Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 19, 2017
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A kernel of truth?

For some, the careful balance of a macrobiotic diet offers a recipe for health

I wanted a spa. Somewhere simple with three healthy meals a day, a pool and some nice restful scenery. Two months prior I'd broken my right wrist and a combination of pain, sleepless nights and frustration had triggered a persistent diarrhea. I was nine kilograms under my normal weight. I wasn't up to airports and I needed that spa right now.

That is how I came to attend the 25th International Macrobiotic Wellness Conference at the Killington Ski Resort, Vermont last year.

The word "macrobiotics" is derived from the Greek term "great life" and was first used by Hippocrates in the 5th century BC. Summing up his philosophy in the words "let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food," Hippocrates believed that our choice of food creates balance or imbalance in the body and that imbalances predispose to disease.

The macrobiotic philosophy was brought to North America in 1949 by Michio Kushi who studied in Japan with George Ohsawa. Ohsawa had cured himself of tuberculosis by a diet which avoided meat, sugar and refined foods, with their extremes of both sodium and potassium, replacing them with miso soup, brown rice and vegetables.

Founder of the Kushi Institute (tel: 800-975-8744; www.kushiinstitute.org), Michio and his wife Aveline began teaching a way of living which emphasizes organic foods, locally grown seasonal produce and home-cooked meals which promote the optimum acid/alkaline balance to establish a foundation for wellness.

Kushi observes that the relatively long human digestive tract is designed to favour plant foods, unlike the short tract of the carnivore and that of our 32 teeth, only four are the canines necessary for meat eating. Twenty teeth are molars, designed to grind grains, with the remaining eight incisors ideal for biting off plant material. Based on these observations, he suggests that the optimum diet for humans comprise six parts plant food to every part animal flesh.

The daily dietary recommendations include 50 to 60 percent whole grains, 25 to 30 percent vegetables, five to 10 percent beans and sea vegetables and 5 to 10 percent soup -- the percentage established by weight. Fish and seafood may be included occasionally and seasonal fruits, nuts and seeds used a few times a week.

In Grains
That first morning I was at Killington, I woke early and managed a few laps in a deserted pool, the rolling green hills of the ski slopes dotted with daisies and dandelions. I joined the lineup in the cafeteria for a surprisingly soothing breakfast of miso soup with corn, carrots and scallions, sweet brown rice with almonds and steamed kale, all delicately seasoned. I was curious about my fellow diners. I'd half expected a roomful of alternative types but instead there were many families with young children, older people and a balance of men and women. They were hard to pin down.

The food was tastier than I'd expected; the brown rice and vegetables I'd always associated with macrobiotics were undoubtedly healthy but I hadn't been exactly aquiver with anticipation of a week of gourmet dining.

That changed in just three meals. After that excellent miso soup, lunch offered baked squash, steamed kale, udon noodles with sesame seeds and sea vegetable, tempeh and a turnip pickle. Dinner was a pleasing selection of sushi with lotus tempura, steamed greens and, for dessert, a delicious walnut-prune puree.

The wide variety of foods continued to delight me. Tantalizing concoctions of different grains; beans, tofu, delicious root vegetables, leafy greens and shitake mushrooms; a subtle dance of sweet and sour, salty and pungent. Moreover, each meal was attractive to look at -- those rich greens, oranges and yellows, the grain and beans nestled against the shining dark sea vegetables.

Each morning I listened to speakers on every aspect of macrobiotic living. I hit the jackpot the first morning: a treatment for diarrhea. I dashed to the canteen to get the ingredients for a tea called ume-sho-kuzu which allegedly strengthens the intestines and promotes healing by alkalizing the over-acidity of the blood. Fortunately I'd brought my indispensable travel accessory: a small electric pot ideal for heating soups or making tea.

Back in my room I crouched over my cauldron and in a little water dissolved a heaping teaspoon of kuzu, a white starch from the root of the kudzu vine, used to thicken soups, sauces and desserts. Together with a pickled umeboshi plum chopped into small pieces, I added a cup of water and brought it to a boil, stirring continuously. The mixture thickened and became translucent. I added five drops of shoyu (soy sauce made from soy beans and wheat). Sipped piping hot, the tea tasted quite pleasant.

