that seriously ill persons follow the diet. She strongly advises that those seeking to use macrobiotics as a healing tool work closely with their physicians and dietitians, as well as Kushi Institute-trained consultants. (The Kushi Institute was founded in 1978 by Michio Kushi in Becket, Mass., as an educational facility to train macrobiotic counselors and teachers.)
Still, Elizabeth Miller, who has been involved with macrobiotics to varying degrees for years and spent the winter studying at the Massachusetts-based Kushi Institute, believes macrobiotics offers the safest diet choices.
"We're the wealthiest nation in the world, but we're the sickest," she says. "The bottom line is so simple: We Americans make ourselves sick with our diet."
The Reedville resident, who buys most of her macrobiotic ingredients in Richmond, says macrobiotics provides her with the best opportunity for optimum health. Says Miller, "I never felt better; I never looked better" than when following the diet.