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Macrobiotics (from the Greek words makro and bios, meaning "the great art of life") is a health-oriented movement that began in Japan about a hundred years ago. Introduced into the United States in the late 1950s, macrobiotics flourished from the 1960s through the late 1980s as a diet and health movement and greatly affected how Americans think about food and health and how they eat.

One may question whether macrobiotics can be called a religion. For many or most of the people influenced by it, macrobiotics is primarily an approach to health and to diet. Yet macrobiotics does have a cosmology and a view of the nature and destiny of the human being. Also, it claims to be a means by which one can transcend the limitations of human existence and reestablish a connection with the spiritual and eternal dimension of reality. As such it fulfills the basic definition of a religion as a means of reconnecting (religare) the human and the divine. Since macrobiotics came to the United States, a small though committed group of persons have found in it a worldview, set of values, way of life, and spiritual practice. Thus macrobiotics can also be accurately designated as a "religious movement."

The modern founder of macrobiotics is Ishitsuka Sagen (1850–1910), a physician in Japan. Inspired by traditional Oriental thought (The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, a work of the Japanese physician and philosopher Kaibara Ekken et al.) and using modern scientific analysis and experimentation, Ishitsuka developed what he called shoku-yoo or "curing through food." Shoku-yoo was based on the following ideas:

  • Human health—the harmonious functioning of the body and of the whole organism—is based on the proper balance among mineral salts within the body, particularly the balance between sodium and potassium.
  • What one eats and drinks is paramount in creating this balance and hence in creating human health and illness.
  • Food, then, is the primary determinant of health. Proper diet can prevent illness and can cure existing disease.
  • Generally speaking, the optimal diet for human beings is one based on whole grains supplemented by beans, locally produced vegetables, and perhaps animal food in small amounts. This is most likely to provide the proper balance of minerals and nutrients. The human being is by nature an eater of grains. Our dentition and digestive system suggest this. Grains are the most abundant food crop in most climates. In extreme climates, where grains do not grow, a proper diet would be based on the local foods available.
  • A balanced diet leads to physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health—the last including a sense of oneness with the universe.

The leading proponent of Shoku-yoo after Ishitsuka was Sakurazawa Jyoichi (1893–1966), who was known in America as George Ohsawa. Ohsawa introduced a Taoist cosmology as a basis of macrobiotics, teaching that the multiplicity of phenomena are all expressions of an Absolute Unity—the Tao—which has bifurcated into the opposing, complementary, and creative forces of yin and yang. He applied the yin-yang classifications to diet, designating foods as yin or yang. Ohsawa also clearly presented macrobiotics as a means of achieving spiritual development. He maintained that the true basis of spiritual practice is proper diet and cited Zen Buddhism as an example, holding that the critical factor in Zen is its vegetarian, grain-based diet. For a time Ohsawa referred to his teachings as "Zen macrobiotics." He also called macrobiotics shoku-doo —the "Tao (or path) of eating." In so doing, he tried to place macrobiotics on a level with cha-do (the Tao of tea), ka-do (the Tao of flower arrangement), sho-do (the Tao of calligraphy) and other Japanese spiritual disciplines that bring the human being into harmony with the Absolute and to an enlightened state of being. Ohsawa also held that human society could be transformed by proper diet and proposed macrobiotics as the basis of a world peace movement.

Starting in about 1950, Ohsawa sent young Japanese students of macrobiotics to other parts of the world. Michio and Aveline Kushi and Herman and Cornellia Aihara came to the United States and were to play an important part in the spread of macrobiotics in American culture. Ohsawa and his wife, Lima, first visited in 1959, and until his death he devoted much time and energy to teaching macrobiotics in America.

In the United States, Kushi and Aihara developed the basic themes of macrobiotics as presented by Ohsawa. Kushi, through his many books, lecture tours, and educational activities, became the symbol of macrobiotics in American and in fact around the world. He was very active in presenting macrobiotics as a prevention and cure for cancer. He also carried on the political agenda of Ohsawa, founding what he called the "One Peaceful World" movement. Kushi also developed macrobiotics as a path of spiritual development. He introduced elements of esoteric Shinto and Buddhist teachings such as chanting and meditation and gave special "spiritual seminars" in America and abroad.

Starting in the late 1960s, macrobiotics became an important factor in American life, particularly in the so-called alternative culture or New Age movement. The number of persons who identified themselves as macrobiotic and who deeply studied macrobiotics has been small, perhaps several thousand. However, the number of persons affected by its teachings about food, diet, and health has been large. Teachers of macrobiotics helped spread the idea that food is a primary factor in health both within and without the alternative culture long before the medical establishment began to do so. The first bona fide natural-foods store—Erewhon of Boston—was founded by the Kushis, and persons promoting macrobiotics have been instrumental in creating that now important part of the food industry.

For the past three decades the macrobiotic diet or some form of it has been the unofficial diet of the broad alternative culture movement. For example, hippies, students of Yoga, Tai chi, and Zen, home-steaders, members of intentional communities, environmental activists, and people interested in alternative medicine typically have used brown rice, and other whole grains, tofu, soy sauce, rice crackers, organically grown vegetables, and so on in their diet. In time this influence has percolated even into the mainstream, so that many of these macrobiotic foods have appeared on supermarket shelves.

The early 1980s were a kind of heyday for macrobiotics in America. A book written by physician Anthony Satillaro recounting his cure of cancer through macrobiotics attracted much attention. Celebrities such as John Denver and actor Dirk Benedict espoused and practiced macrobiotics. Macrobiotic counselors and teachers were in great demand. Macrobiotic centers flourished, and new ones were founded around the country. This boom waned in time, and by the mid-1990s there were only a handful of centers and teachers. Still, in the late 1970s, Kushi Institute-sponsored week-long summer conferences were drawing their largest number of attendees ever, with close to one thousand registering for these annual events.

As a food and health movement macrobiotics has had a major impact on American culture. The Kushis, Aiharas, and many second-generation teachers of macrobiotics have helped to make Americans aware of good food and its relation to health. As a religious movement, though, its influence has been small. While universalistic in theory, the spiritual teachings and practices are largely an amalgam of Taoist, Buddhist, and Shinto elements. Although this blend has appealed to some Americans, mostly young people from the social periphery, within the broader context of American culture it does not have a wide appeal. There are believers in macrobiotics as the "Tao of eating," but their number is not great. Many people, though, combine the macrobiotic diet with other forms of spiritual practice.

The idea that food, physical health, and religious experience are interrelated is not a common one in the history of religion in America. It is not unknown, however. For example, some teachers in the Adventist movement in the middle of the nineteenth century were concerned with the relationships among food, health, and religious life. After the disappointment of the millennial expectation in the Millerite movement of the 1840s, the leaders of the Seventh-Day Adventist movement emphasized good eating and healthful living as means of preparing for the millennial deliverance. The Seventh-Day Adventists do not, of course, maintain that good eating and healthful living alone can effect salvation.

See alsoBuddhism; Food; Health; Japanese-American Religions; New Age Spirituality; Seventh-Day Adventism; Taoism; Vegetarianism; Yoga; Zen.


Koetzsch, Ronald E. Macrobiotics Yesterday and Today. 1985.

Ronald E. Koetzsch