 

Plum Perfect
For the previous eight weeks I had tried endless remedies for my diarrhea, both over-the-counter and alternative. None of them had worked. When next morning the diarrhea had stopped and did not return, my interest grew and I began to ask questions.

One of the speakers at the morning seminar was an energetic intensive care nurse who, eight years earlier, had been diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer and given a few months at most to live. Friends and co-workers rallied around and decided to try a macrobiotic diet for her, organizing shifts to prepare the meals.

Her experience wasn't an exception. At mealtimes I chatted with others who had followed a macrobiotic program to survive cancer, heart disease and other life-threatening illnesses, as well as those who had managed to reverse the effects of arthritis, hypertension, gastro-intestinal conditions and osteoporosis. The survivors ranged from an airline pilot to several healthcare professionals including a physician.

Their stories moved and impressed me. I was thrilled that my diarrhea had cleared up. But I must confess that it was not the promise of health which converted me as much as the tastiness and variety of the food. I couldn't wait to scamper to the cafeteria. Each meal produced a different delicious soup, a wide range of grains not just the brown rice I'd hitherto associated with macrobiotics, but millet, quinoa, corn, barley and buckwheat, every kind of noodle and a colourful cornucopia of cabbage, kale, broccoli, bok choy, daikon radish, carrots, butternut and acorn squash together with a mouth watering variety of tofu, tempeh, beans and every conceivable sea vegetable.

I was delighted to discover that macrobiotics included desserts. While I don't have a particularly sweet tooth, I do occasionally enjoy a pudding. We were treated to tasty kantens -- concoctions of fruit set Jell-O style in agar-agar, as well as tasty fruit pies.

Breaking it Down
Mealtimes in the airy cafeteria with its big windows overlooking the ski runs were a leisurely affair. We were encouraged to chew each mouthful of food thoroughly to ensure the optimum digestion of carbohydrates -- one of the most neglected aspects of North American eating.

Sessions included lectures about health-related topics, cooking classes and the opportunity to meet with Mishio Kushi, now in his 80s and inspiringly serene and vibrant.

Over the next few days I learned that sea vegetables are packed with minerals and vitamins and help discharge toxins, including radioactivity. There is a fascinating account of two hospitals in the same neighbourhood of Hiroshima. After the atomic bomb, one served a macrobiotic diet and the survival rate among its patients was more than twice that of the neighbouring institution which served conventional food.

I also learned that the umeboshi plums, for which I had developed a fondness, neutralize acidity; that fermented food aids digestion and strengthens blood and is a natural antibiotic; that the tasty sesame sea salt grains we sprinkled on our food are rich in protein, calcium, iron and B vitamins and that daikon radish, to which I had also become partial, helps digestion and cleans the fat from the body.

One of the most moving accounts of the healing potential of macrobiotics was given by Virginia Harper, author of the book, Controlling Crohn's Disease the Natural Way. As a young woman, every aspect of her life for over a decade was affected by severely debilitating Crohn's disease. Since 1986 she has adhered to a macrobiotic diet and been able to live normally.

I learned that macrobiotics is more than just a way of eating. It is a philosophy of living in balance with all aspects of physical and emotional health, as well as our environment and our community. Indeed Michio Kushi fervently believes that one of the primary steps to world peace is through health.

The Kushi Institute based in Becket, Massachusetts, is the leading macrobiotic educational centre in the world and offers programs for individuals as well as guidance for organizations and companies. Ritz-Carlton Hotels are one of the companies that have engaged the institute to instruct their chefs in creating healthy macrobiotic menu choices.

On my last day I bought a pressure cooker necessary for cooking tasty grains, together with bags of dried shitake mushrooms, sea vegetables and seasonings. By the time I returned home I was sleeping like a baby and gradually gaining the weight I'd lost. My hair had regained its sheen and my skin glowed. I felt terrific. And, a year later, I continue to centre most of my diet around macrobiotic meals.

 

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