Balancing Act

More than just a diet, macrobiotics is a lifestyle that encourages followers to live in harmony with their environment

Twenty-two years ago, Mina Dobic was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian lymphoma. The cancer had metastasized to her bones and lymph system, a grapefruit-sized tumor sat in her pelvis, and three tumors were suffocating her liver. Saying there was nothing more they could do, the doctors sent her home to die; she was given two months. “But I knew it wasn’t my time yet,” Dobic recalls. She returned home to her family in Serbia; it was there that a doctor friend suggested she look into the Kushi Institute, a macrobiotic educational institution founded by the leader of modern macrobiotics, Michio Kushi.

Dobic and her husband flew to Boston to meet with Kushi, who sent her home with a detailed macrobiotic healing regiment to be followed exactly. In addition to dietary changes, the plan included daily walks, visualization, yoga, and body rubs. While Dobic devoted herself to healing, her family also committed themselves to this new macrobiotic lifestyle. “When I saw what it did for my children, I really believed,” she says. After two months, 14-year-old Srdjan no longer required steroids for his severe asthma, and six-year-old Jelena’s recurring hernia disappeared. Seven months and 52 pounds later, Dobic was cancer-free.

Hokkaido beans â–º
These Japanese legumes help regulate circulation

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Hokkaido beans

Miso â–º
Made from soybeans, this paste contains high levels of vitamin B12


Organic kamut â–º
A relative of durum wheat, this grain is easier to digest

Organic kamut

Umeboshi plums â–º
These salty, pickled plums stimulate appetite

Umeboshi plums

Shiitake mushrooms â–º
Used fresh or dried, they help rid the body of excess salt

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Shiitake mushrooms

Bancha twig tea â–º
This Japanese tea aids digestion

Bancha twig tea

Macrobiotics involves following a diet based on whole grains, vegetables, beans, and bean products, while avoiding consumption of meat, dairy, sugar, and eggs. Coming from the Greek words “macro” (large or long) and “bios” (meaning life), macrobiotics was first set forth by Hippocrates, whose early medical methodology was based on faith in the healing power of nature. In the early 20th century, George Ohsawa began developing the modern incarnation of macrobiotic philosophy, which combines Western macrobiotic ideas with the yin-yang concept of traditional Chinese medicine. While macrobiotics has evolved over the years, its basic principles remain the same: the way we live and how we eat are the primary influences over our health and character.

Dobic and her family remain committed to the macrobiotic lifestyle. Mina is now a renowned macrobiotic counselor in California; she works with celebrities (including Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow), the unwell, and the curious, teaching them about the choice that saved her life, and helping them find their own way. “Macrobiotics is not a diet, it’s a lifestyle,” she asserts. “It’s a way we can arrange to live in harmony with nature. When you start eating healthy food, your mind becomes health-conscious. Once you become macro, you start making different choices.”

“We are what we eat,” says Kathy Sheldon, who runs the Miso Happy Cooking Club, a macrobiotic cooking class that is a part of oncology support services at Benedictine Hospital in Kingston. “Being conscious about what we eat is being conscious of the earth, and then we’re in harmony with our environment. It’s more about the energy of the food than nutrition.”

Whole grains such as brown rice, barley, oats, and millet account for 50-60 percent of the diet proportionally. Vegetables constitute 20-30 percent, especially leafy greens (such as kale and collards), root vegetables (turnips and carrots), and round vegetables (cabbage, onions, and squash). Beans, seaweeds, miso, and pickles round out the daily fare. Nuts, seeds, soy products (such as tofu and tempeh), and seasonal fruits are also included; a variety of condiments like shoyu (soy sauce) and gomashio (sesame salt) are sparingly used, and white fish is consumed occasionally. All produce should be organic, local when available, and chemical- and pesticide-free; most ingredients can be found at your local health food store.

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Kathy SheldonHappy 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
if you’re inspired to give
macrobiotics a try…

â–º Consider consulting a macrobiotic counselor:
It’s not a one-size-fits-all diet.
A well-educated expert can determine
your individual needs, and devise a
plan to help you meet them.

â–º Sign up for a cooking class:
Let a seasoned veteran teach you
how to master the various techniques
while composing healthy,
nourishing dishes.

â–º Start small:
Try omitting “bad” foods from your
diet one by one, and replacing them
with healthier choices. Just setting
regular meal times, or chewing your
food more thoroughly, are steps
in the right direction.

â–º It’s not just what you’re eating:
Be aware of your pace throughout
the day, and how much time you
spend “plugged in.” Spend time
outdoors every day.

â–º Learn to listen to yourself:
Note how you feel — emotionally
and physically — when you’re eating,
working, or playing. What makes
you feel bad?
What makes you feel better?

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:

â–º The Macrobiotic Way by Michio Kushi
â–º The Hip Chick’s Guide to Macrobiotics by Jessica Porter
â–º The Great Life Diet by Denny Waxman
â–º The Self-Healing Cookbook by Kristina Turner
â–º The Macrobiotic Path to Total Health by Michio Kushi
â–º My Beautiful Life by Mina Dobic
â–º Macrobiotics: An Invitation to Health and Happiness by George Ohsawa

"My Beautiful Life" book, by Mina Dobic

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.


â–º Dairy
â–º Meat
â–º Eggs
â–º Sugar (including honey)
â–º Processed foods, even vegan ones
â–º Nightshade vegetables
(tomatoes, potatoes, peppers)
â–º Tropical fruits
â–º Microwaving and roasting
â–º Eating in the car or in front of the TV
â–º Eating three hours before bed or late at night
â–º Excessive salting/seasoning


â–º Local fruits and vegetables
â–º Whole grains
â–º Beans
â–º Mushrooms
â–º Umeboshi plums, paste, and vinegar
â–º Brown rice, barley malt, and maple sugars
â–º Lots of soup, especially miso
â–º Steaming, boiling, pressure cooking
â–º Relaxed mealtimes
â–º Thorough chewing
â–º Clean water
â–º Bancha twig tea
â–º Using natural cookware








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