When I first started out on macrobiotics, in 1965, we all thought its powerful message would sweep the planet - it seemed blindingly obvious that a balanced and nutritious diet based on organic wholegrains and vegetables was the way to a healthy future.
Then, in 1966, came a double whammy: George Ohsawa, the charismatic and inspiring leader of macrobiotics worldwide, died suddenly, not long after Reader's Digest ran a cover story titled "Macrobiotics - The Hippie Diet that's Killing our Kids". The author was America's leading nutritionist - Dr. Frederick Stare of Harvard University. I visited the macrobiotic bookshop in New York on the February day the FBI closed it down in the wake of Stare’s article and pressure from the American Medical Association. A few days later the books were taken away and burned. That’s when I understood how fundamental the way we eat is to the way we live together on this planet and decided to devote my career to healthy eating.
Despite this early setback, macrobiotics soldiered on in the US and Europe. The founding natural foods companies: Eden and Erewhon (US), Whole Earth (UK), Manna (Holland), Schwarzbrot (Germany) and Urtekram (Denmark) were the hard macrobiotic core that ensured that sugar, refined flour products, white bread and white rice were out and provided the foundation market for natural and organic food during the lean years of the 70s and 80s.
So what is macrobiotics? Beneath the yin and yang philosophy and the Japanese ingredients like seaweed, miso, tamari, umeboshi and daikon pickle, there’s a diet that says: eat mostly wholegrains and vegetables, minimise dairy, meat and sugar, eat lightly, chew well, put your health and happiness first. Seen like that it's not so radical and it reflects the diet and lifestyle of an increasing number of consumers. In its stricter forms it’s a cure for cancer and other degenerative disease; in its wider more relaxed forms, it’s an effective way to raise a healthy next generation and stay out of the clutches of the drug & medical establishment. Macrobiotics gives form to common sense, it is not so much a diet for health as a diet for longevity - it takes the very long view, spanning not just a lifetime but generations. Instead of degeneration and hereditary disease, it emphasises regeneration and hereditary healthiness. So when I heard about a macrobiotic sea cruise in the Caribbean I guiltily put down my copy of The Ecologist with an article about the negative environmental impact of cruises and booked a balcony cabin for Jo and myself.
The Costa Atlantica is a new Italian cruise liner, a floating hotel with 3 pools and a 1000-seat restaurant plus buffet bars with permanent megasnacking on offer. To the relief of my eco-conscience, it has a earned the “Green Star” award for clean water and clean air because it leaves no waste in its wake and burns low-sulfur fuel. With a population of 1900 passengers and 900 crew, service levels are high. Of the passengers, 450, a quarter, were with our ‘Holistic Holiday At Sea.’ A typical day would begin with yoga with Kamina Desai, or meditation with John Howell. Then breakfast of miso soup and cooked cereal and steamed vegetables. Lunch was a 5 course affair, a typical menu would be vegetarian sushi, black bean soup, radicchio-hiziki salad, millet pilaf with baked squash and steamed dandelion greens, then a fruit compote with a wholegrain cookie. All followed by kukicha - 3-year twig tea. Dinner would be similar, with an optional wine list and, on one evening, complimentary wine from Frey - the organic, sulphite-free winemakers.
During the day we’d hang by the pool, listen to lectures a la carte from luminaries like Michio Kushi (macrobiotic philosophy), Christina Pirello (cooking), Yogi Amrit Desai (Yoga and meditation), Jami Lin (Feng Shui) and Ohashi (shiatsu). Private consultations were charged extra. Or, if we were in port (Key West, Cozumel, Jamaica, Cayman Islands), go off to swim with dolphins and stingrays or visit other local attractions. At night there was the ship’s disco or the elegance of a life size replica of Venice’s famous Café Florian and, one enchanted evening, a macrobiotic talent show that brought out the best in the group – a total hoot.
The holistic cruisers were a mixed bunch – about one third middle-aged or elderly middle Americans who had become disenchanted with the asset-stripping process that is modern medicine (90% of all money spent in the US on healthcare is spent in the final year of a person’s life) or had been written off by doctors as stage 4 terminal cancer. Their comeback stories at one evening session were the most spine-tingling part of the whole cruise, amazing tales of recovery, tumour shrinkage and total remission after just a few weeks on a macrobiotic diet. About a third of the cruise was yuppies of various kinds who’d adopted macrobiotics as part of a dynamic health approach and about a third were people like me, ageing-in-years-only, long time adherents who were dynamic, skinny and joyous witnesses that the complaints and degeneration of old age can be postponed indefinitely with the right diet and exercise programme. 35 years ago it was all theory – now there are thousands of people who adopted macrobiotics in the 60s and have not needed to see a doctor since then. The proof of the pudding was inspiring to the cancer patients – they just wished they’d figured it out before they got the tumours.
It was all fantastically reassuring – macrobiotics is no longer a faith but an experience- and evidence-based reality. In sickness and health it works – its total commitment to organic food, wholegrains, local food, seasonal food, low meat and dairy intake and sugar avoidance all seemed totally whacky in the 60s and we took a lot of flak. Now it’s widely accepted. The ultimate accolade came from the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Frederick Stare’s old domain, which recently described the macrobiotic diet as a practical example of the way that Americans should eat if they hoped to deal with the burgeoning crisis of obesity, cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The wheel has turned completely.
At the end of the cruise most of the participants signed up for next year’s (Feb 27-Mar 6 ‘05) before they disembarked. I’ll be taking my Mom, my kids and grandkids for a repeat of the best vacation I’ve ever had. Great food, great company, great education, great entertainment – “macro” in every way.
(This article first appeared in the April 2004 edition of Organic Products News)